The US’s historical ascent to global dominance, and the implications for China, Russia, and today’s geopolitical landscape
On this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we delve into the dynamics of rising powers with Sean A. Mirski, author of the new book, We May Dominate the World.
Mirski, a lawyer and foreign policy scholar, has worked on national security issues for several US presidential administrations. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Mirski explores the transformation of the United States into a regional hegemon in the century following the Civil War. And he paints a vivid picture of a nation that, by turns reluctant and ruthless, squeezed its European rivals out of the hemisphere and landed forces on its neighbors’ soil with dizzying frequency.
Mirski draws parallels between the US’s historical behavior and the current actions of rising powers like China, Russia, and Iran. He suggests that these nations, like the US in its ascent, are pursuing regional hegemony, a path marked by expansion and aggression.
Mirski discusses the drawbacks of occupation and intervention, noting that they often create blowback as other nations become more concerned about their security and respond to this “threat perception” with aggression in turn.
He raises thought-provoking questions: Is there a playbook for becoming a rising power? Do great powers engage in aggressive behavior to become great powers, or to show off that they are already great powers? Why has no one been as successful as the US in this endeavor? Why has Russia been such a failure as a rising power?
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Today, when we see nations trying to rise to be global powers, nations like China, Russia, India, and even Iran, do we even think about them in the context of how the US rose to power? As China seeks to become the dominant power in the South China seas, what lessons do they learn or we learn from the way in which America became a hegemonic power in the Americas?
Are rising nations today simply playing out their role in a tried and true formula of the rise and fall of nations? What are the historical lessons for today’s powers, and is it different, given the speed of information and the more deadly force of weaponry? We’re going to talk about this today with my guest, Sean Mirski. He’s a lawyer, foreign policy scholar, and author of the new book We May Dominate the World.
He takes us on a journey through a crucial chapter in America’s foreign policy, revealing how the US in the century following the Civil War transformed from a fledgling republic into a regional power and ultimately a global superpower. His story is a mirror held up to the present day, reflecting the actions of rising powers like China and Iran, and he draws parallels between the US’s past behavior and the current action of these nations.
Sean Mirski has worked on national security issues across multiple and bipartisan presidential administrations. He’s a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and currently practices national security, foreign relations, and appellate law, and is also a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution. He’s written extensively on American history, international relations, law, and politics. He clerked for two US Supreme Court Justices and served as a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
He’s a Magna Cum Laude graduate of Harvard Law School and holds a Master’s in International Relations from the University of Chicago. It is my pleasure to welcome Sean Mirski here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast to talk about, We May Dominate the World: Ambition, Anxiety, and the Rise of the American Colossus. Sean, thanks so much for joining us.
Sean Mirski: Thank you so much for having me.
Jeff: It’s indeed a pleasure to have you here. Is there a playbook that repeats over and over again with respect to the rise of great powers?
Sean: Unfortunately, the answer is yes. One of the truisms of history is that rising powers tend to be aggressive and expansionist. And by that, I mean that they tend to pick fights with other great powers, they tend to meddle and bully and otherwise mess in the affairs of their neighbors, and in general, they tend to make nuisances of themselves as they try to dominate greater and greater slices of their neighborhoods and of the world as a whole. And that’s a pattern that you see throughout history, I mean, going back centuries. And it’s one that, as I discovered in the course of writing this book, played out with the United States itself as well.
Jeff: One of the questions, I guess, is the extent to which great powers or rising powers, I should say, do these things in order to prove they’re great powers or simply use these actions to become great powers.
Sean: So in the book, I argue that the answer, at least for the United States, was mostly the latter. In the sense that as the United States grew more powerful, it gained the instruments and tools it needed to start executing on some of the national security strategies that it had always aspired to implement but didn’t necessarily always have the capability to execute. And so just to give you one example, listeners may remember the phrase the Monroe Doctrine from their US history classes.
And it refers back in 1823 to this declaration that President James Monroe made to the powers of Europe in which he essentially said, “We are erecting a giant keep out sign in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. We, the United States, will not cross the ocean and meddle in European affairs, but in exchange, you, the European great power, you may not come across the ocean and try and recolonize Latin America. You may not try and take over Latin American countries. And in general, there will be a separation between the old world and the new, and that is a separation that we need as a new republic in this hemisphere to preserve our security.”
And that I think was a momentous announcement. But for the first few decades after Monroe made it, it was something that the United States really just had no capabilities to enforce. And so it wasn’t really until after the events of the Civil War that we gained the sort of military and naval power and also, frankly, diplomatic and economic and political power to be able to execute that strategy.
Jeff: And when this strategy plays itself out, talk about the difference and the perception that goes along with it as to whether so many of these actions are perceived as offensive or defensive for nations on the rise.
Sean: Sure. So the core of the Monroe Doctrine I think has always been this sort of defensive idea that the United States is safer in a world in which the European great powers are kept at ocean’s length. And the reasoning I think is relatively intuitive. From the United States perspective, it’s a much better world when you don’t have hundreds of thousands of European troops right on your border than a world in which you do.
But that’s the sort of defensive, I think, framing of the strategy. The question that Monroe’s declaration left open was exactly how the United States would actually implement that strategy. And one of the points that I make in the book is that initially in the years after the Civil War, the United States tried to implement the strategy I think mostly in a defensive way.
And the problem that the United States discovered that it faced over and over and over again is that a lot of its neighbors, a lot of the countries in Central America and the Caribbean, were extremely unstable politically and economically. So much so that I think in today’s terms they would be considered failing or failed states. And this wasn’t just a vulnerability for these states, but it was a vulnerability for the region as a whole.
Because American policymakers essentially concluded that this kind of political and economic instability was a standing invitation to European expansion. And that a state that was overthrowing its president every other year or was over $100 million in debt to European banks was a state that could very easily be taken over by a European colonial power.
And so the United States was worried about these troubled states in and around its borders, and it wanted to stabilize and strengthen them to the point where they could withstand European assault in a way that, again, would serve the larger objectives of the Monroe Doctrine. But the problem that the United States ended up facing is that it didn’t really have a good way of stabilizing and strengthening these states.
At first, it tried to do it indirectly from the outside by trading with these states and with diplomacy to help them stand on their feet. But over time, what you saw was the United States getting more and more involved in the internal affairs of these states in an effort to reform them from within and to kind of help create the political and economic institutions that Americans thought they needed for these states to be successful.
And so this defensive strategy gradually morphed into this incredibly aggressive and frankly, offensive strategy that culminated in the United States invading and occupying many of its neighbors.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the parallels to what we’re seeing today with China, their efforts in both the South China seas and even more broadly than that with things like their Belt and Road Initiative.
Sean: Absolutely. So China, like the United States I think has concluded that it is safer in a world in which other great powers do not have significant military forces in and around its borders. The problem for China, of course, is that that is not the world in which it currently lives. Its greatest rival, the United States, has extensive military forces in places like South Korea, Japan, Guam, Australia, even the Philippines and Singapore.
And so from China’s perspective, it is I think much further from its ideal world than the United States is today certainly and was even a century ago. But the Chinese effort I think is basically trending in the same direction, which is how can we expel the United States from East Asia? How can we essentially push Americans off the continent in a way that guarantees our own security?
And so in 2014, you heard President Xi Jinping’s answer to the Monroe Doctrine when he gave this speech in which he essentially declared that the problems of Asia should be solved by the people of Asia. And it was this not very subtle way of saying that Asia should be for the Asians and that the United States is a meddling power that has no place in the new security architecture that China is trying to set up.
And since then, you’ve seen China develop a foreign policy I think that is first and foremost directed at blunting American power in Asia, and at expanding Chinese influence in a way that squeezes out American power. And so you mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative. I think that’s the kind of economic component of that effort, which sees China expanding its financial and economic influence into unstable countries in and around its borders, but also more broadly around the world. In an effort to sort of replace efforts that are usually led by the United States and some of the institutions it tends to head, in a way that, again, is I think ultimately aimed at ensuring that China has primacy within East Asia.
Jeff: Are there keys to inherent success in these efforts, success that the US had, success that we might be seeing from China, and mirroring that against the failures we see in a situation like Russia, for example?
Sean: It’s a great question. A lot of it, frankly, turns on luck in the sense that the United States was extremely lucky during its rise, that its principal great power rivals, including France, Great Britain, and Germany, were distracted by each other. That there was this massive great power competition going on, on the European continent in the late 19th century and early 20th century that eventually culminated, of course, in World War I.
And from the United States’ perspective, countries like Germany were, I think, genuinely interested in recolonizing Latin America and expanding into Latin America. But from the German leader’s perspective, entering Latin America was never enough of a priority compared to other concerns at home. One thing that the United States really benefited from in its rise and in its competition with these powers was the ability to focus on its region and to prioritize it in a way that its rivals could not.
The problem that Russia and China face is that their principal rival, the United States, is usually, or at least has the capability to be, much more focused on its competition with them. Because the United States is essentially unassailable in its own hemisphere, it can venture abroad and get involved in Europe and Asia without much consequence at home.
And so from Russia’s perspective, it’s seeing that now with the extensive US involvement in the war in Ukraine, and China, of course, knows well that the United States is quite invested in places like Taiwan, but also other places in East Asia. And so from their perspective, or at least from the perspective of the United States, one of the central things is not to lose sight of the fact that these great power competitions are more important than almost anything else the United States is doing.
And so, for instance, the war on terror and sort of the distractions that came with the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq ended up being I think a real strategic blunder for the United States. Because they essentially meant that the United States was distracted from some greater threats that were growing in the background.
Jeff: In many cases, as we’ve seen historically, some of these seemingly smaller threats are proxy wars for the much larger threat.
Sean: That’s exactly right. One of the examples that I give in my book is– not many Americans know this, but during the US Civil War, Europe’s great powers really took advantage of America’s internal dissension to expand back into Latin America. And the chief culprit in this effort was French Emperor Napoleon the III, who sent a military expedition to invade and occupy most of Mexico. And so by the end of the US Civil War, France essentially has occupied almost all of Mexico and is sitting right on the American border with a massive military establishment.
And the United States’ reaction to that was three months after the Civil War. So three months after the most destructive conflict in the country’s entire history, the United States was essentially one step away from going to war with France in Mexico, which is just a testament to how strongly Americans felt about the need to keep Europe out of the hemisphere.
We didn’t eventually end up going to war with France, but we did essentially launch a proxy war, in which we helped the Mexican rebels fight the French occupiers and eventually kick them out two years later. And the entire sort of period of the American rise is littered with examples of these kinds of proxy battles and proxy wars being fought across the hemisphere.
Jeff: How different do we have to look at all of this today in a world that is so much more economically interconnected? And how does economics today play an even larger role in these great power competitions?
Sean: I’d argue that the economic interdependence of the world doesn’t necessarily change the dynamics all that much. And the reason I say that is because the argument that I make is that a large part of the way that the United States acted as a rising power, and a large part of the way that rising powers act generally is motivated based on their security. Which is to say motivated about concerns that ultimately trace back to their very existence as powers.
And states are similar to people, I think, in the sense that when your security is endangered or the security of your family is endangered, there’s very little that you won’t do. And there’s very little that you’re not willing to do in order to preserve your security and to survive. And so economic interdependence can act as a stabilizing function. But I think if it comes up directly against security concerns, then the security concerns almost always are going to win out because they simply reflect a much deeper and more sort of important objective for any nation.
In some sense, it’s a threshold thing. If you as a nation don’t exist, there’s no other value, there’s no other interest that can be advanced. So because your existence is in some sense a threshold for everything else that ends up being a motivator that controls so much foreign policy behavior. One of the points that I make in the book is that if you look at the sweep of American foreign policy in Latin America at this time period, it’s not a happy story.
And it’s not a story that’s easy to reconcile with American values like classical liberalism, or sovereignty, or anti interventionism, or anti colonialism. But that doesn’t mean that the United States or that American policymakers didn’t hold those values. It simply means that they just were overridden by essentially these security imperatives. And I think that’s a similar lesson that sort of applies today when you start thinking about the competition with nations like China.
Jeff: But isn’t there a difference between what the real security threat might be and what the perception of that threat might be?
Sean: Absolutely. And one of the clear lessons that sort of emerges from the United States’ own rise is that the US, in certain times anyway, was perhaps a little sensitive or oversensitive or even hypersensitive about some of the threats it faced. And in many cases, it might have exaggerated the exact scope of those threats. But at the same time, one of the difficulties of great power politics is that it’s very difficult for nations to know exactly what the magnitude of the threat is.
And because the stakes are so high, even relatively small risks can end up becoming overwhelmingly controlling as a factor in behavior. Just to take an example from the United States’ own rise. The United States was rising during a period that is sometimes called the second age of imperialism. And so this was a period where Europe’s great powers essentially went on a colonialist terror through Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
And so if you’ve heard of the scramble for Africa, that was this period. It was just an enormous amount of colonization in a very short time span. Between 1870 and 1900, Germany, Great Britain, and France collectively colonized over nine million square miles, which is twice the size of Europe itself. And by 1914, something like 84 percent of the world was under the control of colonial powers.
And so, from the US perspective, there was a real danger that that remaining 16 percent, most of which was in Latin America, was essentially next on the European menu. And the concern that the United States had was that if it missed even one European incursion, if there was even one incident similar to the French invasion and occupation of Mexico during the Civil War, then that one minor incursion could lead to a scramble for the rest of Latin America. The other European great powers essentially said, “Well, we can’t get cut out of this new competition.”
From the US, the constant decision that American policymakers had to face was, well, our neighbor is unstable. And on the one hand, we don’t necessarily want to intervene. We don’t necessarily want to occupy it. But if we think there’s a 5 percent chance or a 10 percent chance that if we do nothing, it’ll lead to this scramble for Africa type dynamics in the hemisphere. And that dynamic can lead to essentially an existential threat to the way that the United States is always seen as its way of life.
Are we willing to accept that risk? And how much does the answer change if the percentage is 1 percent or 50 percent? And so there was this constant calculation that was interfacing with American threat perceptions to fuel American behavior. But I think the broader point is certainly correct that you have to be very careful not to overreact to threats, and that is certainly something that the United States I think has historically done.
Jeff: The other part of it is kind of the other side of that, the degree to which occupations and interventions and annexations. The degree to which all of that creates a blowback that amplifies a threat, even what might be a minor threat, into a much larger one.
Sean: Yes, absolutely. And so this was a huge problem that the United States faced because as I mentioned, what the US was really concerned about was power vacuums developing in the hemisphere in a way that invited European expansion. And so a weak and unstable state that led a foreign great power to sort of come in. But the problem that the United States started to face over time is that its interventions in the hemisphere as you can imagine were not especially popular among the nations where it was intervening.
And so by the late 1910s, anti-Americanism in the hemisphere had really reached not an all-time high but certainly was peaking. And the risks started to become at that point, not so much that Europe would take advantage of internal turmoil in one of these Latin American nations to come in and expand. But instead, that one of these nations, because it was so concerned about its security in the face of this threat from the United States itself, that one of these nations would go to Europe and ask one of the great powers to protect it.
And so Europeans would expand into the hemisphere not by intervention but by invitation, and this was from the US perspective a huge strategic problem. It didn’t quite pan out that way in the immediate aftermath of these interventions because, just by coincidence, the timing was such that World War I concluded and Europe’s great powers were in no position to expand at all.
But you saw this dynamic I think in the Cold War itself where a large part of the US interventions in Latin America, and a large part of the legacy of US interventions in Latin America meant that many Latin American governments were, I think, more open to Soviet influence. And more open to allying with the Soviet Union than they might otherwise have been, and so Fidel Castor’s Cuba is a pretty good example of that.
Jeff: We talked earlier on about the consistency of all of this and the playbook for it. And one of the other things you’ve mentioned is the views that America held versus the moral challenge that it had to face from the point of view of security and rising as a great power. When we look at a situation like China that is free from that moral dilemma, how much more dangerous is it?
Sean: It depends what you mean by free from that moral dilemma. Do you just mean in the sense that China doesn’t have that same commitment to, let’s say classical liberal values and to democratic values?
Sean: So, yes, it’s an interesting question because in some sense those values actually ended up being a bit of a problem for the United States. Because the United States often thought that because it was such a proponent of democracy that it needed to promote democracy during its interventions. And so the same as in Afghanistan and Iraq, we ended up taking kind of more of a hand in democracy promotion then perhaps was best from the perspective of the stability of those nations.
The same thing was true when the United States was occupying places like Haiti, or the Dominican Republic, or Nicaragua where our efforts to promote democracy were I think very well-intentioned and genuine, but oftentimes sort of at odds with the reality of what was happening. And so, in some sense, it actually made American interventionism worse.
On the other hand, I do think that Chinese foreign policymakers and Chinese leaders do have a different set of values that in its own way can act as a restraining force. Or as I argue in the book or it might not simply because security interests end up overriding it. And so, for many decades, for instance, China has preached what it called “noninterference” as one of the sort of cornerstones of its foreign policy.
And the idea reflects the Chinese experience of being at the tail end or the wrong end of interventions for much of its recent history. And China has always had a strong at least rhetorical stance in favor of respecting other nations’ sovereignty and not intervening in their internal affairs. The problem is, of course, that it’s not clear how much longer those ideological principles and those values are likely to continue governing Chinese foreign policy as its interests change and as it becomes more powerful.
And so you see in recent years that China still gives lip service to those values, but it’s nevertheless backing its quasi-ally Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which obviously breaches those values in a very big way. And China itself, obviously, is also waving its economic power over the heads of nations that it doesn’t like to essentially try and get them to agree with its foreign policy. And so I think more and more you’re seeing China’s values go by the wayside much in the same way that American values went by the wayside during its rise.
Jeff: Talk about this context with respect to Russia and Ukraine in a sense where the US, Europe, and NATO have created or at least amped up early on a potential security threat for Russia with respect to NATO and to European actions. Talk about that.
Sean: One of the big debates about Ukraine and Russia right now is the extent to which the United States is at least indirectly causally responsible for Russia’s invasion. And the argument that is made by some scholars is that starting in the 1990s, NATO enlarged its membership and slowly crept closer and closer to the Russian border. So, first, nations like Poland entered NATO.
But eventually, there was talk as of 2008 that countries like Georgia and Ukraine which are right on the Russian border should join NATO as well. And the problem from Russia’s perspective is that although NATO is ostensibly a defensive alliance, Russia, of course, has no guarantee that NATO wouldn’t someday be used in a way that’s harmful and offensive to its interest. And of course, for much of its history, NATO was explicitly an anti-Russia alliance.
And so some scholars have made the argument that Putin was faced essentially with the security threat from NATO enlargement near his borders and that his invasion of Ukraine was a response to that threat. I think there’s at least some truth to that. If you look at Russian scholarship and internal Russian analysis and what policymakers in Russia have been saying for decades, it’s clear that NATO enlargement has been a real security concern for them for many years, and I think it really does motivate at least a part of Russian behavior.
The question though is how much if NATO hadn’t expanded, would Russian behavior have really been any different? And I think it’s just a little too early to say either way. If you look at the way Putin justifies his invasion of Ukraine now, there’s talk of creating a greater Russia and the sort of civilizational imperative that really sort of suggests that Putin might have been aggressive towards his neighbors essentially regardless of what NATO did.
In which case, NATO enlargement was not really so much of a causal factor in the invasion of Ukraine, but in fact might have served a somewhat deterrent perspective or served a deterrent function at least with respect to some of the other nations on Russian borders. And so I think that’s very much a debate that’s still being had right now. And until the Russian archives get opened up in a few decades, I think we won’t know the answer for sure.
Jeff: And finally, to what extent do you think that American policymakers both now and historically in this whole period that you write about have had enough of an understanding? Enough of the self-awareness of our own history in this regard to allow us to better understand and better shape foreign policy in dealing with other rising nations?
Sean: Great question, Jeff. I’d say that the American policymakers don’t necessarily score very high on self-awareness, especially of our own history. One thing that you see especially with the current Biden administration is a real focus on using the term “sphere of influence” as a pejorative term. And so both in the administration’s national security strategy, as well as many appearances that Secretary of State Blinken makes on TV.
They talk about how Russia, you know, that spheres of influence are a 20th-century thing and that it’s inappropriate today for Russia and China to try and control the destinies and the fortunes of their neighbors. And I think there’s a sense in which much of the rest of the world, at least outside of Europe, looks at that kind of rhetoric and says, “Well, that’s fine for you to say because you already carved out your sphere of influence a century ago. And so of course, you don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
There’s a degree of, I think, double standards in there as well because when news reports emerged in recent weeks that China has established eavesdropping facilities on the island of Cuba and that there is even talk of a joint military training facility on Cuban soil that would see Chinese troops stationed there.
The reaction from American policymakers of course was, “This is ridiculous and highly inappropriate and the United States cannot stand for this.” And it’s a little bit hard to square that reaction with of course the way we think about what Russia and China should be allowed to do in their regions.
And so I do think that having a better sense of our history and having a better sense of what we’ve done and why we’ve done it can contribute not necessarily to a change in behavior, because I think there’s good arguments in support of the way the United States is acting with respect to all these situations, but at least a better understanding of how other nations likely perceive our behavior and the best way to sort of frame that behavior and talk about it in a way that is easy for other nations to understand and appreciate.
Jeff: Sean Mirski, his book is We May Dominate the World: Ambition, Anxiety, and the Rise of the American Colossus. Sean, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Sean: Thank you so much for having me, Jeff. It’s been a real pleasure.
Jeff: Thank you.