Commentary Type

American Exceptionalism: Time for New Thinking on Economics and Security

Prepared remarks for the Alastair Buchan Memorial Lecture delivered at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, London


It is a pleasure and a privilege to be with you this evening to deliver the Alastair Buchan Memorial Lecture.

The International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) played an indispensable role, led by Alastair Buchan and the incomparable Sir Michael Howard, in transforming defense studies from technical military concepts to political and security strategy. John Chipman has skillfully and ably applied that design to a different age.

So there is no better forum to broaden the strategic view further: Tonight, I will seek to connect economics and security. In doing so, I will draw on an earlier American foreign policy tradition to offer a revision to the standard post-World War II history. The connection between economics and security is usually assumed, not analyzed. After examining the origins of America’s foreign economic and security policy, I will describe three phases of the post-World War II international economy and a new, fourth phase, which is just taking shape. I will suggest that the earlier experience—rather than being retired as antiquated— points toward economic fundamentals that are essential to future security in this new era. We need to look “Back to the Future.”

Let me start with an anecdote that helped crystalize my thinking.

Earlier this year, Bob Carr, Australia’s Foreign Minister and long-time friend of the United States, visited Washington. Carr stated his main message with Aussie clarity: “The United States,” said Carr, “is one budget deal away from restoring its global preeminence.” He also added a caution: “There are powers in the Asia-Pacific that are whispering that this time the United States will not get its act together, so others had best attend to them.”

Bob Carr is the founder of the Chester A. Arthur society—named after America’s not-sorenowned 21st president—a proud assembly of Australians who appreciate obscure US political history and humor. So Carr would probably not be surprised to learn that his warning echoes words drafted by Alexander Hamilton for President George Washington’s farewell address: The new nation, Hamilton urged, must “cherish credit as a means of strength and security.”

These ideas from the Anglo-Saxon periphery should find resonance in this country [the United Kingdom]. Because Britain took care with budgets and credit, this “nation of shopkeepers” was able to rise to what this week might be termed “Olympian feats.” The most exciting chapters on the Napoleonic Wars map Bonaparte’s bold campaigns—or the Royal Navy’s counterstrikes— but the key to Britain’s victory in the early 19th century is found in the dry accounts about Pitt the Younger’s budgets. By restoring Britain’s credit, Pitt enabled his country to fight a long war without choking its economy. Britain even could finance its coalition partners, again and again, until Napoleon succumbed.

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