America isn’t known for grand strategy; indeed, a number of perceptive foreign observers have attributed its relative success in international politics to God’s good graces, or else dumb luck. Yet to the extent that it exists, American grand strategy is nearly synonymous with George Kennan, owing to his long telegram which became the foundation of America’s containment strategy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Indeed, Jeremi Suri has noted that both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations searched for a bumper sticker phrase like containment to describe their foreign policies, while Daniel Drezner has argued that the “petty reason” grand strategy debates remain so prominent in U.S. foreign policy discourse is because “everyone in the U.S. foreign policy community secretly hopes to be the next Kennan.” Containment, in other words, is nearly universally considered the golden age of American grand strategy.
But this view is mistaken. Although George Kennan laid out a somewhat coherent grand strategy towards the Soviet Union, the U.S. didn’t even follow it for the remainder of the Truman administration in which he served. Instead, containment became an umbrella term that was used to describe a plethora of different Cold War strategies that were at odds on fundamental points, including: who was to be contained, what was to be contained, where to contain the other side, and how the other side was to be contained. These fundamental tenants almost always changed between administrations and often times within them.
But the U.S. did have a golden age of grand strategy. From 1789 through 1898, successive American political leaders pursued the goal of regional hegemony through a strategy built on two fundamental pillars, which later became known as Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine.
The first pillar of America’s grand strategy was territorial expansion. From the very beginning, Americans set out to conquer as much of North America as possible. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1801, “However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, & cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent.”
In fact, expansion preceded the Republic itself. In a rare achievement under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government passed three pieces of legislation that laid the groundwork for expansion: the Land Ordinances of 1784 and 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Together these bills created the procedures and mechanisms for surveying, settling and admitting new territories into the Union.
The rationale behind territorial expansion isn’t hard to discern; in international relations parlance, American leaders sought to balance internally against the European colonial powers by expanding territorially, and thereby increasing the size of their population and resources under their command.
To be sure, at the outset no one had a coherent vision for where the ultimate borders would lie. Many early American leaders, for instance, assumed Canada would be assimilated into the United States, and sought to realize that goal repeatedly during the War of 1812.
Nor did they have an agreed upon way to acquire the land. Instead, the U.S. would use a variety of means to conquer lands to the south and west of the initial colonies, including: purchasing it from voluntarily sellers, coercing those who resisted selling, or simply conquering it militarily. Often times, autonomous frontiersmen would lead the way in settling others’ land and the government would only intervene directly later on. Still, few American leaders during the 19th century—except when the question of slavery was involved— disputed that the U.S. should ultimately stretch from sea to shining sea.
And whatever one thinks about the methods employed in achieving Manifest Destiny, few can doubt its success. By 1840 the original 13 colonies had blossomed into 40 states. This was accompanied by explosive population growth, with the size of the American public doubling between 1780 and 1815, and again between 1815 and 1840. Aided by the natural flow of its core internal rivers, the U.S. was able to unite the whole of its landmass through the construction of canals, railways, and ultimately roads.
The second and related pillar of America’s strategy for becoming a regional hegemon was the expulsion of European powers from the Western Hemisphere. It’s easy to forget what a precarious external environment America was born into, surrounded as it was by all the great powers of the day, to say nothing of the Native American tribes it regularly quarreled with. And so while the strategy of expelling the European powers would ultimately become known as the Monroe Doctrine, the goal itself far predated President Madison’s 1821 address to Congress. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton hints at it in Federalist #11.
As with Manifest Destiny, the rationale behind this goal isn’t hard to discern. As long as the U.S. expanded internally, geography alone precluded any other local power from challenging its dominance at home. Only an extra-regional power with a readily available base in the Western Hemisphere could hope to do that, and therefore no such power could have a base available.
American leaders were not picky when it came to the “how” of expelling the Europeans. The Monroe Doctrine itself had been proposed by British Foreign Minister George Canning but, no doubt with an eye towards one day expelling the British, James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams decided to issue it unilaterally (while allowing the British Navy to enforce it.)
Elsewhere it bought France out of North America and coerced Spain into surrendering Florida and Russia into giving up on a colony on America’s western coast. The British, faced with a rising Germany and troubles in more strategic colonies, eventually gracefully bowed out of the race. That just left the by then second-rate Spanish power in control of Cuba; for good measure, the U.S. seized practically all its remaining colonies in the Western part of the world during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
And thus, whereas at the start of the 19th century no one gave the U.S. much of a chance of surviving, by the end of that same century it had achieved what no other power before it had: it conquered an entire hemisphere.
It’s worth noting, given the contemporary debate, the golden age of American grand strategy occurred in a largely multipolar system. Whereas many argue the failure of the U.S. to formulate a post-Cold War grand strategy is the result of it not having a simple bipolar system in which to focus its energies, American leaders during the first century of the Republic often used multipolarity to their advantage. That is, while refusing to side with any one European power, they quite eagerly exploited European politics to further their goals, such as during the Napoleonic Wars, the Monroe Doctrine, and England’s retrenchment.
Their immediate successors in the first half of the 20th century would do the same. In final analysis, then, America’s rise to primacy was built on exploiting multipolarity abroad, while ensuring unipolarity at home.