IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Lippmann Gap

Walter Lippmann was the most distinguished commentator on foreign affairs—indeed, on public affairs generally—during the rise of “The American Century.” He published his first book in 1914, a precocious study that compared the problem of international order in Lippmann’s day to the struggle among the sections preceding the American Civil War. Lippmann proffered sage advice on many occasions over the next sixty years, as is chronicled in the fine study by Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century. Lippmann had a knack for being at the center of things, making Steel's work one of the best introductions to the intellectual history of American foreign policy from Wilson to Nixon.

The Lippmann Gap was a term coined by Samuel P. Huntington in 1987. Lippmann had expressed the ideas behind it in a slender volume he wrote during the Second World War, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (1943). Lippmann argued that the basic principles of foreign policy had been forgotten during the nineteenth century, when the United States was shielded by British naval power. “In that long period the very nature of foreign policy, of what it consists and how it is formed, was forgotten.” Not knowing what was needed, Americans could not reach a common view:
They have forgotten the compelling and, once seen, the self-evident common principle of all genuine foreign policy — the principle that alone can force decisions, can settle controversy and can induce agreement. This is the principle that in foreign relations, as in all other relations, a policy has been formed only when commitments and power have been brought into balance. This is the forgotten principle which must be recovered and restored to the first place in American thought if the nation is to achieve the foreign policy which it so desperately wants.
Without the controlling principle that the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitments, it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs. Yet the history of our acts and of our declarations in the past fifty years will show that rarely, and never consistently, have American statesmen and the American people been guided by this elementary principle of practical life.
No one would seriously suppose that he had a fiscal policy if he did not consider together expenditure and revenue, outgo and income, liabilities and assets. But in foreign relations we have habitually in our minds divorced the discussion of our war aims, our peace aims, our ideals, our interests, our commitments, from the discussion of our armaments, our strategic position, our potential allies and our probable enemies. No policy could emerge from such a discussion. For what settles practical controversy is the knowledge that ends and means have to be balanced: an agreement has eventually to be reached when men admit that they must pay for what they want and that they must want only what they are willing to pay for. If they do not have to come to such an agreement, they will never except by accident agree. For they will lack a yardstick by which to measure their ideals and their interests, or their ways and means of protecting and promoting them.
Lippmann’s evocation of a policy that considered expenditure and revenue together seems very quaint these days, but remember that he said it during the largest borrowing spree in American history, the Second World War. Americans were not innocents in such matters, even back then. His interpretation of previous diplomacy from the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 to the Spanish war of 1898 would be defended today by few historians of U.S. foreign relations. Lippmann exaggerated American dependence on British sea power and needlessly belittled a host of American diplomatists, who were not as clueless as he indicated. Whatever the merits of Lippmann’s historical interpretation, however, his dicta stuck. How could they not? They seemed so right and true, so self evident. They always did to me, at least, and I was hardly alone.  Lippmann’s admonitions became the basic framework for a host of writers on American foreign policy in the post-World War II period.
Samuel Huntington’s 1987 essay in Foreign Affairs, “Coping with the Lippmann Gap,” is a notable instance of such usage. Huntington adopted Lippmann’s framework to interrogate the state of American strategy in the last years of the Reagan administration. Huntington was given at this time to some rather dubious strategies—he came up with the idea of perfecting conventional deterrence by gearing up for offensive operations in Eastern Europe—but he also laid out lucidly the logical alternatives that anyone in the midst of a Lippmann Gap should consider. Huntington took unnecessary alarm at the state of America’s defenses in 1987, but he, like Lippmann, had a clarifying mind. In the following he laid out the possible routes leaders might take whenever a Lippmann Gap looms large. Statesmen, he argued, can attack it in a variety of ways. They can attempt:
—to redefine their interests and so reduce their commitments to a level which they can sustain with their existing capabilities;
—to reduce the threats to their interests through diplomacy;
—to enhance the contribution of allies to the protection of their interests;
—to increase their own resources, usually meaning larger military forces and military budgets;
—to substitute cheaper forms of power for more expensive ones, thus using the same resources to produce more power;
—to devise more effective strategies for the use of their capabilities, thereby securing also greater output in terms of power for the same input in terms of resources.
That would seem at first glance to exhaust the options, but Huntington does not consider the possibility that a reduction of capabilities, alongside the redefinition of interests, might also cover the gap. Lippmann, too, gave greater weight to the moral forces than did Huntington, whose approach seems rather spare on that score. In his two little books of the war years, Lippmann called for a system of "organic consultation" with the members of the Atlantic Community. Such a system--more than a formal treaty of alliance but less than a political federation--reflected a community with the deepest values in common but one that could not be held together through compulsion. It was to be not "one military empire ruled from one capital" but rather "a concert of free nations held together by a realization of their common interests and acting together by consent." 
Just a few years after Huntington wrote, the end of the Cold War, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, entirely transformed the American strategic situation. Instead of a gap between power and commitments, there emerged a surfeit of power. The expansion of commitments followed. The experience of the last decade transformed the strategic situation yet again, leading to the emergence of The Engelhardt Gap: American military power remains preeminent in the international system, yet the actual uses of its military power do not achieve stated objectives and in fact produce blowback and other unanticipated consequences.

So does the Lippmann Gap remain an illuminating metric by which to assess US grand strategy? Using his criteria, how would you assess America’s current world role?