June 13, 2022

As our country deals with the foreign policy challenges of China’s bid for global dominance and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, it could use a dose of the mature realism of Walter Lippmann, who was, at one time, the country’s most influential journalist.

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Following his idealist period—writing at The New Republic and advising the Wilson administration during and after the First World War—Lippmann matured after observing international relations between the world wars. His eventual hardheaded realpolitik was most evident in his two World War II books, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (1943) and U.S. War Aims (1944), and his magnificent postwar book, The Cold War (1947).

In U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic, Lippmann explained the “controlling principle” of foreign policy: Bringing a nation’s commitments and power into balance; that is, maintaining “its objectives and its power in equilibrium,” assuring that the country’s means are equal to its purposes. “The constant preoccupation of the true statesman,” he wrote, “is to achieve and maintain this balance.”

Lippmann surveyed the evolution of American foreign policy over the 19th century and into the 20th. With specific regard to his “controlling principle” doctrine, Lippmann observed that the Monroe Doctrine committed the nation to preventing new colonization by outside powers in the Western Hemisphere, even though the United States initially lacked the power to enforce it. However, because America’s and Great Britain’s interests here coincided, British sea power enforced the Monroe Doctrine. After the Spanish-American War, the U.S. acquired the Philippines and Guam, and, having previously annexed Hawaii, became an Asian and Pacific power.

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Teddy Roosevelt and strategists like Alfred Thayer Mahan recognized that our interests required a stronger navy and a canal on the Central American isthmus—balancing resources with commitments. And Lippmann, after previously justifying American involvement in World War I in Wilsonian terms, now contended that the war was not fought to make the world safe for democracy or to create a League of Nations. It was fought because America’s security depended on having “friendly and strong partners” on Europe’s and Asia’s shores.

In the 1930s, Lippmann argued, the gap between our commitments and power dangerously widened. “Eventually, there is a reckoning for nations…who have obligations that are not covered by their resources.”

FDR, though he understood what needed to be done to protect U.S. interests during the mid-to-late 1930s, refused to take political risks to close the gap between commitments and resources. That political cowardice meant we were unprepared when war came. Our statesmen clung to the ideals of peace and disarmament while Germany, Japan, Italy, and the Soviet Union armed and sought to expand their power.

For Lippmann, the true purpose of a nation’s foreign policy is “to provide for the security of the nation in peace and in war.” The nation’s “vital interests” must be explained to the American people and “safeguarded so that they can be defended successfully in case of war.” He ridiculed disarmament movements that lose sight of the need to protect vital interests and defined vital interests as “those interests which the people of the nation are agreed they must defend at the risk of their lives.”

The United States’ strategic defenses, wrote Lippmann, “extend across both oceans and to all the trans-oceanic lands from which an attack by sea or by air can be launched.” They extended, in other words, to the coasts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. He explained that the power potential of the Old World (Eurasia-Africa) in terms of population and resources was (and is) greater than that of the New World (the Americas).

America needed to “form[] dependable alliances in the Old World.” America’s security, Lippmann wrote, depended on a balance of power in the Old World—a balance that prevented a Eurasian power from becoming “capable of aggression outside of the [Eurasian] continent.” But American statesmen must also appreciate the limits of power, Lippmann wrote and, by balancing commitments with power be able to (quoting George Washington) “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”

Image: Walter Lippmann. Public domain.