“Only those of us who were born under Queen Victoria,” wrote Ronald Knox, “know what it feels like to assume, without questioning, that England is permanently top nation, that foreigners do not matter, and that if worst comes to the worst, Lord Salisbury will send a gunboat.” Knox offered this trenchant observation, redolent with irony and perhaps tinged with regret, not as a policymaker or strategic thinker, but from the vantage point of a clergyman. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Monsignor Knox was the most famous and influential Catholic priest in all of Great Britain. As such, he entertained a distinct perspective on what actually qualifies as permanent and what merely offers the appearance.
While perhaps using different terms—our preference is for dispatching nuclear aircraft carriers rather than gunboats—Americans born after World War II came into adulthood imbued with precisely the same sentiment about their own country. From the mid-1940s onward, the primacy of the United States was assumed as a given. History had rendered a verdict: we—not the Brits and certainly not the Germans, French, or Russians—were number one, and, more importantly, were meant to be. That history’s verdict might be subject to revision was literally unimaginable, especially to anyone making a living in or near Washington, D.C.
If doubts remained on that score, the end of the Cold War removed them. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism, politicians, journalists, and policy intellectuals threw themselves headlong into a competition over who could explain best just how unprecedented, how complete, and how wondrous was the global preeminence of the United States.
The War State: The Col…