Kori Schake counts lessons learned from past century of American war

Kori Schake, senior fellow and director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, lectures on the legacy of American warfare Monday in the Amphitheater.
Emilee Arnold / staff photographer
Kori Schake, senior fellow and director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, lectures on the legacy of American warfare Monday in the Amphitheater.

Kori Schake last spoke at Chautauqua in 2022 during a week asking “What Should Be America’s Role in the World?” To return in 2024, as a part of the Institution’s sesquicentennial celebration, was a pleasure and a great joy, she said.

“And it’s downhill from there, my friends, because we’re going to talk about mistakes, and consequential mistakes,” said Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute who’s previously served in several roles in the U.S. Defense Department, U.S. State Department, and the National Security Council.

Her topic: War. Particularly, 125 years of American warfare. Opening the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Three theme of “What We Got Wrong: Learning From Our Mistakes” Monday morning in the Amphitheater, Schake started “where all discussions of warfare should start” — Carl von Clausewitz’s Principles of War. The foundational text on military doctrine holds two key takeaways that would frame her discussion.

“Clausewitz writes that in warfare, everything is simple. But the simple is extraordinarily difficult. That’s why warfare is a game of mistakes and adaptation. It almost never goes the way anybody thinks it’s going to go,” she said.

Clausewitz’s second point: Warfare is politics by other means. Most of the mistakes in American war in the past century are mistakes of policy, Schake said, not mistakes of combat. In most wars, the United States has been the dominant power in terms of resources — that’s what turned the tide in World War I, for example. The American way of war isn’t so much technology as it is resourcing — “that you can throw enough at a problem to overwhelm the failures of policy and the failures of execution of policy,” she said. “But most of our recent wars, certainly from 1949 forward, are the problems of under-resourcing ambitious strategy.”

With that, Schake told her audience, “we’re going to gallop through about 125 years of American warfare.”

Up first: The Spanish-American War in 1898 — one of the most misunderstood chapters in American history, she said.

“The original motivation for American overturning of Spanish control of Cuba was religious communities in the United States outraged at the human rights abuses of Spain in their efforts to pacify Cuba,” Schake said, and then ticked through the history.

While President William McKinley promises the United States won’t get involved, he’s pushed by the American public’s sense of defending human dignity. Or, “another way we tell the story of the Spanish-American War is the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana harbor,” she said.

McKinley’s policy aimed at mediating negotiations. When the USS Maine exploded, the immediate reaction was to point the finger at the Spanish government, but “it was actually an explosion of the ordinance on the USS Maine.” It was, in short, America’s mistake.

The U.S. Navy’s handling of the Maine’s explosion exemplifies military learning from failure.

“One of the things I love about the U.S. Navy is that they use the explosion of the USS Maine as a testing ground for military judgment, the learning from lessons of failure,” Schake said. “… When the U.S. Navy and the Army arrive in Havana, they sink the entire Spanish fleet in the space of about four hours. (But) here is where the hubris of success in combat comes in.”

Schake pointed to the unexpected consequences of the Spanish-American War, which is where “the failure comes in. The United States becomes an imperial power and we, as a political culture, are very poorly suited to be an imperial power.”

The Platt Amendments give the U.S. government the right and responsibility to govern Cuba and the Philippines — the latter of which remained an American imperial possession until the end of World War II. The fight to control the Philippines against the country’s independence movement was, to that point, the costliest American war, Schake said.

The U.S. struggles in Cuba and the Philippines point to a larger problem with American warfare in the 20th century: “We have the luxury of fighting our wars as away games,” she said. That means America needed allies, to shape the conflict from afar, to have a legitimate local government capable of actually governing.

And what “tends to make Americans care to go out into the world is actually values, not national interest,” Schake said. Following the Indian Wars — in which the United States first actually became an imperial power — and America spanning the entire continent, “we have won the geopolitical lottery.”

With Canada to the north, Mexico to the south, and oceans on either side, the United States enjoys an “enormously wide margin of error,” Schake said. This had led to cycles of isolationism, of Americans “being exhausted with having to care about the rest of the world and wanting to … let the rest of the world take care of themselves.”

That becomes more difficult and more costly after World War II, Schake said, but the true pivot point for American imperial power came at the end of World War I, and President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points — principles of peace to be used for negotiations ending the war. About 10, Schake said, had to do with postwar settlement in Europe — “what the Russians can do, what the Germans will have” — but the most important of the Fourteen Points are the ones that entail self-determination, free trade, and the sovereignty of the people.

“They are the projection into the international order of our domestic political order,” she said. “… (And they are) anathema not only to the adversaries we end up fighting in World War II, but the allies we choose to fight with — the great imperial powers of France, and Britain, and Russia. All of whom are empires.”

The Fourteen Points, of course, is a failure. Wilson wasn’t influential enough to set the terms of the peace, but more than that, “no country can sustain a strategy that is fundamentally inconsistent with who they are as a political culture. Because of who we are as a free people, a democratic people, even as religious people, the United States is a very uncomfortable imperial power and we’re a very uncomfortable dominant power in the international order.”

She pointed to 17 American military interventions in the Western Hemisphere in the first half of the 20th century. Seventeen times, and “every single time we persuade ourselves that we are better than the alternative, that we have a notion of how to govern and how to help those countries become self-sufficient — and by the way I think we can probably judge all 17 relative failures,” from Haiti to Honduras to the Dominican Republic.

But it’s the U.S. Marine Corps acting as the military arm in almost all of these instances, and they’re learning from it all. In 1935, the U.S. Marine Corps published the Small Wars Manual, outlining margins of order and when and where “you have to provide governance and you have to provide sustained resourcing and attention” — the things that the United States struggles with, Schake said. 

This, Schake said, was American interventionism until about the 1930s and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy; it turned out to be, at least for American interests, a better solution than Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

With this, Schake arrived at the “defining moment” of the 20th century: World War II. The Atlantic Charter of 1941 between Roosevelt and Churchill echoed Wilson’s Fourteen Points, committing to self-determination, free trade, and a peaceful international order, despite Roosevelt’s initial inability to bring American public support.

“All (Roosevelt) can give to him is a lot of frothy words that will suggest the United States is on the way to committing to the war,” Schake said. “The price Franklin Roosevelt rather ruthlessly exacts from Winston Churchill is a commitment to, and if this sounds familiar it should, from Wilson, self-determination, free-trade and a peaceful international order on that basis as the objectives for which Britain and the United States will commit to the postwar order.”

The attack on Pearl Harbor shifted public sentiment dramatically, and Schake said the postwar order would have been different if Roosevelt failed to persuade American to fight in Europe. Again, she said, it was American resources that won out.

Following the war, statesmen like President Harry Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall were thinking “explicitly about the failures of the post-World War I peace and they think explicitly about how to keep the U.S. out of the kinds of 17 military operations in Latin America” in the first half of the 20th century.

“They are traumatized by the failures of the first 45 years of the 20th century and they want to construct an order that has more room for error, that has early warning when things are going wrong, that gives the United States the continued ability to fight our wars as away games rather than home games,” Schake said.

The United Nations is established; it’s quickly clear that that’s not enough. Through the Marshall Plan, America invests in getting European economies back on their feet, she said, but that too isn’t enough.

“So that’s where you get the NATO alliance,” Schake said. It was supposed to be one of many alliances across the world, but by the 1950s, all of those other regional organizations had fallen away. “… The only place where American political commitment is deep enough for that security structure to work is in Europe.”

What the post-war order does succeed at, she said, is making international order consensual. 

“Because we created an international order that is a microcosm of our domestic political order, it is not only more sustainable — we’ve hung in there 75 years now  — than other orders have been, but everybody else helps us hold it up. We have to enforce it much less than any other dominant power has had.”

But challenges come again, as they have throughout the 20th century, at the “margins of order,” Schake said. The Korean War, for example, saw the United States deciding it was in America’s interest to intervene on behalf of South Korea. 

“By then the United States still remembered the lessons of the postwar order and if you look at the difference between North and South Korea today … that’s what security and the international order produces, and it also overtime produces a vibrant and vitally democratic South Korea,” she said. “That’s the story of transformation that the American-led order promises.”

There’s a catch, however. That promise didn’t work in Vietnam, or Afghanistan, she said. It works “about 70%” in Iraq. The difference?

“The United States learned and forgot from our interventions …  during the Spanish-American War, in Cuba and in the Western Hemisphere in the 1920s and ‘30s, is that military force tactics and battles don’t win wars,” she said. “Strategy and political order is what wins wars. With the resources to match it.”

The Vietnam War, Schake said, was the most consequential 20th-century military failure for the United States, but “out of the ashes of that,” the United States made important changes. Chief among them was ending the draft, and establishing what she described as a more disciplined approach to the American military.

In the 1990s, Schake worked for Colin Powell, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War. She said that what he and his colleagues were most proud of was “rebuilding the American military after the loss of the Vietnam War.”

“A volunteer army, a professional army, an older army, a more skilled army is what the American military built out of the failures of the Vietnam War,” she said.

If there was only one thing she wanted her Chautauqua audience to take away from her lecture, it’s that the questions posed in the Powell Doctrine should always have good answers “before we commit American women and men to do violence on our behalf.”

Among these questions: Is a vital American interest threatened? Do we have a clear objective? Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed? Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted? Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement? Have the consequences of our action been fully considered? Is the action supported by the American people? And do we have genuine and broad international support? 

“Those are the standards we should demand our political leadership have persuasive answers to, because that’s how you sustain an order with the legitimacy of our own leadership and also the voluntary cooperation of others to keep the order cost-effective, to keep it stable,” she said. “Because if you don’t like what is required of us to sustain a liberal, rules-based order, I assure you, you are not going to like what it costs us to overturn an order that our adversaries, the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians, the North Koreans, would put in place instead of it.”

Tags : american enterprise instituteCarl von Clausewitz’s Principles of WarKori Schakemorning lecturemorning lecture recapNational Security CouncilU.S. Defense DepartmentU.S. State DepartmentWhat Should Be America’s Role in the World?What We Got Wrong: Learning from Our Mistakes

The author Sara Toth

Sara Toth is entering her fifth summer as editor of The Chautauquan Daily and works year-round in Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Education. Previously, she served four years as the Daily’s assistant and then managing editor. An alum of the Daily internship program, she is a native of Pittsburgh(ish), attended Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, and worked for nearly four years as a reporter in the Baltimore Sun Media Group. She lives in Jamestown with her husband, a photographer, and her Lilac, a cat.

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