The Lippmann Gap

Right now I’m writing an article on American strategic thinking during World War Two. It looks particularly at Walter Lippmann, American journalist and intellectual. What’s interesting about Lippmann is his concept of American vulnerability.

There are several American traditions when it comes to defining national security and threats. Some are geopolitical (eg. preventing an imbalance of power in major regions like Europe, or promoting an Open Door of markets and cooperative states), some are purely continental (protect the homeland’s territorial integrity). And some of them are more intricate, about the symbiosis between external power politics and the internal politics and cohesion of the republic.

In this tradition, many folk have worried that a hostile world of power imbalances would threaten the liberty of America, by forcing it to become a hyper-militarised garrison state. Indeed, some argue that a republic cannot be an empire for this reason, without losing its republican soul.

Walter Lippmann’s outlook is also about the exterior/interior relationship, but is different again. He wasn’t primarily worried about a world that would be unsafe for democracy by making America authoritarian. Quite the contrary.

He feared anarchy  more than he feared dictatorship. This could come about through unwise foreign policy. If America failed to balance and align its power and commitments, this would result in insolvency, and it would lead to rancor, division and conflict at home. In turn, this would make it harder to have a coherent foreign policy and determine what America’s true interests are, and how to pursue them within its means. Surrendering control over its destiny, the country would be buffeted by the world around it, at the mercy of events and reacting without the guiding compass of strategy. These would be the bitter wages of a ‘Lippmann Gap’, as it came to be known.

So what was the goal of American strategy? In essence, to protect foreign policy and public opinion from one another.

America for quite a while has had two relatively unthreatening neighbours, and has been flanked by oceans. But Lippmann believed that these were not the true shields, because the ocean could be a highway as well as a moat, especially in a time where technology gave states ever greater military range. And geopolitical fortune could not protect America from error, such as the pursuit of far-flung interests (like the Philippines) without properly securing them.

The true shield of the republic was coherent foreign policy, and the need to prevent the people from dividing too much over it. Lippmann feared political liberty was not only the thing to defend, but could become the threat itself. A people unguided by enlightened statesmen could leave the state vulnerable. Thucydides would be proud.

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