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US Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy: The Evolution of an Incidental Superpower

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US Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy: The Evolution of an Incidental Superpower by Derek S. Reveron, Nikolas K. Gvosdev, and Mackubin Thomas Owens. Georgetown University Press, 2015, 262 pp.

With US Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy, the authors synthesize concepts from two related academic fields—national security and strategic studies—with a bit of international relations thrown in for good measure. This book is not a historical review of US policy and strategy; rather, history informs how the United States assumed primacy among nations in the twentieth century and the ways by which foreign policy and national defense contributed to the rise of the “incidental superpower.”

The authors are current or former professors of national security affairs at the US Naval War College. All three have extensive academic experience with several published books in the national security and strategy fields. By merging their expertise, they have exploited a unique niche, combining foreign policy considerations with defense strategy. Despite having multiple authors, the book is not merely a compilation of their respective writings on related subjects but rather a well-integrated and superbly researched study.

The structure of the book illuminates a dialectical discussion on the United States as superpower and the conditions that led to this status. The introduction and first chapter summarize the main points of the book, providing an overview and explanation for the rise of American power. Subsequent chapters are analytical essays, highlighting US defense organization, civil-military relations, foreign policy, warfare and peace, and the peculiarities of defense financing. The final chapter concludes and projects US foreign policy and defense strategy into the future. The authors took great pains to integrate related ideas so previously introduced material is referenced in subsequent chapters. It is well written, concise, and lacks obfuscating jargon. A minor distraction is with the order of chapter 3, “The American Way of Civil-Military Relations.” Structurally, the outline of the book has civil-military relations following the discussion about the US defense organization, which seems to suggest a cause-and-effect relationship—that civil-military relations is a result of how the United States organized for defense. Rather, the nature of US civil-military relations, rooted in the constitutional order that sets relations between the military and political branches, precedes any understanding about the organizational structure that follows from this precept.

The crux of their thesis is that the United States’ rise to power was not accidental but incidental. Despite a previous history of relative isolation from the affairs and conflicts of powers outside the western hemisphere, the perceived challenges of the post–World War II security environment created conditions for US political leadership to acquiesce and assume the mantle of an “incidental” superpower.

The historical focus for the book is primarily from World War II to the present, which necessarily constrains analysis to ideas and events over approximately a 70-year period. Where necessary, additional historical context buttresses their arguments, but overall, this is a study of US foreign policy and resulting defense strategy as a result of a postwar environment characterized by ideological struggles and wars of liberation.

Despite a progressive vision for international harmony through the League of Nations championed by Woodrow Wilson following World War I, the United States returned to its previous pattern of demobilization and withdrawal from entangling alliances outside of the western hemisphere. Referencing political scientist Bear F. Braumoeller, the authors argue this pattern was not a result of nationalistic isolationism but of a fight between political factions, those advocating using US military power to advance international ideals or those who wanted greater autonomy to advance primarily American interests. Nonetheless, America post–World War I saw a return to previous patterns of using nonmilitary instruments of power in the pursuit of US interests.

Preferring to impose harsh measures on Germany, triumphant British and French leaders unwittingly set conditions for a second world war, leading to the eventual rise of American global leadership. As “the last nation standing,” the United States held almost half the share of global GDP at the end of the war. Reluctantly, political leaders realized that there was no return to the previous status quo ante. Thus, the organization for defense, the creation of international security and financial structures, the expeditionary nature of US military power, tensions with civil-military relationships, the ways by which the machinery of war is financed, and preferences for converting foes to friends reflects a uniquely American approach to foreign policy and defense that was incidental to any preferred strategy.

One of the key challenges for books of this type is determining not only what to include, but also limiting discussion to information of direct relevance to the main points of the book without stripping the coherence of the overall narrative. For the most part, the book succeeds in this endeavor with the exception of chapter 5, “The American Way of War.” Summarizing the multifarious theories of the American way of warfare would be difficult for a book-length treatment, but to do so in only 25 pages meant that only a gloss was provided on the many variables of a complex subject.

The strength of the arguments presented in the book will not fade with time but will continue to be a scholarly source for understanding how the United States historically managed the challenges of being a superpower without necessarily having a deliberate strategy for securing long-term benefits. It is only in retrospect that we can see the efficacy of any so-called grand strategy. The authors present a convincing account of the United States’ rise to dominance as a result of environmental pressures and internal adaptations that facilitated its superpower status. I highly recommend this book, not only for instructors and students of foreign policy and strategic studies but also for any reader interested in how the United States became an “incidental” superpower.

LTC Kurt P. VanderSteen, USA, Retired

US Army Command and General Staff College

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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