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.

Christopher Layne’s Peace of Illusions is an important contribution to this new trend. Layne himself is a young scholar at the Bush School of Government in Texas. A maverick libertarian and sometime Republican voter with links to the free-market Cato Institute, he is the author, often in collaboration with Benjamin Schwarz of Atlantic Monthly, of a series of articles arguing compellingly for a pull-back to off-shore balancing and criticizing liberal cosmopolitanism (‘Kant or Cant?’). Layne’s book concludes, as we shall see, by going far beyond conventional American realist parameters; nevertheless, it is deeply embedded in the language and concepts of that tradition. Layne takes this tradition very seriously and expects his readers to do so too. Some may find his guided tour through all the twists and turns of the debates within the school over the last quarter of a century gruelling; yet those with the stamina to follow him through eighty pages of excellent endnotes, after two hundred pages of text, will gain a valuable education in the evolution of this large and influential trend of thought about international politics. And wrapped within the jargon about neo-realism versus neo-classical realism, about offensive and defensive realism, about counter-hegemonic grand strategies and extra-regional hegemony theory, lie highly significant debates about real-world issues.

Layne devotes his book to rescuing realism not only from the post-1990 cultural onslaught of cosmopolitan liberalism and neo-conservativism, but also from the intellectual contradictions of its predominant expression since the 1970s, the ‘neo-realism’ of Kenneth Waltz. Writing when systems theory was at the height of fashion, Waltz gave causal priority to the logic of the inter-state system in explaining the dynamics of international politics. This system, he claimed, is organized as an anarchy in which each state is threatened with extinction from other more powerful states and must thus prioritize external security for its survival. This in turn requires them to analyse the shifting distribution of power resources, above all military capabilities, and to ensure that they can balance against any power in the system that could threaten them. No state can ever replace inter-state anarchy by hierarchy—a global empire—because balancing by other states will thwart the attempt. Waltz presented the Cold War as just such a balance of power. This enabled realists to claim that American grand strategy during the post-war era was driven by defensive motives: to prevent the Soviet Bloc from extending its hegemony across Eurasia, and thus achieving a concentration of power that would have been mortally threatening to America. This us grand strategy of ‘counter-hegemony’ can be seen to fit with the wider notion of ‘off-shore balancing’: as a sea-power, like 19th-century Britain, the us could devote itself to the essentially negative task of ensuring that there was a balance of power on the Eurasian continent, throwing its weight onto the scales to block any one power (i.e. the ussr) from establishing continental hegemony.