Surprise, Security, and the American Experience

In John Gaddis’s he does an in-depth analysis of the three grand strategies preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony and how they affected American foreign policy. He looks at major catastrophic events that happened in American history such as the burning of Washington, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11 and saw how the strategies were incorporated in response to the events and described both their pros and cons on how they affected the society at that specific moment in time. Gaddis takes a look at how the presidents in office during the times of these given events and what foreign policies they put in place in response to these devastating events.

Gaddis takes an overall look at the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 and puts it into a larger context. He does a great job at forming an interesting plot and making valid points but is not the most convincing through his explanation. According to Gaddis, the long-lasting theme of the United States grand strategy over the past two centuries has been a mission for security.

Security is freedom from, or resistance against, potential harm from external forces which was relayed through the use of foreign policies. When being faced with threats and dangers from abroad, the United States reacts by proclaiming its control over an ever-wider territory of responsibility. ‘Expansion, we have assumed, is the path to security’ (p. 13). Apparently, the U.S. seeks to dominate simply so that we can be left alone and to make itself known as a dominant power to all.

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Gaddis identified the three grand strategies in the first of the three central chapters, Gaddis concentrates on the response to the British attack in Washington. He writes about the powerful impact that this event along with other threats had upon observations of security in the young nation of the United States. He then argues that the strategic response to this situation originally developed by John Adams as secretary of state for James Monroe the president at the time. The strategic plan was to combine three principles preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony according to Gaddis these principles would govern American foreign policy for years.

By preemption, Gaddis means a willingness to exploit the weakness of neighboring states, or where that weakness might tempt stronger states to establish a presence. According to Gaddis unilateralism was put in place so that the United States did not need to rely upon any other state to guarantee its security. Most of all, hegemony was not just a strategic doctrine, but the general goal of the plan according to Gaddis, the United States wanted absolute control over the North American continent, in order that the dominant international system there would reflect a majority of American power rather than a balance among several powers, with all the possibilities for wars, commercial rivalries, and revolutions that the last arrangement had led to in Europe. Gaddis states that this policy was put in place based solely on ‘racism’ (28) and concludes that for more than a century, ‘the United States would be quick to rebuff all subsequent efforts by other great powers to establish footholds of any kind, not just in North America, but throughout the western hemisphere. With the single exception of Cuba during the Cold War, it succeeded’ (29).

In contrast to the focus on preemption and unilateralism that conquered American foreign policy after the conclusion of the War of 1812, Franklin Roosevelt developed a very different approach after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, an approach that was being preserved by Democratic and Republican administrations alike throughout the Cold War. According to Gaddis, Roosevelt’s goal was still hegemony, but he relied on very different means to attain that end, a multilateralism built around gaining the consensus of allies based on a strategy of taking the moral high ground in order to create an ‘asymmetry of legitimacy’ (64) in comparison to first the Nazis and then the Soviets. Gaddis outlines that from Pearl Harbor to the end of the Cold War, the United States rarely acted alone and resisted ‘the idea of preemption’ (59). By rejecting unilateral action because of the ‘probable moral costs of striking first’ (63), the United States was able to ‘maintain a sphere of influence’ in Europe throughout the Cold War ‘with the consent of those who lived within it’ (60–61).

While Gaddis does not refer to the rhetorical appeal of the two grand strategies that dominated American foreign policy from 1814 through the 1990s, the symbolic dimensions of the two approaches should be obvious. From 1812 up to Pearl Harbor, the United States used the doctrines of preemption and independent action to direct the message that the U.S. was the biggest bully on the block. The use of this strategy can be seen as a form of intimidation. In contrast, Roosevelt and those who came behind him understood that this strategy could no longer succeed, because the United States was no longer concerned with just the Western Hemisphere, but with the whole world. It was in this context that Roosevelt developed a strategy based upon power combined with moral legitimacy to create a situation in which our allies consented to. The problem had been infusing for about half a century before Pearl Harbor says, Gaddis.

The uprising in transportation specifically for warships and aircraft had been significantly reducing the usefulness of the oceans as defensive barriers. At the same time, Great Britain ‘the guardian of those oceans’ was weakened by wars, economic, and social factors. Also, Japan was now becoming a major Asian naval power in the Pacific Ocean where there was nothing before. Defensive armaments were being beefed up to reinforce those ocean boundaries. Gaddis mentions the beginning of efforts to build an air force ‘second to none’ prior to Pearl Harbor. Congress also authorized an extensive buildup in naval power to protect the U.S. ocean borders. This fortunate degree of preparation had a significant impact on the course of the war. Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized oncoming dangers years before Pearl Harbor but was forced by isolationist forces in the U.S. to tread cautiously in moving the nation closer to becoming war ready.

Gaddis also points out ‘ Despite Roosevelt’s efforts to counter this trend, the nation came closer during the late 1930s to hiding in the face of threats that it had done at any point since the war of 1812’ pointing out that we were not ready for war at the moment. Despite FDR’s economic failures with the Great Depression, he was a determined and cunning wartime President. He encouraged expansion of the air force and navy acting as Commander in Chief making the crucial decision to come to Britain’s aid prior to Pearl Harbor for this Gaddis points out FDR as the most skilled wartime president in the nation’s history up to that time. Gaddis describes him as the true master strategist of World War II taking the U.S. successfully through two wars back to back in a manner that left the U.S. as the world’s highest and strongest power. In Gaddis analysis, he points out that ‘Roosevelt pulled off this expanded hegemony by scrapping rather than embracing the two other key components of Adams’s strategy, unilateralism and preemption.’ proving why he can easily be interpreted as the most skilled wartime president.

The 9/11 terrorist attack from the Muslim militants led to another major shift in the national security strategy of the U.S. The Bush II administration appears to have returned ‘to a hegemony based on unilateralism and preemption rather than on multilateralism and self-restraint.’ after this, the U.S. was no longer perceived as a non-threating country. This was a major issue with it being an international problem Gaddis points out that the attackers could not be deterred, accommodated or negotiated with, which made creating a foreign policy after this disastrous attack so difficult. Gaddis points out that when dealing with major terrorist’s organizations it takes time to bring about a plan to overtake the terrorist group. Through this the terrorists felt as if they conquered the world because as Gaddis points out they caused massive damage at little cost to themselves and imposed immense security costs and a sense of vulnerability on a previously secure people. In response to this Bush II put the strategic plan ‘The National Security Strategy of the United States of America’ (‘NSS’) released on 9/7/02.

This also sparked the ‘Bush Doctrine’ Gaddis explained it as that ‘the United States will identify and eliminate terrorists wherever they are, together with the regimes that sustain them. Respecting sovereignty is no longer sufficient because that implies a game in which the players understand and respect the rules. In this new game, there are no rules.’. Gaddis also explains that ‘September 11th showed that deterrence and containment alone won’t work against [terrorist] adversaries: that’s why preemption is necessary.’ meaning that Bush II had to had to seek a different response. Bush’s NSS explains that nations do not need to suffer an attack to take action to defend themselves against forces who present themselves as a threat. Bush wanted a plan that would help the U.S. remain neutral with all other major countries like Russia and China and this fit. The U.S remained hegemon showing no threat to any of the other great powers or peaceful nations. Bush wanted to prevent the Muslim militants from gaining control of the middle east which would be a threat to every nation. U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to be moving in the route of restoring immediate control while maintaining a continuous presence to assure safety and internal stability for the future. Gaddis points out that there is unified Muslim civilization that clashes are ongoing all over the Muslim world and also points out If Muslims are ‘divided on the virtues of modernization… then who is to say that democratization could not eventually work for them?’ This strategy was successful following WW II but is yet to be known for this Islamic regime.

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Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. (2022, Apr 28). Retrieved from

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