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The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-first Century
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The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-first Century [ハードカバー]

Charles Kupchan
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The conclusion of the Cold War is commonly presumed to mark the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism, bringing to a close the world’s last great ideological divide. Privileged by its commanding economic and military strength, the United States is destined to preside over this new century, clearing the way for a dur-able era of great-power peace and prosperity.

In a work of remarkable scope, Charles A. Kup-chan exposes the flaws in this conventional wisdom, revealing that the close of the Cold War heralded not America’s final victory but the beginning of the demise of its global dominance. He contends that the next challenge to America is fast emerging. It comes not from the Islamic world or from an ascendant China, but from an integrating Europe, whose economy already rivals America’s. As the European Union seeks influence commensurate with its economic status, it will inevitably rise as a counterweight to the United States. America and Europe are parting ways, the discord extending well beyond the realm of trade. Decades of strategic partnership are giving way to renewed geopolitical competition.

Kupchan argues that the unraveling of American primacy will be expedited by growing opposition at home to the country’s burdensome role as global guardian. Although temporarily reawakened by terrorism, America’s appetite for international engagement is on the wane; the country’s historic aversion toward foreign entanglements is making a comeback. Returning as well is America’s fondness for unilateral action, alienating the partners with whom Washington will need to work to bring together an increasingly divided world. The impact of the digital age on U.S. society also promises to have profound effects on American politics and on the scope and nature of the country’s role in global politics.

Far from watching the end of history, we will be witnesses to the end of the American era. By deftly mining the lessons of the past to cast light on our future, Kupchan explains how the United States and the rest of the world should prepare for the more unpredictable and unstable global system that awaits. Timely and compelling, this book will take its place among the most insightful works of geopolitics.


“One of the outstanding figures of the new generation of U.S. foreign policy thinkers and practitioners. His powerful and erudite book . . . sparkles with insights.” —The Washington Post Book World

“An absorbing and thought-provoking book on what Charles Kupchan considers the central challenges to future U.S. preeminence and global stability.” —Henry Kissinger

“A bold and elegant new statement about the coming breakdown of Pax Americana and a return to great-power rivalry.” —Foreign Affairs

“Indispensable reading for anyone who recognizes the importance of challenging the conventional wisdom about America’s evolving world role.” —The Dallas Morning News

“In this dazzling work, steeped in history and politics, Charles A. Kupchan maps out an original and persuasive vision of where America and the world are headed. The time to read this book is now.” —James Chace, author of Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World

“With his expansive knowledge of history, Kupchan places contemporary trends in perspective. . . . Offers revealing insights into contemporary policy matters with a spectacular eye for detail.” –The Christian Science Monitor

“Elegantly explores the benefits and dangers of U.S. primacy and the system of globalization that has come with it. His call for a rethinking of America’s role in the world could not be more timely. . . . Well worth reading.” –George Soros

“An important and provocative reassessment of American power and foreign policy.”–Lee H. Hamilton, Director, Woodrow Wilson International Center

“This original and informative work challenges our conventional wisdom and offers useful strategic guidance. Agree with it or not, Kupchan will make you think and reexamine your assumptions as you enjoy the clarity of his writing and thought.”–Anthony Lake, National Security Advisor in the first Clinton administration

“Provocatively embedding his argument in examinations of historical power shifts . . . Kupchan argues that American preeminence is dangerous to sustain, because it is in fact unsustainable.” –Booklist

“Compelling analysis, rich in the lessons of history, that will shatter the illusions of a perpetual Pax Americana. . . . As controversial as it is insightful.” –Ronald Steel, author of Walter Lippmann and the American Century

“An ambitious enterprise . . . Kupchan should be congratulated for bravely tackling broad issues in an age of specialization.”–Times Literary Supplement (UK)

From the Trade Paperback edition.


Chapter One: Grand Strategy and the Paradox of American Power

Great powers are the main actors in international life. They extend their influence well beyond their borders, seeking to craft a global environment conducive to their interests. To do so effectively, great powers need a conceptual map of the world and a grand strategy that follows from it aimed at keeping the international ends they pursue in balance with the means available to attain those ends. It is by maintaining this equilibrium between commitments and resources that they are able to protect their security while also pursuing the ambition that comes with wealth and military might.

Preponderant power alone can do a nation much more harm than good. When unchecked, primacy often invites enemies and provokes the formation of hostile, countervailing coalitions. When wielded with prudence, however, dominance handsomely rewards the nation that possesses it, securing not only its well-being, but extending through the international system a stable order crafted in its image. The Roman Empire, Pax Britannica, Pax Americana-it was not just the strength of Rome, Great Britain, and the United States that gave rise to these epochs, but also the innovative and farsighted grand strategies that each devised to manage and preserve its primacy.

A look at how Britain dealt with the rise of Germany during the early twentieth century makes amply clear how important an appropriate grand strategy is to the well-being of a great power and to the overall stability of the international system. Despite having focused for centuries on its distant imperial possessions, British elites responded with alacrity to Germany's decision in 1898 to build a major battle fleet. Sensing that growing German ambition was about to overturn the European balance of power, London recalled the Royal Navy from imperial posts and prepared the British army for continental warfare. These moves set the stage for the successful efforts of Britain, France, and Russia to block the German advance in 1914 and ultimately defeat Berlin's bid for European dominance. In short, Britain got it right. During the 1930s, Britain took the opposite course. Germany again embarked on an ambitious military buildup and made another bid for European primacy. This time, however, the British failed to prepare for war against Germany, instead choosing to appease Hitler and focus on the defense of colonial possessions. Britain, and Europe along with it, suffered grievously for letting its grand strategy go so woefully awry.

The Past

The Malta squadron, Winston Churchill insisted on June 22, 1912, "certainly will not operate in the Mediterranean till a decisive and victorious general action has been fought in the North Sea." "Then, and not till then," Churchill continued, "can it go to the Mediterranean."1 With this decision, Churchill was completing the recall of the Royal Navy from its sprawling network of overseas stations. London did cushion the impact of this momentous strategic shift by striking a deal with Paris whereby the French fleet patrolled the Mediterranean in return for the Royal Navy's protection of France's Atlantic coast. Nonetheless, the consequences of withdrawal from the Mediterranean were potentially devastating; Britain was effectively abandoning the vital link between the home islands and the eastern empire. By the summer of 1912, however, Churchill saw no choice. The unmistakable menace from a Germany that was arming and declaring its right to "a place in the sun" was denying Britain the luxury of focusing on its overseas possessions.

Churchill, who had risen to the position of first lord of the admiralty only the previous year, stated his case with such vehemence precisely because he knew he faced committed opponents. After all, by arguing that the Royal Navy should be withdrawn from its imperial outposts and concentrated in home waters, Churchill was striking at the heart of the grand strategy that had brought Britain to the pinnacle of global power. It was by developing a lucrative seaborne empire while avoiding entanglement on the European continent-a strategy affectionately dubbed "splendid isolation"-that the British had made it to the top.

By Churchill's time, Britain had established impeccable credentials as a seafaring nation. As early as 1511, Henry VIII's advisers were urging him to turn to seapower to promote England's wealth and security. "Let us in God's name leave off our attempts against the terra firma," the king's councilors recommended. "The natural situation of islands seems not to consort with conquests of that kind. England alone is a just Empire. Or, when we would enlarge ourselves, let it be that way we can, and to which it seems the eternal Providence hath destined us, which is by the sea."

Queen Elizabeth I refined this emerging naval strategy during the second half of the sixteenth century. She agreed that England's calling was at sea, but she insisted that the country also had to keep an eye on the Continent to ensure that no single power came to dominate the European landmass. A European behemoth, Elizabeth argued, would ultimately endanger England. Even as the country developed as a sea power, it therefore had to intervene on the Continent as necessary to preserve a stable balance of power on land. It was by following this simple yet elegant strategy that Great Britain found itself by the nineteenth century with complete mastery of the seas, continental neighbors that checked each other's ambitions, and unprecedented global influence.

Encouraged by the success of splendid isolation, most Britons had become ardent champions of empire and naval mastery. It is no wonder, then, that the Admiralty met staunch opposition when it began in 1904-1905 to recall the Royal Navy to home waters at the expense of fleet strength at overseas stations. The Foreign Office and the Colonial Office were particularly vehement in arguing against this redistribution. The Foreign Office complained to the Admiralty that "the navy will be unable to give the foreign policy of this country such support in the future as the Foreign Office have felt entitled to expect, and have received in the past. . . . The exigencies of British world-wide policy and interests, in the present and immediate future, are being sacrificed." India, Singapore, Australia, Egypt, and Britain's others possessions in the Middle East might end up dangerously exposed. Britain would suffer an incalculable blow to its economy and prestige should the empire be dismantled.

The Admiralty was not about to be swayed. During the first decade of the twentieth century, a quiet revolution in the European balance of power was taking place. And as Queen Elizabeth had wisely admonished, England had to watch the balance of power in Europe even as it built a great seaborne empire.

Germany, a unified country only since 1871, had embarked at the turn of the century on a naval program aimed at building a battleship fleet that would rival Britain's, giving London little choice but to accord Berlin the influence it sought. The imperious and impetuous Kaiser Wilhelm II, a self-styled naval buff and avid student of the Royal Navy, had decided that Germany should rank among the world's great powers and enjoy a political status equal to its growing economic might. The kaiser enlisted Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, renowned for his ruthless destruction of personal and professional rivals alike, to draw up the plans and convince the Reichstag to finance the fleet. By buying off the landed gentry with grain tariffs and invoking nationalist passions to disarm political opponents, the kaiser and Tirpitz readily accomplished their objectives. The First Navy Law of 1898 envisaged nineteen battleships; the Second Law of 1900 raised the fleet strength to thirty-eight.

The British did not react immediately to Germany's gambit. At the turn of the century, Britain's "official mind" was still focused on the defense of empire. The Boer War broke out in South Africa in 1899 and proved to be a much greater drain on resources than expected. And other great powers posed threats primarily to British possessions, not to the home islands. As one high-ranking official put it in 1899, "There are two Powers, and two only, of whom I am afraid, viz. the United States and Russia."

Growing American power threatened Canada and British naval supremacy in the western Atlantic. And Russia menaced India, the "jewel in the crown." A firm consensus existed within the cabinet that "the main purpose for which the army exists is not the defence of these shores but the protection of the outlying portions of the Empire, and notably India."

By 1906-1907, however, Britain's map of the world was in the midst of dramatic change. A consensus was taking shape around the proposition that the threat posed by Germany had to take top priority; other commitments could be attended to only after this primary danger had been adequately addressed. A Foreign Office memorandum by Sir Eyre Crowe helped consolidate this line of thinking. The Crowe Memorandum accepted that German intentions were still unclear but maintained that even if Germany did not embark on an aggressive path, its ascent to a position of dominance would nonetheless "constitute as formidable a menace to the rest of the world as would be presented by any deliberate conquest of a similar position by 'malice aforethought.'"

In response to the threat posed by the Germans, Britain, France, and Russia formed an informal coalition, the so-called Triple Entente. London also overturned its aversion to intervention on the Continent and began building an expeditionary force to be dispatched across the Channel to join Britain's partners in blunting a German advance. The Committee of Imperial Defence would then confirm that the main mission of the British army was in Europe, not India. And First Sea Lord Sir John Fisher began the painful proce...


Charles A. Kupchan is professor of international relations at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served on the National Security Council during the first Clinton administration. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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