stephen wertheim

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Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy


Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (2020)


Hardly any Americans imagined their nation would or should attain armed supremacy across the world — until, within eighteen months between the fall of France in 1940 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, U.S. officials and intellectuals decided that the United States should become the world's supreme power, forever responsible for underwriting law and order on a global scale.



Journal articles and Chapters


Internationalism/Isolationism: Concepts of American Global Power


in Daniel Bessner and Michael Brenes, eds., Rethinking U.S. World Power: Domestic Histories of U.S. Foreign Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2024), ch. 3  publisher version


This chapter provides a conceptual history of the emergence of the internationalism/isolationism dualism in U.S. political discourse. It asks how, why, and to what effect Americans came to speak in these loaded terms, which scholars and practitioners often employ as coherent and neutral categories. “Internationalism” emerged in the nineteenth century in close association with the peace movement. Early in World War II, however, U.S. officials and intellectuals decided that the United States should henceforth project preponderant political-military power in Europe and Asia, transcending hemispheric constraints. They cast U.S. global dominance as the fulfillment of internationalism, a term they redefined in opposition to their pejorative coinage, “isolationism.” In so doing, they made U.S. hegemony sound essential rather than antithetical to international peace and cooperation: the only hope of taming power politics, if that were even possible, was now to master it.


Instrumental Internationalism: The American Origins of the United Nations, 1940-3


Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 55, No. 2 (April 2019): 265-283   publisher version


Why did the United States want to create the United Nations Organization, or any international political organization with universal membership? This question has received superficial historiographical attention, despite ample scrutiny of the conferences that directly established the UN in 1944 and 1945. The answer lies earlier in the war, from 1940 to 1942, when, under the pressure of fast-moving events, American officials and intellectuals decided their country must not only enter the war but also lead the world long afterwards. International political organization gained popularity – first among unofficial postwar planners in 1941 and then among State Department planners in 1942 – because it appeared to be an indispensable tool for implementing postwar US world leadership, for projecting and in no way constraining American power. US officials believed the new organization would legitimate world leadership in the eyes of the American public by symbolizing the culmination of prior internationalist efforts to end power politics, even as they based the design of the UN on a thoroughgoing critique of the League, precisely for assuming that power politics could be transcended.


The Birth of Global Knowledge: Intellectual Networks in the World Crisis, 1919-1939


International Politics, Vol. 55, No. 6 (November 2018): 727-733 (with Ludovic Tournès and Inderjeet Parmar)   publisher version


full special issue


From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, the interwar world emerges as the birthplace of familiar forms of global knowledge. This special issue examines the production of global knowledge in the 1920s and 30s. It explores how think tanks and similar organizations generated and still generate knowledge of the world and by so doing helped and help constitute what is now called global governance.


Reading the International Mind: International Public Opinion in Early Twentieth Century Anglo-American Thought


in Nicolas Guilhot and Daniel Bessner, eds., The Decisionist Imagination: Sovereignty, Social Science, and Democracy in the 20th Century (Berghahn, 2019), ch. 1  publisher version


“Public opinion” today evokes the momentary preferences of individuals aggregated together, as expressed in scientific opinion polls. Such polls, however, came into being only in the latter half of the 1930s and became widely used outside the United States after World War II. Until then, internationalists possessed no reliable method for quantifying momentary mass preferences within their own nations, let alone across nations. And they knew it. When they invoked international public opinion — staking the peace of the world on it in 1919 — what did they mean and what were they doing?


The League of Nations: A Retreat from International Law?


Journal of Global History, Vol. 7, No. 2 (July 2012): 210-232   publisher version


During the First World War, civil society groups across the North Atlantic put forward an array of plans for recasting international society. The most prominent ones sought to build on the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907 by developing international legal codes and, in a drastic innovation, obligating and militarily enforcing the judicial settlement of disputes. Their ideal was a world governed by law, which they opposed to politics. This idea was championed by the largest groups in the United States and France in favor of international organizations, and they had likeminded counterparts in Britain. The Anglo-American architects of the League of Nations, however, defined their vision against legalism. Their declaratory design sought to ensure that artificial machinery never stifled the growth of common consciousness. Paradoxically, the bold new experiment in international organization was forged from an anti-formalistic ethos – one that slowed the momentum of international law and portended the rise of global governance.


The League That Wasn’t: American Designs for a Legalist-Sanctionist League of Nations and the Intellectual Origins of International Organization, 1914-1920


Diplomatic History, Vol. 35, No. 5 (November 2011): 797-836   publisher version


Awarded the Fishel-Calhoun Prize by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era




Two rival conceptions for international organization circulated in America during World War I. The first and initially more popular was a “legalist-sanctionist” league, intended to develop international legal code and obligate and enforce judicial settlement of disputes. The second was the League of Nations that came into being. This article traces the intellectual development and political reception of the former from 1914 to 1920. Theodore Roosevelt, Elihu Root, and William H. Taft were its most important architects and advocates. Like President Woodrow Wilson, they aimed to create an international polity without supranational authority. Unlike Wilson, they insisted on the codification of law and the necessity of physical sanction: the league had to enforce its word or not speak at all. Wilson fatally rejected legalist-sanctionist ideas. Holding a thoroughgoing organicist understanding of political evolution, he and the League’s British progenitors preferred international organization to center on a parliament of politicians divining the popular will and anticipating future needs, not a court of judges interpreting formal codes of law. A flexible model of organization carried over to the United Nations, the alternative forgotten by a world leader that now found it natural to subordinate law to politics.


A Solution from Hell: The United States and the Rise of Humanitarian Interventionism, 1991-2003


Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 12, No. 3-4 (September-December 2010): 149-172   publisher version




This article traces the rise of humanitarian interventionist ideas in the U.S. from 1991 to 2003. Until 1997, humanitarian intervention was a relatively limited affair, conceived ad hoc more than systematically, prioritized below multilateralism, aiming to relieve suffering without transforming foreign polities. For this reason, U.S. leaders and citizens scarcely contemplated armed intervention in the Rwandan genocide of 1994: the “duty to stop genocide” was a norm still under development. It flourished only in the late 1990s, when humanitarian interventionism, like neoconservatism, became popular in the US establishment and enthusiastic in urging military invasion to remake societies. Now inaction in Rwanda looked outrageous. Stopping the genocide seemed, in retrospect, easily achieved by 5,000 troops, a projection that ignored serious obstacles. On the whole, humanitarian interventionists tended to understate difficulties of halting ethnic conflict, ignore challenges of postconflict reconstruction, discount constraints imposed by public opinion, and override multilateral procedures. These assumptions primed politicians and the public to regard the Iraq war of 2003 as virtuous at best and unworthy of strenuous dissent at worst. The normative commitment to stop mass killing outstripped U.S. or international capabilities — a formula for dashed hopes and dangerous deployments that lives on in the “responsibility to protect.”


The Wilsonian Chimera: Why Debating Wilson’s Vision Hasn’t Saved American Foreign Relations


presented in “World of Power/World of Law,” Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, April 15-16, 2010; published with conference proceedings in White House Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4 (2011): 343-359


Scholars of Wilsonianism emphasize Wilson’s determination either to spread liberal democracy abroad or to support international law and organization. On both counts, however, Wilson’s principles and actions betrayed deep ambiguities. Mixing Burkean organicism with a loosely neo-Hegelian teleology, Wilsonianism was a capacious set of ideas that, on principle, could and did cut either way on whether to implant democracy by force of arms. This gave Wilson a particular conception of liberal democracy, one that challenges Wilson’s reputation as a champion of the rule of “global public opinion.” Wilson did not mean “public opinion” literally. Statesmen in the League were supposed to divine the latent general will of international society through introspection, not to obey momentary mass preferences. Nor was Wilson the wholehearted advocate of binding international institutions that he might seem. His teleological vision allowed him to skate over the tensions between unilateralism and multilateralism, national interests and common concerns. Rather than decisively prioritize one value over the other, Wilson assumed there was no need, for national and common interests would draw ever nearer. Moreover, Wilson in 1919 rejected popular proposals to strengthen the League’s commitments to international law and collective security. He did so to preserve the League as a flexible and thus formally weak organization that would constantly remold itself around an organically growing world spirit. In sum, Wilsonianism is unintelligible except by understanding the categories Wilson employed himself. His assumptions are so unlike those currently popular in international-relations discourse that it is difficult to apply Wilsonianism to present dilemmas.


Reluctant Liberator: Theodore Roosevelt’s Philosophy of Self-Government and Preparation for Philippine Independence


Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 3 (September 2009): 494-518   publisher version


Theodore Roosevelt is well known as an imperialist. The common understanding is both too weak and too strong. Too weak, because Roosevelt idealized an imperialism that could last forever in civilizing savages. Too strong, because Roosevelt prepared the American-occupied Philippines for independence within a generation. This article analyzes Roosevelt's philosophy of self-government and reinterprets his Philippines policy in light of the philosophy. Roosevelt emerges as a reluctant anti-imperialist — an imperialist by desire but an anti-imperialist in governance. His imperialist ambitions were thwarted by America's ideals of self-government and its democratic political system, channeled through the powers of Congress and the process of regular elections. At a crest of imperial opportunity, America eschewed empire. Imperial occupation remained a great aberration in American foreign relations.


The Unchosen War of Choice: George W. Bush’s Decision for War in Iraq


Tempus, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter 2006): 43-70


Bush never chose, in a meaningful sense, to invade Iraq. He chose to brand Iraq ringleader of an “axis of evil,” to seek weapons inspections backed by the threat of force, and to deploy hundreds of thousands of troops to the region. The administration did debate these steps one by one, but it does not appear that Bush ever prefaced those steps, nor followed them, with substantial debate on whether and not merely how to go to war. Quickly, and almost certainly by January 2003, when Bush approved invasion, war in Iraq became a fait accompli; the decision was over before it was seriously made. Bush had asked neither Powell, Rumsfeld, nor Cheney for an overall recommendation on whether to go to war, perhaps because there never seemed an appropriate time to do so. In the absence of a clear decision — made early, with the benefit of foresight, and considering all the factors involved in going to war — the administration’s failures of coalition building and postwar occupation planning become intelligible.





To the Grand Area and Beyond: The Sudden Transformation of the United States’ Strategic Space


“Mapping China’s Strategic Space,” National Bureau of Asian Research, August 23, 2023


The very people who made U.S. ambitions global had long planned to do nothing of the sort until unanticipated events shocked them into changing their minds.


Trump Against Exceptionalism: The Sources of Trumpian Conduct


in Diane Labrosse, Frank Gavin, Joshua Rovner, and Robert L. Jervis, eds., Chaos in the Liberal Order: The Trump Presidency and International Politics in the Twenty-First Century (Columbia University Press, 2018), ch. 9  publisher version


Trump’s America enters the international arena to square off against comparable competitors, each equally capable of becoming great. What will become of American foreign policy when greatness, no longer bestowed, must be seized?


Donald Trump Versus American Exceptionalism: Toward the Sources of Trumpian Conduct


H-Diplo and The International Security Studies Forum, Policy Series: America and the World – 2017 and Beyond (February 1, 2017)   publisher version


Observers are not wrong to detect in Trump a profound break from the precepts of U.S. foreign relations, a difference in worldview that transcends individual policies. In the one area in which Trump possesses an ample record — that of public discourse — the President has already discarded America’s traditional identity in the world: Donald Trump does not speak the language of American exceptionalism.


On Moralism and Rwanda: A Reply to Linda Melvern


Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 13 No. 1-2 (March-June 2011): 159-163   publisher version


The important questions in politics are of probability, not possibility. What would the plausible and probable consequences of a particular intervention have been? What would have had to differ in order for successful intervention to result? Only an anti-political ethical framework — a kind of crude deontology — could find overriding significance in the mere possibility that lives could have been saved.




9D9;mso-themecolor:background1;mso-themeshade:217'>Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 13 No. 1-2 (March-June 2011): 159-163   publisher version


The important questions in politics are of probability, not possibility. What would the plausible and probable consequences of a particular intervention have been? What would have had to differ in order for successful intervention to result? Only an anti-political ethical framework — a kind of crude deontology — could find overriding significance in the mere possibility that lives could have been saved.