Perils of American Power


THE political situation and problem of America in world affairs can be put in one sentence: America is at once the most powerful and politically the most ignorant of modern nations. Both our strength and our ignorance are due to the same set of fortuitous circumstances. Our political power rests upon our wealth. Neither military prowess nor political skill was needed to gain our present position among the nations. We are living in an economic age, and our position in the modern world is secured by the billion or more dollars which we export every year. Our position is analogous to that of the village banker who holds a mortgage on every second farm in the county. The kind of skill which is responsible for the building of our national fortune is naturally of a different order than that which the exigencies of the world political situation require. Both our wealth and our political ignorance derive from the fact that we are a nation of business men and engineers.

We had a virgin continent, rich in every natural resource, to exploit, and we came into its full possession at the precise moment when railroads and telegraphs made it possible to manipulate so vast a continental empire from one political centre. Our economic life could therefore develop without the hindrance of the irrelevant customs barriers which have retarded the economic development of Europe. But these advantages alone would not explain our economic preëminence. We gave ourselves to business efficiency and technological achievement with greater abandon than any other people. There are Europeans and Asiatics who suggest that we have gained the wrhole world because we lost our souls. While there is an alloy of envy in the wisdom of this judgment, it is a fact that modern technology is the real creator of modern wealth and that we perfected industrial technique with more loving devotion than any other people.

Perhaps this was due to the fact, as Spengler suggests, that culture and civilization are incompatible with each other, and that the vast immigrant hordes who came to our shores dissipated their cultural inheritances to such a degree that they could give themselves to the extensive tasks of civilization with complete and fervent devotion. It may be that the modern Russians will become our chief competitors for the same reason; for there a nation has sloughed off the Greek and the European cultural forms which were never really indigenous to it, and the result is the same complete obsession with the engineering task which has characterized our life since the Civil War. The Russians, incidentally, show signs of the same political ineptness and parochialism in manipulating their budding power which we reveal in our developed strength.


Our business men and engineers suffer from the same kind of exaggerated self-esteem that characterizes any class or group which has come into sudden and obvious success. The successful man always assumes that success in his field gives him a warrant to speak with an air of omniscience on every human and social problem. Mr. Henry Ford is a shining example of this tendency. The automobile industry which has given him his eminence is, incidentally, the most perfect example of the social and political ignorance of the engineering mind. Nowhere is technological efficiency more highly developed and nowhere does power express itself with more ruthless disregard of the human factor than in this industry. The ordinary human rights, which the workers of Europe won after decades of travail and which are now generally conceded by the whole of European society, are still disregarded in this industry by engineers who live under the illusion that their efficiency has created some kind of magic solution for the perennial problem of the protection of the weak against the exactions of the strong.

The peculiar weakness of business men and engineers is that they tend to disregard the human factor. Engineers are under no necessity to consider it and business men have an ideal of business efficiency which reduces it to a minimum. To deal with a matter in a ‘businesslike’ fashion means precisely to eliminate the variable factors which the human situation always creates and to settle the question upon the basis of a general rule. Thus, for instance, Americans have prided themselves upon the businesslike settlement of the reparations problem in the Dawes and the Young plans. Their supposition was that a politics-ridden Europe was unable to find a solution for this vexing problem until unbiased American business men essayed the task. The real fact was that the Dawes and the Young plans merely hid a political reality behind a façade of business technique. The regularization of payments and the elaborate banking technique for the transfer of funds which these plans created did not change the political fact that one nation was being asked to enslave itself to the Western world for several generations, and that the only justification for this enslavement was a dogma which emerged out of the hysteria of the World War.

Meanwhile it was the obsession of Americans with business codes which prevented a real solution of the reparations problem. We insisted that debts must be paid. We even went so far as to suggest that our real interest in demanding payment of the Interallied debts was to prevent European nations from falling into slovenly business habits. We insisted that, as a matter of business, reparations and Interallied debts had nothing to do with each other, and refused to concede that as a matter of politics they were very closely related to each other. Our pat little dogma collapsed when Germany stood on the brink of disaster and it became apparent that nothing but American initiative would save her. Even now it is a question whether our belated action was not too late and whether our subsequent policies will be sufficiently generous in their divergence from previous political attitudes to give Germany the opportunity of staying within the Western community of nations rather than falling, in despair, into the arms of Russia. In this whole matter more courageous political leadership might have been of service to us and to the world, but the real difficulty lay not with our leaders but with the rank and file of American citizens, who insisted on a simple formula for a complex situation.

Our American tariff policy is another vivid illustration of the political ineptness of the business mind. As long as we had enough wealth to finance our customers, while we insisted that they buy more from us than we were willing to buy from them, our tariff policy was measurably successful. But we did not take all the factors into consideration, particularly the psychological ones. The animus which our unmutual conduct has aroused all over the world is becoming an increasing handicap to the American exporter. There is furthermore a limit to the buying capacity of indebted nations. It may be a counsel of perfection to ask a nation to keep its privileges within bounds commensurate with those of other nations, so that excessive privileges may not destroy the spirit of brotherhood in the international community; but it is no more than an ordinary counsel of prudence to suggest that in an interrelated world a nation cannot be permanently prosperous by impoverishing the world about it. Here is a case where poor politics turns out to be also bad economics.

Yet the American business community has been so intent on higher and higher tariffs that the Democratic Party found it necessary in its last campaign solemnly to disavow its previous low-tariff policy in the hope of winning the favor of the business world. Thus we had the spectacle of a nation united on a policy which had been previously a bone of political contention, at the very moment when the world situation was less favorable to such a policy than at any time in our history. The height of our political imbecility was reached when we promised the farmer, who suffers from inability to export his surplus products, to save him by a tariff policy which would make foreign nations even less capable and less inclined to buy those products. Perhaps there was more political mendacity than imbecility in such a promise. But the fact that a portion of a population which benefits from high tariffs can persuade another part of the nation to accept such a policy against its own interests is further proof of the political ignorance of our people.


It would not be just to attribute our political ineptness solely to the peculiar limitations of the business mind. It is partly due to the suddenness with which we emerged on the world political scene. Our tremendous foreign investments have been accumulated within the short period of a decade and a half. While we were powerful before the World War, we have been thrown into international politics only since then; and we are bound to betray a novice’s lack of skill in this new niveau. Furthermore, our continent is vast, and it is quite possible to live at its centre without having any clear impression of our relations with the rest of the world. There is not, as in England, a metropolitan press available for the majority of our citizens; and the local press prints practically no foreign news.

Moreover, our type of empire develops without impressing its realities upon those who are ultimately responsible for its policies. It is an economic empire, and its power spreads without the panoply which usually accompanies the display of power. A citizen of Britain is thus much more conscious of the realities of his semi-political and semi-economic empire than are Americans of the facts in our economic relations to dependent and semi-dependent peoples. The legates of our empire are not admirals or proconsuls, but bankers. They avail themselves of military power whenever it is found necessary or expedient, but, except in South and Central America, the occasions have been infrequent. The obvious and immediate facts have not changed for an average American since America emerged from infancy to world dominion in the community of nations. The average citizen has a vague sense of pride in identity with a nation which seems to play so large a part in world affairs. But his knowledge of the method of its power and its effect upon other peoples is rudimentary. Yet his is the vote which holds politicians in awe and prevents them from initiating policies demanded by every consideration of international common sense. Thus the phenomenal power of the American empire is scarcely under conscious control.

It is the illusion of strong men and nations that power is the basis of security. There is some justification for the illusion, for, in so far as human society is governed by physical force, obvious strength, whether it be military or economic, may be counted upon not only to defeat the actual foe, but to reduce the potential foe to the impotence of fear. The strongest bully in a gang is rarely challenged to prove his prowess, and a nation which possesses obvious economic or military advantages may indulge in idiosyncrasies and commit errors which would prove fatal to less favored nations. With less power the traditional American attitude toward Latin America would be inconceivable. Except for our power, we should not have been tempted to take it, nor should we have been suffered to continue in it.

But the security which rests upon power is convincing only when history is judged decade by decade. If the longer view is taken, it may readily be seen that history, like nature, harbors a spirit of ironic justice which knows how to ‘put down the mighty from their seats, and exalt them of low degree.’ Power is dangerous both to those who wield it and to those who are affected by it. It gives those who wield it a false sense of security which absolves them of the necessity of thinking carefully upon the issues involved in their action. ‘ Power tends to corrupt,’ Lord Acton observed, ‘and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men even when they exercise influence and not authority.’

If Lord Acton’s judgment seems too severe when applied to individuals, particularly to those who exercise influence rather than authority, it is not very wide of the mark when applied to nations. There are few men and fewer nations who will act with circumspection or discretion if no one is powerful enough to hold them responsible for their actions. The irresponsibility which power creates corrupts judgment and accentuates the natural tendency toward selfish conduct. Meanwhile the special privileges which the powerful always claim for themselves excite the envy, as their power prompts the fear, of those who deal with them. When envy and fear are compounded they produce hatred. If this hatred in the hearts of the weak is frustrated for a time by their impotence, it usually unites them into a confederacy of power in the end. The Russian aristocracy could offer some interesting testimony upon this point.

The difference between an inept and an astute privileged group or nation is that the former tries to save itself by increasing its power, while the latter usually yields a portion of its privileges in time to avoid disaster. The most outstanding examples of the latter type are the British aristocracy within the British nation and the British nation within the British empire. Both the class within the nation and the nation within the empire have developed a political astuteness which has bordered at times upon moral insight (though pure moral insight is unknown in the life of economic groups and nations) and which has made possible the evolution of a democracy within the nation and a commonwealth within the empire.


Just how perilous American power may become both to ourselves and to others is not yet fully apparent. Dean Donham of Harvard has recently pointed out that we might have it within our power to destroy both Germany and England as business rivals only to find ourselves impoverished in the end by our economic victory. In the case of Germany, it is quite obvious that before she would be reduced to complete impotence she would save herself by joining forces with the growing power of Russia. In the case of Russia, we have not even had the astuteness of following a consistent Machiavellian policy. A part of our business community is helping Russia to prepare herself for the gigantic struggle of the future, while the other part of the community practises chicanery and indulges the prejudices which will ensure an anti-American bias in Russia when her power is full blown.

In extenuation of our attitudes it must be admitted that we are only slightly more inept than many of the other nations. The fact is that our whole situation is merely highly typical of the whole state of Western civilization, where there are not enough social imagination and intelligence to manage the vast economic intricacies which modern civilization has created. Our political ignorance might not be noticeable at all in comparison with other nations but for the fact that we wield power so much greater than theirs. France, which is probably our severest critic in Europe to-day, exhibits a case of the pot calling the kettle black. France, like ourselves, sacrifices benefits which might accrue for centuries for advantages which count only by decades. The French situation offers an interesting refutation of our thesis that political ineptness has its roots in the limitations of the business mind; for the shortsighted French policies are due to the parochial limitations of the French peasant, still dominant in French political life.

In fairness to America it must be said that the average citizen does not entertain with particular sympathy the counsel that we must meet the growing envy, fear, and hatred of the world with increased military power. While we have constantly increased our military and naval expenditures, the average American is not particularly anxious to defy the world or to impress it with military power. We did want a navy as big as any other; but for the average citizen this was desired as a symbol rather than as a tool of our world dominion. The size of our navy has the same significance for us as a palatial residence has for the successful business man. It is especially important if the success has been recent and there is still some question whether it is generally appreciated and acknowledged. Naturally there are those among us who have more sinister motives for enlarging our military and naval establishment. But the majority of our people have a sentimental devotion to the peace ideal. They do not concern themselves with military ambitions, if for no other reason because they do not understand what animosities the thrust of American power is creating in the world.

Should they become aware of the real perils of our power, they might conceivably be converted to the military ideal. That would be our real undoing. It is dangerous enough to wield as much power as we have with no higher degree of political intelligence. But if we do not support our economic power by extraordinary military force, the exigencies of international life will gradually dissipate our political ignorance and give us experience. We shall learn to live in a world community and make those adjustments to the desires and needs of others which are prompted by both prudence and conscience. We shall learn how to gauge the effect of our actions and the reactions to our attitudes in the life of other nations, and shall know how to set limits to our will to power in the interest of comity in the community of nations. But the more our economic power is supported by military strength, the more shall we be inclined to solve our problems by intransigence and defiance of world opinion, and the more shall we multiply animosities against us in the world community.


Our economic power is dangerous enough in itself, not only to others, but to us. But as long as a soldier does not stand behind the banker, the banker’s imperium need not be too oppressive upon dependent peoples. They can always resist his exactions and force him to yield political reservations on his business codes. Under such circumstances he will not force his ministrations upon those who do not desire them, and his power will seem less vexatious to all who deal with him. Of course any powerful man finds it difficult to tolerate defiance of his power; and all his instincts prompt him to add power to power until defiance becomes impossible. It is this same inclination in national life which we must learn to resist if we would reduce the peril of American power to a minimum.

We cannot very well destroy the economic power of America. We would not destroy the unity of our continent, and we will not change the habits and inclinations which have contributed to our prosperity. Our security therefore lies in reducing our power to a minimum, which means that we must prevent the wedding of economic and military power. This is a difficult but not impossible achievement. When it is remembered that the advantages of empire accrue to a very limited portion of a national population, it is apparent that our real salvation lies in setting that portion of the population which does not benefit from empire against the extension of its power. Everywhere in Europe the parties which represent labor have a tendency to restrict military expenditures and to insist on mutual understanding in international relations. In America there is, unhappily, no labor movement which has the intelligence to check the imperial ambitions that develop inevitably in every strong nation.

There is perhaps no greater necessity in American political life, from the standpoint of both our foreign and our domestic problems, than the development of an intelligent labor movement. It is the historic mission of labor movements in our civilization to be especially critical of national pretensions and imperial ambitions. The middle classes either profit too much or suffer too little from the limitations of contemporary civilization to achieve that attitude of critical detachment which the whole of civilization needs and which is particularly helpful as an antidote to the pride of nations. Perhaps the political ignorance of our workingmen and the lack of any independent political thought in the main body of the American labor movement are more responsible for the lack of inner checks upon American power than the political ineptness of our commercial and agrarian classes. Their ignorance may be no greater than that of other classes, but it is particularly regrettable in the light of their historic mission.

All modern nations, and particularly the most powerful ones, are in desperate need of a loyalty which is not too unqualified, of a patriotic devotion which preserves a critical attitude

toward national pretensions and ambitions. Without this element of criticism in the life of the nation, the national pride of the man in the street is compounded with the ulterior purposes of privileged groups which gain special advantages from their nation’s dominance in world affairs, and the resultant mixture is a national will to power which imperils the peace of the international community and destroys the security of the willful nation by the very actions which are meant to guarantee it.