In 1895 Henry Cabot Lodge declared that the United States had compiled “a record of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion unequalled by any people in the 19th century.” Throughout the nineteenth century, the United States, motivated by a potent mixture of security, economic, and ideological motives, pushed westward, subjugating once sovereign Native tribes and dismantling European empires on the North American continent. But, as Richard Maass argues, while U.S. expansion was vast in scope, Americans often left valuable territory on the table. He argues that, even when annexation would have been profitable, democracy and xenophobia—more often than not, outright racism—blocked the United States from claiming territory. American leaders could not envision conquering land without incorporating it as a state; European imperial arrangements were illegitimate. At the same time, if politicians believed that annexation would either weaken their political influence, or “worsen” their political (white) identity, annexation was impossible.
Thirty years ago, Francis Fukuyama famously argued that the end of the Cold War was “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” I recently argued that Fukuyama was basically correct: Nothing in the past three decades has cast doubt on the verdict that liberal democracy is the most successful form of government by virtually every conceivable measure, and that is not a terribly hard call.
The relationship between war, taxes, and public opinion has long interested scholars of democracy and international security. In theory the fiscal costs of war should restrain leaders from starting them, especially if those costs are born by the public on whose support they rely. According to Sarah Kreps, however, American leaders have not been constrained in this way for decades. They have learned to find alternatives to the kind of war taxes that concentrate public attention. They have also fought prolonged wars with volunteer forces. No draft, no tax, no protest.
In a political climate characterized by daily claims of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts,’ it is hard to think of a subject more relevant to our time than the American presidency and the politics of deceit. In his new book, John Schuessler demonstrates that the issue of deception and American foreign policy long predates the Trump era. Deceit on the Road to War examines three important case studies: Franklin’s Roosevelt’s maneuvering of the American people into support for the war in Europe, Lyndon Johnson’s deceitful efforts to justify greater American military involvement in North and South Vietnam, and George W. Bush’s overselling of the war in Iraq. Of course, not all cases of presidential deception are exactly the same and the results can also vary. Unlike Johnson and Bush, FDR’s use of deception was probably necessary given the situation he faced, and America’s victory in the war has subjected him to far less historical scrutiny than presidents whose deception ended in defeat.
Occasionally, the long timelines of academia have an upside. Matthew Baum and Philip Potter’s War and Democratic Constraint was published in 2015, and these reviews were set in motion prior to Election Day. But President Donald Trump’s surprise victory has, among other things, refocused attention on the nature—and fragility—of democratic institutions. Although Baum and Potter’s book had both scholarly and policy relevance before 8 November 2016, it has taken on new significance and urgency in the election’s aftermath.
Twenty-five years ago, Francis Fukuyama advanced the notion that, with the death of Communism, history had come to an end. This somewhat fanciful, and presumably intentionally provocative, formulation was derived from Hegel, and it has generally been misinterpreted. He did not mean that things would stop happening— an obviously preposterous proposal.
Will the international community be able to build consolidated democratic regimes in Afghanistan or Iraq in the context of decade-long military interventions in those nations? In “Forced to be Free?” Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monten argue persuasively that if foreign nations intervene in a state simply to impose a new leader on that state, democracy is unlikely to flourish regardless of whether the intervening state is democratic or autocratic. Active efforts to impose democracy by force are unlikely to succeed unless they take place in the context of domestic conditions that facilitate democratization. Many scholars have made similar arguments in the past, but this effort stands out because it presents a novel data set of cases of foreign-imposed regime change that goes back to 1816. It also is one of the first studies of this issue that takes into account the problem of selection effects and which can offer an informed answer to the question of whether democracy promotion by force fails because of the intent and/or actions of the intervener or because interveners choose tough cases in which to try to build democratic regimes. While the article represents an excellent contribution to this important debate, a broader conception of foreign-imposed regime change might lead to somewhat different interpretations than those presented in this work.
H-Diplo/ISSF is honored to present a special and very unique exchange on the issue of “Democracy, Deception and Entry into War.” The editors would particularly like to express their great appreciation to Marc Trachtenberg for allowing us to publish his extended essay “Dan Reiter and America’s Road to War in 1941,” as well as to David Kaiser, Dan Reiter, and John Schuessler for their thoughtful contributions to this important debate. One could not ask for a better demonstration of the benefits of productive exchange and debate among historians and political scientists.
Readers familiar with the work of Frank Ninkovich know to expect big ideas and unexpected juxtapositions. Ninkovich, after all, wrote a history of the domino theory that placed the Cold War concept’s origins in the era of Woodrow Wilson. Ninkovich’s latest book is no less bold. This time around, Ninkovich argues that the notion of “civilization” represented the late-nineteenth century’s equivalent of today’s “globalization.” He also posits that scholars have overestimated the influence of biological racist thinking in the late nineteenth century. Ninkovich instead calls attention to a cohort of liberal elites in the Gilded Age (circa 1865 to 1890) who held a more optimistic and even egalitarian view of non-white peoples. This liberal view, he argues, helped make possible Americans’ more internationalist outlook later in the twentieth century. Not every reviewer in this roundtable fully accepts these claims, but the vitality of the debate underscores how Ninkovich has, once again, assembled creative arguments worth serious attention.
Joseph Maiolo’s basic argument in Cry Havoc is summed up in the book’s subtitle: How the Arms Race Drove the World to War, 1931-1941. Maiolo does not accept the traditional view that the democracies in the years before World War II made a terrible mistake “by failing to arm fast enough to stop Axis aggression”(2). As he sees it, it was the arms race itself, and not the failure of the western powers to participate in it actively enough, that lay at the heart of the problem. The arms race, he argues, was “an independent, self-perpetuating and often overriding impersonal force,” a “vast maelstrom, a tremendous torrent,” a “vicious system” that no one could escape—and which sped, in 1938-39, “toward its inevitable climax”(2-3, 402, 271, 207).