By Thomas Brodey
Few countries have enjoyed as much military success as the United States. Throughout the last two hundred years, most other modern nations have suffered catastrophic defeats and humiliating treaties. The United States, on the other hand, has never lost a war over its core interests.
While the U.S. did withdraw from both Vietnam and Iraq (and more recently Afghanistan), these wars of choice were distant affairs. Their outcome had no impact on the lives of American civilians. America’s otherwise impressive success record, however, is as much a liability as an advantage.
Most other modern countries need not look far back in their history to remember crippling defeats. Most of mainland Europe can recall with bitterness a time of foreign occupation, whether by the Bonapartist French, Nazis, the Soviets, or some other power. Even the United Kingdom, by any metric the most successful state of the 18th and 19th centuries, had to sign away an enormous piece of its empire after the American Revolution.
These calamities left a large impact on national strategies and psyches. Russia’s many defeats at the hands of invaders from central Europe have informed Moscow’s constant desire to control a buffer zone around modern-day Ukraine and Belarus. Similarly, China’s humiliation at the hand of 19th century imperialists has instilled lasting distrust of the West’s intentions.
Why has the United States been able to fight wars of choice and mitigate defeats? The main reason is geography. As the great Prussian statesman Otto von Bismark put it, “the Americans are a very lucky people. They’re bordered on the north and south by weak neighbors, and to the east and west by fish.” Compare this to the whole of Afroeurasia, where great powers have always pushed up against each other and fought like cats in a bag.
This remarkable geographic advantage enjoyed by the United States (and the resulting wartime success) has heavily influenced the country’s psyche and policy. America has developed an inability to distinguish between vital and non-vital interests. Many commentators, for example, have suggested that withdrawal from Afghanistan represents a defeat from which America’s grand strategy will never recover.
While such hyperbolic expressions may resonate with an American public unaccustomed to real defeat, the withdrawal from Afghanistan pales in comparison to the defeats endured in the past by other countries. Far from a mark of failure, the war in Afghanistan was in many ways a sign of American luxury. Only a nation with few pressing national security threats could afford spend trillions of dollars on such a strategically peripheral conflict.
True defeats force major shifts in strategy. After Germany lost its overseas colonies during the First World War, for example, German strategists had to reassess the country’s national interests from the bottom up. German strategists concluded that overseas colonies were not strategically important, and that land in Europe itself was all Germany needed to succeed (a lesson the Nazis learned perhaps too well).
American foreign policy, on the other hand, has remained remarkably consistent through the years. American journalist John O’Sullivan predicted in 1845 that the old states of Europe would be eventually overwhelmed by “the simple, solid weight of the two hundred and fifty, or three hundred millions–and American millions–destined to gather beneath the flutter of the stripes and stars, in the fast hastening year of the Lord 1945!”
O’Sullivan’s article (which also coined the term ‘manifest destiny’) proved eerily prophetic. Since its founding, the United States has pursued an aggressive strategy of political and commercial expansion, one which its statesmen have never seriously challenged.
While it may be tempting to maintain what appears to be a winning formula, the American strategy is showing its age as America’s relative power wanes and “irregular warfare” challenges the American military.
American strategists should constantly reassess their strategy from the ground up. If more government officials did so, we might see a relaxation of outdated conflicts, such as the old American hostility toward Cuba’s communist government. Similarly, a strategy that starts from the drawing board might be more skeptical of the threat a waning power like Russia poses to American interests. Overall, a strategic reset would take America’s strong hand and further improve it through smarter and more selective deployment.
While a strategic reassessment would be inconvenient, it is far better to conduct one at the current apex of America’s power rather than in the aftermath of a crushing loss. If the United States rests on its laurels, its history of victories will contribute to a future of defeat.
Thomas Brodey is a senior at Amherst College and a 2021 Morgenthau Grand Strategy Seminar Fellow. He was also an inaugural Marcellus Policy Fellow through the John Quincy Adams Society. His interests include public diplomacy and the early history of American foreign policy.