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Reluctant Goliath: how America became a superpower

John Bew reviews The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of Global Order by Adam Tooze.

A fan dressed as Captain America at the 2014 World Cup. Photo: Getty
A fan dressed as Captain America at the 2014 World Cup. Photo: Getty

The Deluge: the Great War and the Remaking of Global Order 
Adam Tooze
Allen Lane, 644pp, £30

In November 1928, ten years after the Entente’s victory in the First World War, an official at the Foreign Office sat to compose a stark assessment of the new global order in which Britain found herself. Russia, Germany, France, Japan, Italy and China were all locked in spirals of revolution and repression, and were being crippled by successive financial crises.

Although the UK was “still staggering from the effects of the superhuman effort made during the war . . . loaded with a great burden of debt . . . [and] crippled by the evil of unemployment”, it was better off than most. The empire was still intact – albeit in an altered state – and the domestic polity had survived the arrival of mass democracy in 1918, notwithstanding scares such as the General Strike of 1926. But in 1928, a year before the Wall Street Crash, one country stood supreme above all the others. In the United States, the official wrote, Great Britain was faced “with a phenomenon for which there is no parallel in our modern history – a state twenty-five times as large, five times as wealthy, three times as populous, twice as ambitious, almost invulnerable, and at least our equal in prosperity, vital energy, technical equipment and industrial strength”.

In 1917, Germany’s suicidal U-boat campaign in the Atlantic had finally forced President Woodrow Wilson to drop his position of disapproving neutrality in the war. When the United States finally entered the arena, the door to the American century was not so much unlocked as blown off its hinges – and in came a hurricane.

The Deluge tells two stories, neither of which (and this is the point) can be told with­out the other. The first is America’s coming of age as a superpower on a scale that the world had never seen and that frightened Americans as much as anyone else. The second is the way in which the other great powers – winners and losers in the First World War, from Europe to Eurasia – came to terms with the new dispensation.

Tooze is a professor of history and co-director of the international security studies programme at Yale, the intellectual home of “grand strategy” – a form of history, much beloved of statesmen, which abandons the usual “firewall” between domestic politics and foreign policy and examines how states mobilise the totality of their assets to the ends of security and power. This book is the best example of the genre since The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), produced by another British historian at Yale, Paul Kennedy. Tooze’s own previous book was a world-renowned, prize-winning study of the Nazi war economy, and in The Deluge he brings the same depth of analysis to the interwar period, covering much familiar ground but offering a bold reconceptuali­sation of the making and breaking of the liberal international order.

For Britain, which had paid for the Great War with huge loans from US banks, it was a case of “improvise or die”. There was no question of retreating meekly to the sidelines yet. It was in the interwar period that the British attempted “feats of intervention, co-ordination and stabilisation to which they had never aspired in the empire’s heyday”. But crucially, rather than push back against American hegemony, they accepted it as a fait accompli. Winston Churchill was among the first to see the selfish strategic interest in what he later called the “special relationship” but there were few dissenting voices; Britain’s first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was as staunch an advocate of an Anglo-American alliance as any. As Leon Trotsky put it, MacDonald “points with pride to this dog collar, calling it the best instrument of peace”.

In Weimar Germany from 1923 to 1927, Gustav Stresemann’s foreign policy was predicated on a similar logic, reconciling himself to US power. Yet others began to object to the shackles imposed by the new behemoth on the block, and what they saw as an attempt to impose a stifling status quo. In 1928, the Austrian-born radical politician Adolf Hitler warned that the “threatened global hegemony of the North American continent” would reduce the rest of the major powers to the status of a Switzerland or a Holland. In Mein Kampf, he even called for an Anglo-German alliance to resist it.

The 1929 Wall Street Crash confirmed that now, when America sneezed, the rest of the world caught much worse than a cold. Hedging one’s bets on the superpower’s next move was a risky business, however, as the inner workings of American democracy were complex. Woodrow Wilson could convince the world of his vision for a League of Nations, but not the American people.
In 1931, when Congress slapped down President Hoover’s offer of a moratorium on European war debt – which had been made to protect Wall Street investment in Germany, rather than in a spirit of benevolence – the exasperated British ambassador in Washington, Sir Ronald Lindsay, called it an “exhibition of irresponsibility, buffoonery and ineptitude that could hardly be paralleled by the Haitian legislature”.

By the 1930s, for all their differences, the leaders of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union began to unite as insurgents against this oppressive Pax Americana. Indeed, one of the great ironies of the Great Depression era was that it was the rebellious nationalist camp that adopted “positive” economic policies, in contrast to the austerity and deflationary orthodoxy preferred by defenders of the liberal order. As Stalin told factory workers in 1931, at the outset of his Five-Year Plans, “To slacken the pace would mean to lag behind, and those who lag behind are beaten.”

Some have seen the collapse of the peace movement, disintegration of the liberal order and insipidness of the League of Nations as the ultimate rebuke to the naive democratic idealism of the interwar years, embodied by Wilsonianism. For Tooze, this is the wrong lesson to learn. In his view, in fact, “the restless search for a new way of securing order and peace was the expression not of deluded idealism, but of a higher form of realism”. Its failure was not inevitable and can be explained in two ways.

The first was the determination of revanchist (fascist and revolutionary) powers that mobilised every resource they had in an effort to escape the “chain gang” of nations marching behind the US. The second, more important, was that America itself remained a reluctant Goliath, hamstrung in its attempt to construct a viable grand strategy by a strange anxiety about its own fragility. Thus Wilson appears as not a naive internationalist, but a Burkean conservative, deeply concerned by the prospect that foreign entanglements with the “Dark Continent” of Europe or the “Oriental races” of Asia would corrupt the health and vigour of the American republic.

Here was the paradox: “At the hub of the rapidly evolving American-centred world system was a polity wedded to a conservative vision of its own future.”

The Deluge leaves us with a picture not of the clichéd brash and unthinking Yankee new imperialist power, but of an oddly insecure superstate: preferring to sit aloof from the rapacious battles and power games played by others; not quite at ease with its own recent tumultuous past; and still coming to terms with modernity having presented it with responsibilities that it had never envisaged.

From the British perspective, as the Foreign Office official put it in 1928, it was always better to have America in the game than out of it. The problem was that “in almost every field, the advantages to be derived from mutual co-operation are greater for us than for them”. 

John Bew is a historian and New Statesman contributing writer