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A Century of U.S. Global Strategy

Jun 18, 2024
  • Dou Guoqing

    Colonel of the People’s Liberation Army and Postdoctorate Researcher at PLA National Defense University

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The world is undergoing profound changes. The past century of world history, which witnessed the all-around transition from the Versailles-Washington system to the Yalta system, as well as an technology revolution and the subsequent global political, economic revolution, has been colorful 100 years. In the process, the United States, while promoting its values and manipulating geopolitics, has become an arrogant, self-centered hybrid that measures others’ corn by its own bushel. It practices long-arm jurisdiction, sets standards for justice around the world and has gradually established global hegemony. As the U.S. turned from the margin to the center of the world stage, the most dramatic centenary changes in human history took place. Fences between countries are being demolished, and it has become an irreversible macro trend that all must go forward or backward together.

For all the vicissitudes in the process, the U.S. remains the most important variable in the changing landscape. Whether it stays strong or declines, continues to dominate the international order or returns to isolationism will have a decisive influence on the overall orientation of global change. To predict future changes, one must first study America’s global strategy over the past century.

The historical process of its gaining global hegemony since World War I is not a simple matter of the U.S. military going from weak to strong but involved the U.S. taking advantage of its national strength to seek victory in wars, build military superiority and formulate an international order amid dramatic changes on the global stage.

Its angelic ideals and shallow arrogance allowed it to endure tremendous sacrifices and to harvest huge benefits that made the United States the envy of other countries, despite the bitterness of its failures.

All hegemons in history have made the most of their inherent advantages. Compared with ancient Rome in the West and the Qin and Han empires in the East, as well as such immediate predecessors as Great Britain, the U.S. has two natural advantages as a successor. One is that it has been immune from the erosion of a system of feudal centralization. It became a major power through its innovative vitality. In the 15th century, to escape from religious persecution in Europe, especially in Britain, numerous Puritans found their way to North America with aspirations to resist autocratic oppression and ensure justice. These “pilgrims” wished to turn their new land into what Massachusetts immigrant leader John Winthrop called “a city on a hill” — a place that everyone admires. 

Since then, any sign of religious authority and feudal centralization would invite public backlash. The new immigrants’ deep disgust at religious authority and feudal centralization has been passed down from one generation to another, cultivating a national character of independence, advocating competition, favoring the new and original and despising those who accomplish personal goals through personal attachment. Gradually, a peculiar culture evolved that differed markedly from those of longstanding nations in Europe, Asia and Africa. In step with this process, ideas of democracy have thrived undisturbed and ultimately became the ideological foundation of the United States. By the mid- to late-19th century, the U.S. had created the largest and most complete public education system in the world, laying a solid foundation for building social justice and stimulating societal vitality.

By the end of the 19th century, the rise of the progressive movement in the U.S. pressed the government to take measures to eradicate corruption, restrict monopolies, protect labor interests and focus on environmental and food safety. After the 1960s, the U.S. legislated what was touted as the end of racial apartheid and discrimination. Although the U.S. has endless problems in domestic politics, remains subject to the periodic economic crises and can’t seems to rid itself of racism, it possesses vigorous elements rarely found in other countries — which is why it attaches great significance to boosting science and technology education, protecting social fairness and justice, and respecting civil society’s right to self-governance. It is able to continuously correct wrongs in a timely manner and thus develop while solving problems.

The other natural advantage of the United States is the screen of protection provided by two oceans. It is therefore able to stay away from major power conflicts and concentrate instead on growing its comprehensive strength. The U.S. is away from warring Europe and Asia across the broad Atlantic and Pacific, so it maintains a unique position of independence, and is able to choose war or peace in accordance with its own interests. If the U.S. had intervened in European affairs when it was weak, it would have become a chess piece for a major European power and no longer enjoy peace.

Before World War I, the U.S. had accomplished territorial expansion at incredible speed, becoming a major power with broad territory a huge population and rich resources. The great oceans shielded it from danger, including from major powers such as Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Japan, winning it strategic opportunities for long-term peaceful development.

There are four aspects worth particular emphasis here:

• The first factor on the road to U.S. global hegemony is temporal. The world began to undergo great changes just as the U.S. began to gain economic prominence and establish leadership in science and technology.

In that round of global changes, Europe, Asia and Africa had all suffered the damage of wars instigated by ambitious major powers, while the North American continent, on the other hand, was safe and remained a land of peace and tranquility. Nearly four decades of robust development made the U.S. the richest, happiest and freest land in the world when humanity crossed the threshold of the 20th century. Scientific and technological progress played a critical role in the process. Taking full advantage of the achievements of the first industrial revolution led by Britain and France, the U.S. took a dramatic stride to become one of the leaders of the second industrial revolution.

• The second factor on the road to U.S. global hegemony has been behavioral — a steady yet flexible national grand strategy.

On the surface, there were two preconditions for U.S. global hegemony: One was its military superiority built on economic as well as scientific and technological advantages; the other was incessant conflicts in Eurasia, which made it possible for the U.S., — guarded by two oceans — to benefit from others’ conflicts and intervene as it wished.

Like other major powers, the U.S. started out in a complex and dangerous environment, with fear and trepidation. First it isolated itself and completed territorial expansion; then it adopted the Monroe Doctrine, took control of the Western Hemisphere, set its eyes on the Pacific, introducing such policies as “open door” and “equal opportunity.” Then it expanded the Chinese market, defeated declining Spain in the Spanish-American War and acquired a bridgehead in the southwestern Pacific. Following that, it preached internationalism, and won global hegemony through two world wars.

Since the beginning of the Cold War, the U.S. has always been a global superpower. A solid, step-by-step, grand national strategy has enabled the U.S. to use its natural geopolitical advantages in nearly every stage in history to avoid getting involved in conflicts between European powers. Instead, it could concentrate on developing its economy, science, technology and trade, continuously growing its comprehensive national strength.

• The third factor on the U.S. path to global hegemony has been taking advantage of wars and crises to formulate a favorable position in the international order.

The history of U.S. role in the two world wars needs no additional elaboration, but there are two lessons worth special attention: Ine is taking advantage of changes in international strategic pattern to promote a peaceful power transfer between Britain and the United States. The other is taking advantage of wars to plan global military deployment. The reason the U.S. was victorious, yet paid the least and benefited the most in both world wars had more to do with its strategic vision and concern for global affairs than with opportunism associated with geographic superiority.

• The fourth factor on the U.S. path to global hegemony has been internal motivation — a capacity for military transformation that’s difficult for other countries to emulate.

After World War II, starting from being the sole owner of atomic bombs and long-range bombers, the U.S. monopoly in strategic military strength — including nuclear weapons, carrier rockets and space weapons — has repeatedly been broken. But the U.S. has always led the world in weapons, equipment and tactics.

More than three decades after the end of the Cold War, — through multiple wars — changes in the philosophy of war and constant upgrades of weapons and equipment have been unprecedented in depth, breadth and intensity. At present, the greatest strategic value is America’s. military capacity for self-transformation. It leads the world in military development, with other militaries vying to emulate it. The U.S. military has thus constantly built new advantages amid changes.

The dominant motivation for the U.S. military’s self-transformation lies in the whole country, rather than the military itself. Congress makes laws, the government makes policies, think tanks and colleges contribute advice, military contractors carry out research and development, the military verifies issues in combat training and makes demands for adjustments. In essence, the military’s self-transformation derives from commercial capital, driven by a profit-seeking instinct, constantly disrupting vested interests using science and technology, as well as market forces. The outcome is a military self-transformation amid comprehensive changes nationwide.

U.S. global hegemony works under a variety of political, economic, diplomatic, scientific, technological, cultural and social rules. Its foundation is America’s unsurpassed economic, scientific and technological strength. The great achievements it demonstrates include rich business awareness and a combination of prestige and pragmatic benefits. It is impossible for the U.S. to abandon its unique idealism in the future. Consistency between responsibilities and interests is a given in the realm of international politics.

The U.S. has been the biggest beneficiary of changes in the international order over the past century and will inevitably be sensitive to the future of the world. However, the U.S. appears to be violating the basic rules for the global common good and its own pursuit of profits, which is undoubtedly raising the dangerous prospect of self-destruction.Whether or not such a danger presents itself in the future hinges not only on the U.S. but also on the rest of the world. 


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