Zachary Keck

Immigrants and American Power

Recent Features

Zachary Keck

Immigrants and American Power

From the Republic’s inception, immigrants have played an outsized role in America’s rise on the world stage.

Earlier this month, the center-left U.S. think tank, the Center for American Progress, released a report about immigrants (or New Americans, as they call it) in the U.S. military. As a prominent Democratic think tank, the report was undoubtedly aimed at raising support for immigration reform among Republicans, who tend to support a strong U.S. military.

Political motivations aside, the report is worth a read. Its chock full of interesting historical and contemporary statistics like:

“Immigrants have served in and fought for the U.S. military since the birth of the nation—from the Revolutionary War to the present. For example, immigrants—mostly Irish and German—comprised 18 percent of the Union Army during the Civil War. During World War I, more than 192,000 immigrants acquired citizenship through military service.”

And, “The most recent data available from the Department of Defense, or DOD, show that the active-duty military is comprised of more than 65,000 immigrants, or 5 percent of the active-duty force.”

There are also some qualitative insights that help provide context to these statistics. For example: “Military service has historically been regarded as a tool for socializing immigrants to the American culture and way of life. Early 20th-century political leaders upheld the U.S. military as a ‘school for the nation,’ particularly for the multitude of new immigrant arrivals.”

My one gripe with the report is that it presents a much too narrow view of the role immigrants have played in American national power (which again, likely has to do with the political motivations.) Indeed, immigrants have been at the center of laying the foundations for America’s rise, making it a world power, and ensuring its success once on the world stage. Although the face of U.S. immigration is likely to change slightly, if America is successful in the Asian Century immigrants are likely to play an integral role.

Immigrants’ role in America’s rise began with the creation of the Republic itself. Although most of America’s founding fathers were born in the then-British colonies, there was one important exception: Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton differed from the majority of America’s founders in many ways, one of which was that he was born in the British West Indies rather than in the American colonies. And while his arch-rival Thomas Jefferson is a more celebrated figure than Hamilton in modern-day America, Hamilton had a larger hand in creating the country that the U.S. has become.

That’s partly because he was at the Constitutional Convention and helped sell the constitution to the American public, while Jefferson spent this time as U.S. ambassador to France. It’s also partly because, in contrast to Jefferson—who was a Francophile—Hamilton advocated for a strong relationship with Great Britain, which he viewed as a model for the U.S. in many ways. Most importantly, however, whereas Jefferson envisioned the U.S. as a primarily agrarian-based society with power concentrated in the states, Hamilton had the foresight to see that national power would increasingly be be based on industry and financial prowess. As the secretary of the Treasury Department under the first U.S. administration, Hamilton overcame substantial resistance to lay the economic and financial groundwork for America’s rise in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Immigrants continued to be at the center of America’s rise over the next two hundred years. I’ve previously noted that U.S. Grand Strategy during this time was based largely on the twin policies of Manifest Destiny (expanding U.S. territory) and the Monroe Doctrine (expelling the Europeans from the Western Hemisphere). This is certainly true but it’s worth adding that Manifest Destiny was dependent on rapid population growth. America got that, partly because of a high birth rate, but also because of the huge numbers of immigrants arriving in the U.S. each year.

Furthermore, many of these immigrants played dispensable roles in some of America’s strategic projects during this era. For example, despite the widespread discrimination they were forced to endure, Chinese immigrants essentially built the country’s transcontinental railroad system. On the other hand, European immigrants helped fill the growing number of U.S. factories that helped turn America into an industrial power second to none.

Although the U.S. achieved hegemony over the Western Hemisphere following the short-lived Spanish-American War of 1898, and later participated in WWI, America didn’t truly arrive on the world stage until WWII and its aftermath. Once again, “New Americans” had an immediate and lasting impact. For example, many of the most important scientists working on Project Manhattan (which built America’s first nuclear weapons) were European Jews who had come to America to escape persecution from the Nazi and Soviet regimes.

Immigrants outsized role in America’s foreign policy successes continued during the Cold War and beyond. Indeed, with few exceptions, many of America’s sharpest foreign policy minds in the post-WWII era have been European born, including Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Hans Morgenthau and Madeline Albright. Although predating WWII, Nicholas John Spykman is another fine example.

This is no coincidence in my opinion. To begin with, the U.S. was relatively inexperienced in world affairs. Moreover, then and now Americans tend to overemphasize the power of things like ideas and principles and undervalue things like geography and realpolitik. There is a certain naiveté to the way Americans think about the world and approach diplomacy, which has at times been a strength but frequently has hindered U.S. foreign policy. This is undoubtedly rooted in America’s isolated geography which has allowed the U.S. to ignore these crucial material factors that drive international politics more so than countries located in Eurasia.

Thus, it often took more clear-eyed European-born Americans to help the U.S. navigate the dangerous world of the Cold War. America’s success in doing so is in no small part owed to these individuals. It seems to me that Americans have had a lot less prominent Arab-American statesmen to help it navigate the Middle East in the post-Cold War era. While America’s failures there have multi-faceted origins, one wonders if the U.S. might have avoided some of these pitfalls had it had more Middle Eastern-born Americans playing a leading role in formulating U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Fortunately, the U.S. has a much larger crop of Asian-American citizens as it embarks on the pivot. One hopes that some of them will help guide the U.S. through the Asian Century, and not just by serving in the military.