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Balancing Act

By: Patrick J. Garrity
July 12, 2012

The Winter 2011/12 issue of the journal International Security contains an essay by David Ekbladh, an assistant professor of History at Tufts, "Present at the Creation: Edward Mead Earle and the Depression-Era Origins of Security Studies." The essay will primarily be of interest to those who follow the academic literature about the intellectual origins of present-day American security studies.

For "Notes on Strategy and Statesmanship," this reminds us of the importance of Earle's 1943 edited volume, with the collaboration of Gordon A. Craig and Felix Gilbert, Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler. The contributors considered those writers, statesmen, and military officers who had thought most seriously about the art of controlling and utilizing the resources of a nation or a coalition of nations, to promote and secure their interests against enemies, actual, potential, or presumed. Although these resources included a variety of nonmilitary factors, including economic, psychological, moral, political, and technological, the volume is generally considered to be a "realist" tract, intended to educate the American public to the requirements of military force and power politics in the context of World War II.

One point of interest in Ekbladh's essay is the note that Earle, surprisingly, wrote a negative review in Political Science Quarterly (March 1943) of Nicholas Spykman's America's Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power (1942)which is generally considered to have been highly influential among the set of individuals who composed Makers of Modern Strategy. Earle "found Spykman's focus on a narrow concept of power as the sole basis of international affairs unpersuasive and out of line with American traditions. It was not that national power did not matter, but that Spykman's notion of it as well as his concept of the balance of power were restrictive and reductive. Spykman's view did not have room for the broadly based demands of strategy that included not just military, geographic, and political considerations but also the social, psychological, ideological, and moral imperatives that drove national interests."

Earle argued that Spykman overstated the case for strategic geography, in the sense that geography was the most permanent factor in the foreign policy of states because it was the most permanent. Earle noted that the actions of human beings, especially the development of technology, can "change geography." Canals and tunnels alter routes of transportation and

advancing military, naval and industrial technology changes the true meaning and the relationship of geographical facts to the power potential of states. For example, the railway and the motor road, plus political unification, enabled Germany to convert her interior position in Europe from a source of great weakness to one of great strength, and the airplane may reverse the process to Germany's disadvantage; the submarine compels a complete reëxamination of all the assumptions of British imperial security and even, mirabile dictu, threatens coastal communication between United States ports; air power, by menacing the security of the "narrow seas", destroys the foundation of Anglo-American control of the oceans, and the development of the long-range bomber reorients our political and military thinking from the conventional routes east-west-south to the great circle routes of the north.

 

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Earle argued that what he took to be Spykman's prescription of post-war U.S. national security policy—maintaining a balance of power in Eurasia by playing Germany off against Russia and China off against Japan—was fundamentally misguided.

In fact, the strategy which Mr. Spykman recommends might prove to be not a policy assuring the balance of power but a policy which would cause us to lose both our shirts and our souls.

It is a question, however, whether all these speculations and slide-rule measurements of possible future power constellations are not dated and futile; it might be more realistic to acknowledge frankly that in the age of the long-range bomber our whole strategical outlook has changed and that most previous political devices have lost their usefulness and validity. At the end of the war the only choice we may face is that between a more stable organization and the end of all organization, between some sort of order and complete anarchy. There may be no middle way. The balance of power may well land us all in a crematory....

We cannot lightly dismiss the possibilities of European or wider federation or some other means of achieving political stability in Europe and the Far East—certainly not on the grounds that it would be opposed to the fundamental interests of the United States. The "crude device" of the balance of power is predicated upon continuance of the war system; and if we build the future upon any such premise—without heroic efforts of another character—we must be prepared to admit the complete bankruptcy of Western civilization. Where Mr. Spykman is indubitably right, of course, is in his conviction that until something less crude is, in fact, established, we must spend whatever wealth and sweat may be necessary for the achievement of military security, based upon the power factor alone. But the present state of industrial and military technology is such that there hardly can be security for one without security for all—a security based upon a more integrated political system than the modern world has thus far known. To be sure, as Mr. Spykman says, force is the cornerstone of security. But it does not have to be irresponsible force, irresponsibly controlled. It might be force centralized and regulated in the interest of a wider community than any single nation, even if that nation be our own United States—a wider community than any regional leagues created primarily for the purpose of balancing power.

 


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I would question whether Earle accurately characterized Spykman's views, either about the relationship between geography and technology (which in fact is essential to his understanding of the importance of the "rimlands") or his post-war security strategy, which was set out in his 1944 monograph (published posthumously), The Geography of the Peace.Spykman wrote to this point in a January 11, 1943 letter to the editor of Life magazine, commenting on a December 21, 1942 article on geopolitics that characterized him as an advocate of "cold-blooded power politics."

You have quoted me correctly in stating that the preservation of some balance of power in Europe and Asia is a prerequisite to the security in the Western Hemisphere. But you failed to mention that I recommended a regional League of Nations in Europe and in the Far East. My interest in a balance of power is not merely inspired by a concern for our power position, but also by my conviction that only in a system of approximately balanced power is collective security workable. Only under such conditions can common action create overwhelming power on behalf of the international community. If there is no possibility of balancing power, there is no possibility of restraint and the less power required to checkmate aggression, the more likely are states to make good on their guarantees. I am in favor of a balance of power in Europe and Asia because only under such circumstances can the United States, which is far away, participate effectively in the preservation of international order and undertake positive commitments to preserve the territorial integrity of small states across the oceans.

 

One would have to parse Spykman's position with greater care than Earle did to come to a full understanding of what their argument was all about—but it is an indication of the rich intellectual cross-currents that existed during this period when conceptions of American national security were fundamentally redefined.