World Policy

World Policy Journal
Volume XVI, No 3, Fall 1999


Grand Strategy—Toward a New Concert of Nations: An American Perspective
By James Chace and Nicholas X. Rizopoulos


This essay is based, in part, on a speech given by James Chace at a conference held at the Institute of American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, in July 1999. The conference was sponsored by the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.

In much of recorded history, great regional powers have often further asserted themselves as empires. But the imperial model—be it Roman, Byzantine, Habsburg, Ottoman, or British—ideally provided not only security for its own citizens but guaranteed an ordered world in which those outside its immediate domain, who accepted the imperial dictates, also benefited from the orderliness—political, legal, economic—imposed by the imperial hegemon. To be sure, empires require constant vigilance against those who may wish to overturn them—Cavafy’s proverbial barbarians at the gates. In due course, all empires disintegrate. The Roman Empire, at its height an achievement of such magnitude that it served as a model for subsequent European hegemonic experiments, collapsed, in part (if we are to believe Gibbon) from the undermining of its original raison d’être by the rise of Christianity, but also—and just as important—by the general feeling of insecurity, verging on chaos, produced by the barbarian invasions.

Subsequently, the more “modern” idea, the medieval dream of a universal empire—a world government of civilized states under the Res Publica Christiana—failed to take root, less because the Holy Roman Empire was (as the conventional wisdom will have it) neither Holy nor Roman and more because, though ostensibly an “empire,” it provided minimal order and even less security within its domain.

Hence the emergence of the ostensibly self-sufficient nation-state operating in a Hobbesian world of murderous competition which, having decimated western Europe in a 30-year-long war of unimagined brutality, gave birth—almost in desperation—to the post-1648 “Westphalian system” based on the notion of a balance of power.

With a few glaring exceptions—the hegemonic aspirations of Louis XIV and Napoleon I come immediately to mind—the Westphalian system, became, with variations, the norm in European state politics from the mid-seventeenth century to the dawn of the twentieth. Certainly, the idea of a permanently self-correcting balance of power—the heart of the system—began to fall apart for good as soon as Bismarck, its most brilliant conceptualizer, was unceremoniously pushed out of office by the new Kaiser in 1890. The onset of the First World War tolled its death knell.

And yet, today, on the eve of the next millennium, there is the distinct possibility that a global—rather than merely a European—balance of power system could reemerge as the arrangement best suited to contain, peaceably, the twin forces of fragmentation and globalization that simultaneously threaten the stability of the post–Cold War world.

A balance of power system, however, is rarely inherently static or stable. It, too—like the hegemonic regimes it was meant to replace—requires constant vigilance, even while its unexceptional goal remains the promotion of stability through moderation. Nor is the balance of power the natural form of interstate relations. As Henry Kissinger has pointed out, “Balance of power systems have existed only rarely in human history. The Western Hemisphere has never known one, nor has the territory of contemporary China since the end of the period of the warring states, over 2,000 years ago. For the greatest part of humanity and the longest periods of history, empire has been the typical mode of government. Empires have no interest in cooperation within an international system; they aspire to be the international system. Empires have no need for the balance of power. That is how the United States has conducted its foreign policy in the Americas, and China through most of its history in Asia.” 1


Yearning for Empire

Indeed, at the very birth of the United States, the young republic’s yearning for empire—albeit one initially confined to this continent—was already evident. Thomas Jefferson spoke of establishing an “empire of liberty”; the notion that the United States would come to dominate the entire Western Hemisphere was assumed by many of the Founding Fathers; and, only a bit later, the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 set out—admittedly with British connivance—explicitly to exclude further European colonization (or meddling) in the Americas. Monroe saw the need for the United States to expand as a way of ensuring that it became a great power. In his view, extent of territory marked the difference between a great and a small power. A difference, one should add, most dramatically noticeable in a nation’s ability to define its own security requirements.

In effect, America’s Founding Fathers set out to articulate a national program that would offer the United States a real measure of political, economic, and territorial safety without involving this country in the complex diplomatic maneuverings and incessant power struggles of the old continent. Ironically, the arrangement that most profoundly—and adversely—affected the Founding Fathers in their search for such a panacea was the eighteenth-century balance of power system that not only took little account of American pride or sensitivities but, to the contrary, sought to preserve stability in Europe in part by allowing the European powers greater freedom of action outside it.

But the Founding Fathers had additional reasons to distrust the system later immortalized by Albert Sorel in Europe under the Old Regime. The European balance of power, as it had emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, proved scarcely more successful in preventing war and bloodshed than had its precursor, the Italian city-state system. Deceit and treachery, when employed in the service of a prince, were still seen as necessary and even virtuous aspects of statecraft. Still, the new rules did at least establish the notion that state security was both a relative commodity and a collective concern. One country could increase its own security only at the expense of another’s. When the relative security (and insecurity) of each of the European great powers reachedan appropriately balanced level, in relation to real or imagined competitors, the system as a whole was deemed to be in balance. Recourse to war per se was not outlawed; but warfare of the kind that had plagued Europe from the late Middle Ages through the age of Louis XIV was curtailed, at least in Europe, through the diligence of attentive rulers. As Frederick the Great wrote, “When the policy and prudence of the princes of Europe lose sight of the maintenance of a just balance among the dominant powers, the constitution of the whole body politic resents it.” 2

Yet, for all its beneficial effects, by ascribing amoral motives to each participating member, and by presuming that the ambitions (territorial or otherwise) of one could only be checked by encouraging those of another, the system condemned all of its members to (at best) a state of relative security that was constantly fraught with suspicion and anxiety. It was this aspect of the balance of power that most disturbed America’s Founding Fathers. Viewing Europe from the remove of a distant continent, they generally regarded the European system as one that managed and exploited human weakness without promoting virtue. The constructive lessons of the balance of power—that security is relative and can be achieved only through international cooperation—were seen as being less important than its vices.

Nonetheless, these were men of the eighteenth century, who understood the practical usefulness of the balance, if confined to Europe; for it served, at least indirectly, to protect the fledgling republic from the unwanted attentions of a would-be continental hegemon with extra-European ambitions. Or so, for a while, it seemed. But America’s inability to steer a successful “middle course”—a euphemism for a myopic and unattainable “strict neutrality”—in the titanic struggle between Bonaparte and John Bull would soon change all of that.

Even so, most Americans clung to the belief that the new nation could survive best by avoiding both foreign entanglements and sentimental attachments. “The nation,” had said the departing President Washington back in 1796, “which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.... If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance.”

In fact, nothing was to prove to be that simple—as Washington’s three successors in the White House were to find out. And yet the American critique of the European balance of power—as politically expedient but “morally” suspect—still held firm. Jefferson’s vision called American statesmen to exploit the blessings of geographical isolation and the virtues of republicanism, and to reject for all time the cynicism of the Old World.

To be sure, Alexander Hamilton, on his part, had argued forcefully (in The Federalist, VI) against “idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exception from the imperfection, weakness and evils incident to society in every shape” and “to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue.”

But Hamilton’s realism was largely disregarded: in the years immediately following the War of 1812, the broad tenor of American foreign policy was, above all, Jeffersonian, and Jefferson had been a confirmed advocate of American exceptionalism. This was to play a key role in defining the Republic’s subsequent foreign policy (and security) priorities. Americans believed that the special nature of their democracy, combined with the fact that it had taken root on a continent of almost incalculable size and natural wealth, made the United States an almost irresistible target for interference—and possible aggression—from abroad.

Nevertheless, benefiting from the security that the two oceans provided, the United States maintained only a small navy and army (except, of course, during the Civil War), knowing that the Royal Navy would protect it from the depredations of other European powers, if only because Britain’s own commercial interests in the Western Hemisphere were best served by excluding the French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Indeed, with one or two exceptions (to wit, the looming threat of official British recognition of the Confederacy during 1861–62; the aborted Mexican adventure of “Emperor”Maximilian a few years later), for most of the nineteenth century the only real security threats to the United States would come from Anglo-American territorial disputes over Canada, Texas, Maine, Oregon, California, and (perhaps most serious) the Venezuela boundary contretemps of 1895.

Throughout, Americans stuck—in the historian Walter McDougall’s felicitous phrase—to their “Old Testament” beliefs: “1. Liberty, or Exceptionalism (so called). 2. Unilateralism, or Isolationism (so called). 3. The American System, or Monroe Doctrine (so called). 4. Expansionism, or Manifest Destiny (so called).” 3 Not surprisingly, this approach left little room (or incentive) for balance of power calculations: at least not until dramatic new developments in Europe, Asia, and Africa during the last 30-odd years of the nineteenth century made it impossible for the United States to continue to remain aloof and uninvolved.


Shared Values

In the meantime, both the nature and the workings of the European balance of power system had changed. The equilibrium that had emerged after the defeat of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna in 1815 reflected an acknowledgement by the Great Powers that henceforth conflict among them should be avoided at all costs. Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia, and France now made up what came to be known as the Concert of Europe, whose leaders—normally their foreign ministers—met periodically at various congresses to coordinate their policies in order to preserve the monarchical order sanctified in Vienna, discourage revolution, and maintain continental peace.

The concert, which (at most) lasted for only four decades, provided not only a strategic equilibrium but a moral one—although, from the beginning, the British insisted on exercising a good deal of freedom of action in dealing with political and constitutional reform movements from one end of the continent to the other—especially when, in the process, longer term British commercial and strategic interests were seen to be benefiting as well.

In any event, the continental powers were also bound together by a sense of shared values: the desire for order, stability, and peace, reflecting the wishes not only of the royal courts and landed aristocracies but of the emerging middle classes as well. Still, as Kissinger has noted, “an international order which is not considered just will be challenged sooner or later.... How a people perceives the fairness of a particular world order is determined as much by its domestic institutions as by judgments on tactical foreign-policy issues.” 4

The Concert of Europe, as conceived at Vienna, could not last because its chief architect, Metternich, loathed change. The victorious continental powers—Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the so-called Holy Alliance—sought to enforce static principles on a dynamic world now infected by the double virus of liberalism and nationalism. Moreover, the derailing of Bonaparte’s hegemonic pretensions had not fully erased the old enmities existing among his opponents. Hence the next boiling-over of the eternal Eastern Question: the Crimean War (1854–56), pitting France and Britain against Russia over the hoped-for spoils to be garnered from an obviously fast declining Ottoman Empire. It was a stupid but eminently avoidable war; and it wrote the Concert of Europe’s death sentence exactly because it could not prevent the war from occurring.

Enter Otto von Bismarck: part genius, part cynic, part bully. More to the point, the Prussian statesman, and soon to become German chancellor, was wedded neither to the status quo nor to outmoded principles of legitimacy. Recourse to war did not scare or unduly disturb him. Not so long as wars were short—in duration and expense—and conclusive in reconfiguring the European equilibrium to his specifications, with Germany preponderant (but not obnoxiously domineering) at the center of the continent, and Britain secure behind the English Channel with its navy and imperial possessions intact.

Essentially, Bismarck devised a new balance of power system, with Imperial Germany as its linchpin: his famous formula of “always à trois” called for Germany to be, at all times, one (and, by definition, the strongest in any such combination) of three out of the five Great Powers of Europe, and thus the captain of the controlling majority. According to Bismarck, post-1871 Germany was a satiated power, and therefore not a threat to anybody.

The trouble with this schema (even leaving aside French revanchisme and Russian expansionism) was not only that, after 1890, Bismarck’s successors lacked his energy and brilliance; they—and the new Kaiser—also lacked Bismarck’s mature vision and (despite the warmongering of the years 1864–70) his genuine commitment to a European peace.

In the 40 years of (relative) peace that followed the Congress of Vienna, the great powers had primarily feared revolution and domestic unrest. During the almost 40 years of (relative) peace that followed the Congress of Berlin (1878), they became mostly afraid of each other. And after Bismarck’s enforced retirement, three of them—France, Russia, Britain—became ever more suspicious and afraid of Germany’s “new course.”

The collapse of the Bismarckian system resulted in a Europe gradually polarized into two fixed alliance groups. Even Britain reluctantly found herself compelled to choose sides—even though none of Lord Palmerston’s successors, either at the Foreign Office or at 10 Downing Street, ever really forswore the two cardinal principles of British foreign policy that he had famously articulated at mid-century: First, “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” Second, England was also bound, by her own historical tradition, “to be the champion of justice and right: pursuing that course with moderation and prudence, not becoming the Quixote of the world, but giving her moral sanction and support wherever she thinks justice is, and whenever she thinks that wrong has been done.”

Late Victorian Britain, at the apogee of her power, “having nothing to win and much to lose,” as the British author-diplomat Harold Nicolson later wrote, “became an essentially conservative, and therefore peace-loving, nation; she was strong enough to discourage aggression in others and vulnerable enough not to practice aggression herself; and dreading above all things the domination of the Continent by a single militarist power she identified herself throughout the nineteenth century with the interest of small nations and the encouragement of liberal institutions.” 5

Per contra, after 1890, the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Admiral Tirpitz did appear to threaten, in a gratuitously provocative manner, many of Britain’s traditional security concerns, and not simply its global economic preponderance. By way of contrast, the almost simultaneous challenge presented by the rise of the United States to economic “superpower” status, though resented in London, was not seen by the British government as an unmanageable provocation.


To Safeguard the National Interest

Ironically, at the very juncture when the Bismarckian system was falling completely apart, the United States found itself led by a president who was very much a disciple of Hamiltonian realism and who embraced the idea of a global balance—precisely in order for the United States to play a role in, and be a beneficiary of, that balance. Theodore Roosevelt may have shared with his fellow citizens a belief that America was the world’s best hope, but, like Hamilton, he was wary of too much reliance on the notion of American exceptionalism.

Roosevelt, skeptical of the efficacy of international law, was convinced that the possession of adequate military and economic power was the only sure way to safeguard the national interest in an anarchic world. He believed that there was as yet “no likelihood of establishing any kind of international power...which can effectively check wrong-doing, and in these circumstances it would be both foolish and an evil thing for a great and free nation to deprive itself of the power to protect its own rights and even in exceptional cases to stand up for the rights of others.” 6 More to the point, it appears that TR believed in a revived “concert” of great powers, now including the United States and Japan, which would establish spheres of influence to preserve the international order, protect the interests of the deserving strong, and prevent second-order crises from escalating into major regional conflicts.

But Roosevelt’s willingness to engage in international power politics was not the course chosen by his great antagonist and eventual successor, Woodrow Wilson. America, Wilson believed, was the very embodiment of moral exceptionalism. Universal law—not the balance of power—was to be the guarantor of Wilsonian world order. For Wilson, the transcendent nature of America’s special mission was to serve as more than just a beacon of liberty for the rest of mankind. As Kissinger has pointed out, “as early as 1915, Wilson put forward the unprecedented doctrine that the security of America was inseparable from the security of all the rest of mankind” and that it was the job of America to make the world itself free.

Two years later, in early 1917, Wilson would declare that in the new world order he hoped would prevail after the First World War was concluded, “there must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace.” 7 To ensure such a peace, Wilson believed that all the nations of the world should unite to punish those who disturbed the peace; and that the irresistible force of public opinion would require the leaders of the world community to act against would-be aggressors. In short, power would yield to moral suasion, and recourse to the force of arms to the dictates of enlightened public opinion.


Danger of Perfectionism

The failures of international law enforcement and of the League of Nations, and the vagaries of American public opinion when it came to issues of collective security, became tragically evident in the interwar period. It was not until the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the country finally found a president who combined the idealistic aspirations of the Founding Fathers—to create a republic of virtue—with their realistic appraisal of the need, occasionally, to seek refuge in temporary alliances so as to ensure America’s long-term security. Like Hamilton, FDR counseled against the dangers of exceptionalism: “Perfectionism, no less than isolationism or imperialism or power politics, may obstruct the paths to international peace.” 8

Partly in reaction to the quixotic tenets of Wilsonianism while also sympathetic to FDR’s efforts to synthesize the dual American traditions of idealism and realism, the prescriptions of George F. Kennan and Hans Morgenthau (as well as those of Reinhold Niebuhr) subsequently set the dominant tone for a “neo-realist” approach to international relations during the second half of the twentieth century. According to Morgenthau, “the main signpost that helps political realism to find its way through the landscape of international politics is the concept of national interest defined in terms of power.” At the same time, Morgenthau acknowledged that “political realism is aware of the moral significance of political action.” What Morgenthau meant by “moral significance” was prudence as the watchword of realism.

Moreover, in an evident criticism of Wilsonian meliorism, Morgenthau proclaimed that “political realism refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe.” As the political scientist Joel Rosenthal has more recently pointed out, Morgenthau’s principles provided “an apt illustration of Reinhold Niebuhr’s assertion that the realist lives primarily in the `twilight zone’ where ethics and politics meet.” 9

The need to reconcile “selfish” interests and “ethical” concerns was acknowledged by various American commentators throughout the years of the Cold War. But that twilight struggle did not play itself out in the context of the balance of power. It was a bipolar world that had emerged from the ruins of the Second World War, one dominated by the threat of universal destruction made possible by the existence of nuclear weapons. There was a global balance of sorts, but it was, in Winston Churchill’s words, a balance of terror. The classical definition of the balance of power, which entails a number of players being either in equilibrium or in constantly shifting coalitions meant to contain the ambitions of one especially aggressive power, was absent.

In the post–Cold War world, however, a realist approach to international relations may well find its best expression once again in the rediscovery of the virtues of a balance of power system. Richard Nixon, for one, early on saw a pattern of relationships that would eventually emerge, involving five major power centers: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and Europe. In this pentagonal world, each power center would be constrained by the others. Nixon first alluded to this concept in the summer of 1971, when he outlined what he perceived to be the ongoing drift of the Cold War. “Twenty-five years ago,” he said, “we were number one in the world militarily, with no one who even challenged us, because we had a monopoly of atomic weapons.... Now...we see five great economic superpowers.” 10

Though it was palpably untrue that all five were “economic superpowers,” Nixon’s words revealed his belief in the emergence of a pentagonal world, one that would dominate the next stage of international power politics after the end of the Cold War. Were he to have simply accepted the older view—that the balance of power was little more than a nuclear balance of terror between the United States and the Soviet Union—Nixon’s pathbreaking rapprochement with Mao would not have been perceived by Moscow as threateningly as it surely was.

At the beginning of the 1972 electoral year, Nixon in fact articulated a concept of a new concert of great powers that, in some respects, resembled the European arrangement that had been in place during the first half of the nineteenth century. “We must remember,” Nixon said, “the only time in the history of the world that we have had any extended periods of peace is when there has been a balance of power. It is when one nation becomes infinitely more powerful in relation to its potential competitor that the danger of war arises.... I think it will be a safer world and a better world if we have a strong, healthy United States, Europe, Soviet Union, China, Japan, each balancing the other, not playing one against the other, an even balance.” 11

Nixon’s evocation of a global balance preceded the extraordinary growth and spread of the globalized economy that has been sweeping the world during the past decade. A world in which a globalized economy is the norm—undergirded by inter-national financial institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank (and in Europe by the European Monetary Union, with a European central bank)—but where world government per se is still a distant dream, in such a world the need for alternative, and more efficacious, mechanisms for political decision making (and crisis-diffusion) is palpable.


The Realist Vision

In the short (and medium) term, then, the most promising (and realistic) solution may well be a return to a traditional balance of power system under the aegis of a global concert of great powers—with regular consultations at the foreign-ministerial level, along with the flexibility to arrive collegially at important political decisions, including those with military implications, irrespective of any logjams at the U.N. Security Council level. This may smack of “elitism” or (worse yet) of great power “bullying”: perhaps so. The alternative—one only has to look at the ten-year-long Yugoslav crisis—seems far worse.

Be that as it may, the pursuit of a global balance of power through a new concert of nations that seeks cooperative norms of behavior, and, by extension, a fair degree of shared values, is very much in the American grain. This does not mean that the concert’s “charter members” would all have to share the same cultural values or to subscribe to one economic system. But there would have to be a shared view that conflict among the great powers was impermissible; that there were basic rules of conduct in trade and financial dealings that avoided beggar-thy-neighbor policies; and that a market-driven economy must be tempered by social justice.

Such a global concert (not necessarily restricted, by the way, to Nixon’s original pentagonal projection) would, one should add, not necessarily run counter to the aspirations of confirmed internationalists. But if inter-nationalism is to command wide support among peoples, it must be seen not as an alternative to nationalism but as a supplement to it. People will not switch their traditional loyalties from the nation-states with which they identify (and over whose governance they exercise some authority) to international organizations that they cannot control.

Internationalism in search of the common good can marshall respect only if it is seen as a way of achieving—or, at the very least, of not impeding—national objectives. As the writer Ronald Steel has warned us, “Internationalism should not be viewed, like charity, as a badge of good intentions. Nor is it an absolute good in itself. It is simply a method to advance the interests of people organized into national societies. Where it does this, it will be embraced. Where it does not, it, quite reasonably, will be rejected.” 12

The collapse of the Soviet empire, the end of the struggle for supremacy between Moscow and Washington, the ascendancy of China, and the increasing unification of Europe—all of these developments should encourage U.S. leaders to accept the proposition that a global balance of power is coming into being. 13 This will require the United States to abandon the search for “absolute” security and to forgo any pretense of being the only superpower. FDR’s vision of a world of nations, united “in a permanent system of general security” and in a freely trading international economy, is surely a realistic aspiration for the twenty-first century.



Note 1: Henry A. Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 1994), p. 21.  Back.

Note 2: Cited in Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, 4th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), p. 183.  Back.

Note 3: See Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p. 10.  Back.

Note 4: Kissinger, Diplomacy, p. 79.  Back.

Note 5: Harold Nicolson, The Congress of Vienna: A Study in Allied Unity, 1812–1822 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946), p. 123.  Back.

Note 6: Quoted in Kissinger, Diplomacy, p. 40.  Back.

Note 7: Quoted in Kissinger, Diplomacy, pp. 47, 51.  Back.

Note 8: See James Chace, The Consequences of the Peace: The New Internationalism and American Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 175.  Back.

Note 9: For Morgenthau citations and a discussion of Morgenthau’s principles, see Joel Rosenthal, Righteous Realists: Political Realism, Responsible Power, and American Culture in the Nuclear Age (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), pp. 4–7.  Back.

Note 10: Cited in James Chace, A World Elsewhere: The New American Foreign Policy (New York: Scribner, 1973), pp. 27–28.  Back.

Note 11: Ibid.  Back.

Note 12: Ronald Steel, “After Internationalism,” World Policy Journal, vol. 12 (summer 1995), p. 51.  Back.

Note 13: Within a global framework, regional balances of power are both likely and desirable. In this respect, it is also important to accept the reality of the long-established tradition of spheres of influence (a tradition that the United States certainly insists upon in the Western Hemisphere to this day). But acknowledgment of spheres of influence and regional balances of power should not negate the search for global understandings nor the potential utility of a global concert of nations.  Back.