The era of the long defeat in Vietnam produced a great age of American writing on the nature and sources of us foreign policy. Today, the impasses of the Bush Administration’s drive into the Islamic world are stimulating a second phase of scholarship on these same questions. Christopher Layne’s new book, The Peace of Illusions, is a notable symptom of this renewed intellectual quest into the roots of America’s ‘grand strategy’.

At first sight, the 1960s and 70s ferment and the current revival could scarcely be more different. The most trenchant analyses of the Vietnam era were from the left, and often from the Marxist tradition: works such as William Appleman Williams’s Tragedy of American Diplomacy and Gabriel Kolko’s Politics of War. Although Kolko’s work was sidelined at the time and Williams vilified as a quasi-Communist, the latter in particular has had a profound influence on the subsequent historiography of American foreign policy. Even the editor of the once rather stuffy journal, Diplomatic History, has written that the Williams school’s paradigm for understanding the history of American foreign policy ‘constitutes perhaps the most creative contribution to our field in the last century and the only contribution to frame a grand master narrative for American diplomatic history.’

By contrast, much of today’s most interesting work comes from the tradition of realist International Relations theory, most closely associated in Europe at any rate—despite the work of E. H. Carr—with the power politics of the inter-war period. The post-war founding fathers of American realism, men such as George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau, were directly connected to the earlier traditions of realist thought on the European right, epitomized in such terms as Machtpolitik, Weltpolitik or Geopolitik. Morgenthau openly acknowledged his debt to Carl Schmitt, while Kennan was steeped in the traditions of a German conservatism which he much admired. But the evolution of the realist tradition in American academic life has been distinctive. Although students of International Relations are invited to enter a ‘great debate’ between ‘realism’ and ‘liberalism’, in the actual politics of American foreign policy the realists have tended to become more critical, while the so-called liberal camp has largely been captured by aggressive imperialists.

Indeed, the current shape of realist discourse was crucially moulded during the Vietnam period: first-generation American realists, however conservative, on the whole opposed that war on the grounds that it was a diversion from the focused pursuit of America’s vital security interests. The next generation took off from there, arguing that the task of us grand strategy was to ensure the territorial safety and survival of the American state and its people. From that perspective, a glance at the map suggests that the us has had few, if any, serious security problems over the last hundred years: no power challenge whatever from the Western hemisphere and no direct territorial threat from any other state. The critical edge of these realists’ work was sharpened by the us response to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. While many had viewed America’s expansion into Eurasia as a classic, counter-hegemonic strategy that was necessary in order to prevent a challenge from the Soviet Union, traditional realism could not explain why the Soviet collapse did not lead to a scaling back of American power. Nor could many realists approve of the expansionism set in train by the Defence Policy Guidelines of George Bush Senior, and taken much further under the administrations of Clinton and Bush Junior.

As a result, a significant layer of these realist critics have now radicalized their analysis. But unlike the intellectual challengers of the Vietnam era, the main opponents of orthodoxy today are establishment figures, coming from the International Relations departments of elite universities: Stephen Walt from Harvard, John Mearsheimer from Chicago and Barry Posen from mit. A work by a four-star general, Andrew Bacevich’s American Empire, was paradigmatic in this shift. Bacevich rejected the old realist consensus that the us Cold War drive was a reactive response to Soviet power and an exercise in balance-of-power politics. Instead he reopened the perspective associated with the work of scholars such as Williams, reading the 1940s American expansion into Eurasia as a drive for global hegemony and empire. Walt and Mearsheimer have been among the most incisive critics of the current Bush Administration’s bloody adventures in the Middle East, arguing that it is the power of the Israel lobby in the us that has diverted American foreign policy from a more rational course.