Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama

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American foreign policy since World War II has long been seen primarily as a story of strong and successful alliances, domestic consensus, and continuity from one adminstration to the next. Why then have so many presidents left office condemned for their foreign policy record?

In his fresh and compelling history of America's rise to dominance, Stephen Sestanovich makes clear that U.S. diplomacy has always stirred controversy, both at home and abroad. He shows how successive adminstrations have struggled to find new solutions, alternating between bold "maximalist" strategies and retrenchment efforts to downsize America's role. Almost all our presidents emerge from this vivid retelling in a sharp and unexpected light.

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About the Author:

Stephen Sestanovich served as U.S. ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet Union during the Clinton administration, as a senior staff member at the National Security Council and the State Department during the Reagan administration, and as senior legislative assistant to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He is currently the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


“We Do Big Things”

In 2003, forty years after [President Kennedy’s] death, when America’s reputation abroad was in tatters, I was in Rome for a speaking engagement, and invited by a local foreign policy group to give an address. “On what subject?” I asked the chairman. “Tell us about the good America, when Kennedy was president,” he said. I did. I talked about an America admired for its values, respected for its principles, not feared for its might or resented for its success; an America that led by listening, worked with the rest of the world, and respected international law; an America that stood for peace, not one that started wars.

—Ted Sorensen

it is hard to think of any country that has ever put a larger stamp on its time than the United States of America in the second half of the twentieth century. In the wake of two world wars, which left other major powers severely crippled, America made the decisive contributions to global recovery. During the Cold War and long afterward, it was an anchor of security, an agent of prosperity, an advocate of national independence and political modernization. The most valuable institutions of international cooperation were, directly or indirectly, inspired by the United States. Its impact, moreover, extended far beyond high politics. American ways of doing things encouraged economic, social, cultural, intellectual, and technological innovation around the world.

That, at any rate, was the twentieth century. The twenty-first has already been different. Its early years brought terrorist attacks, diplomatic isolation, a burst of global anti-Americanism, and military campaigns that the United States found easy to start, impossible to win, and extremely difficult to end. To these travails were added a global financial crisis, widely blamed on American mismanagement, and a shake-up in the international economic pecking order. The United States is now on track, some say a fast one, to lose its position as the world’s largest economy. Scholars and pundits argue that its central role in international politics is also at risk. And with Washington policy making blocked by partisan gridlock, many question the country’s ability to cope with significant new challenges.

America’s past and present, in short, have rarely seemed so different from each other. One result of this mismatch has been a surge of interest in the ingredients of our previous success. What was it that once enabled the United States to deal so effectively with so many international problems—to give the world so much while also getting so much in return? Although military power and economic growth are essential ingredients of a large global role, many find the real secret of America’s large achievements in its readiness to create equal partnerships with other nations, to take their interests and ideas into account, and to play by mutually agreed rules. For others, the key lies in policy continuity over long periods, the kind of steadfastness across decades that—to take the most glorious example—produced victory in the Cold War. Still others point to the importance of national consensus. In the past, it is said, when Americans agreed on how to handle big problems, they were able—in Barack Obama’s words—to “do big things.”

it is the argument of this book that there is much to learn from the history of American foreign policy, but that we can’t learn it from the sepia-tinted versions of the past that have dominated public discussion in recent years. Play well with others; make sure the country is united; find a good strategy and stick to it: our history has a more interesting story to tell us than these homilies suggest. The reason that the past can help us chart the future is that it was just as confused and chaotic as the present. It reminds us how often we have clashed with our friends and misunderstood our enemies, how often policy makers have miscalculated what they could accomplish, how rarely they kept commitments in balance with available resources, and how often they acted in full knowledge that public opinion was against them.

To take even a half-serious look at the history of American alliances is to learn how ambivalent Washington policy makers have been about working with others. Yes, they always aspired to join with like-minded governments in a spirit of give and take. They sincerely believed in the value of multilateral institutions and the advantages of observing accepted rules of the road. Yet in tackling the toughest problems, our leaders have—with some justice—usually come to doubt that collaborative approaches would succeed. Consulting with allies is one thing; letting their interests, not to mention their chronic indecision and feebleness, undermine American policy is something else entirely. It is no exaggeration to say that the history of American foreign policy is the history of what presidents and their advisers do once they conclude that others, at home and abroad, are not likely to help them very much.

No president illustrates this point better, as it happens, than the hero of Ted Sorensen’s “good America” story. John Kennedy’s exceptionally difficult relations with allied governments were captured in the title of Henry Kissinger’s 1965 book on the subject, The Troubled Partnership. As we will see, the animosity between Kennedy, on the one hand, and the leaders of France and West Germany, on the other, exceeded any case of transatlantic discord until the presidency of George W. Bush. Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer complained that Kennedy, when not simply deceiving them, was pursuing policies that put the security and independence of their countries at risk. Adenauer had a special reason to resent the young U.S. president, who openly maneuvered to oust him from his job. And De Gaulle may have known that American officials thought he needed “a psychiatrist.”

John Kennedy was, usually able to count on greater support from the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, than from the leaders of France and Germany. (So, of course, was George W. Bush.) But the Anglo-American “special relationship” had many lapses of understanding and outbursts of bad feeling. When the United States decided, in August 1962, to breach an international embargo on major arms sales to Israel, Macmillan sent Kennedy a furious protest. The prime minister expressed his personal “disgust and despair” at what he called a “disgraceful piece of trickery.” As always, when British and American priorities in the Middle East diverged, Washington insisted on taking its own approach and left London to adjust as best it could. (Macmillan had long been unhappy with Britain’s subservience to America. Early in his career, he compared relations between the two countries to the way “Greek slaves ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius.”)

Relations between the United States and its close allies have evolved since Kennedy’s day, but the problems that frustrated him have not gone away. American policy makers still find it difficult to get others to work with them as productively as they would like. In July 2009, in her first major speech as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton explained why. Multilateral cooperation, she said, often fails because other countries are so heavily influenced by things like “history, geography, ideology and inertia.” Even when a common interest is at stake, uncooperative governments “sit on the sidelines or sow discord and division.”

Speaking for a new administration committed to treating other countries with greater respect, Clinton expressed a dilemma that has vexed American policy makers for decades. She set forth principles of liberal internationalism with verve and conviction, but she was also clear-eyed about how much stood in the way of making these principles a reality. Obstacles to cooperation (which she gave their correct academic name, “collective action problems”) could only be overcome, she insisted, by American leadership. “No challenge,” she said, “can be met without America.”

Hillary Clinton’s predecessors, and presidential advisers of both parties, shared her view, and they were often far less polite about it. John Connally, Nixon’s treasury secretary, said of the economic disputes he handled, “The foreigners are trying to screw us, but I intend to screw them first.” John Foster Dulles, who served Eisenhower as secretary of state, dismissed Europe’s leaders as a group of “shattered ‘old people.’ ” Allied governments, complained Dean Rusk, who served Kennedy in the same job, had grown too accustomed to having all problems addressed by “an American plan put together as a complete plan from A to Z.” (Rusk’s exasperation showed when he snapped at a British journalist: “When the Russians invade Sussex, don’t expect us to come and help you.”) With other countries able to contribute so little, Walt Rostow, Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser, thought the United States had to act on “a relatively lonely stage.” It had to play this solitary role for years, “without throwing our sheriff’s badge in the dust.”

Because working with others has been so maddeningly hard for the United States, we cannot look to the past for ready-made solutions to “collective action problems.” For those who have convinced themselves that the troubles of the past decade were caused by simple neglect of some well-established collaborative tradition, this will be a disappointment. We don’t really have such a tradition. Yet the difficulties faced by past presidents and policy makers also mean that their experiences were closer to ours than we think. They too dealt with allies who couldn’t agree on much, with semifunctional multilateral institutions, and with the thankless consequences of trying to solve every problem through American “leadership.”

The lessons of this story can aid our thinking now and in the future. To learn them, we have to look closely at what past administrations accomplished and failed to accomplish. We will not get the answers right if we think we know them in advance.

a quick scan of our history also makes it impossible to believe that the global role of the United States was based on strategic continuity from one decade to the next. We are not wrong to consider American diplomacy in the second half of the twentieth century a gigantic success story, but it usually didn’t feel that way at the time. Until the very last years of the Cold War, every president leaving Washington at the end of an administration was widely condemned for his foreign policy record. Some were virtually run out of town. Almost every new occupant of the Oval Office thought the world had changed in some fundamental way that his predecessor either totally misunderstood or failed to manage effectively.

This was how Truman viewed Roosevelt, how Eisenhower viewed Truman, how Kennedy viewed Eisenhower, and so on. Twenty years later, when Ronald Reagan took over from Jimmy Carter, his verdict was harsher still. Reagan believed that America had been losing the Cold War for at least the previous three presidencies.

Some of these claims were unfair and partisan, but they were not mere campaign rhetoric. They shaped the outlook and actions of most new administrations. The story of American foreign policy, we will see, is not one of dogged continuity but of regular, repeated, and successful efforts to change course.

What pushed presidents to seek a new foreign policy direction? The short answer is, two different types of failure. The first was the kind usually associated during the Cold War with the word crisis—some alarming new challenge that raised the prospect of a major American setback and required an urgent response. These moments of crisis included Western Europe’s seeming economic collapse in the winter of 1947, North Korea’s attack on the South in 1950, the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Nikita Khrushchev’s threat to strangle West Berlin in 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, martial law in Poland in 1981, Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait in 1990, Balkan mass murder later in the decade, and of course the attacks of September 11, 2001. Time and again, Washington’s response was, to use George Kennan’s description of the debate triggered by the Korean War, like “a stone thrown into a beehive.”

At such moments, amid frenzied debate about what to do next, American policy makers usually concluded that a large response was the only way to turn back the threat at hand—and the still larger ones probably lurking behind it. The United States would have to develop new ideas, generate new resources, make new commitments, shake up the status quo. Our leaders typically had just one answer to such problems: Do more. Think big. Pedal to the metal.

“Maximalist” presidents, of course, heard from some of their advisers that the United States was overreacting, that the crisis reflected local conditions rather than a global challenge, or that doing too much might well worsen the situation and even undermine American interests. But they usually rejected such balanced advice. These presidents—Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan are the most obvious examples—wanted a big package of countermeasures. Maximalist policy making did not necessarily mean taking reckless or mindless action, and the most extreme imaginable responses were generally ruled out. But any plausible idea about how to push back usually got a sympathetic hearing.

We find a very different pattern when we look at presidents who had to cope with a second type of failure: that of overcommitment. Here Eisenhower and Nixon are the classic examples. Both were Cold War presidents charged with closing down stalemated wars at bearable cost. Their job was to unwind a disaster and to put American policy on a more sustainable foundation. They sought to calm an angry public, to shift responsibilities to friends and allies, to explore accommodation with adversaries, to narrow commitments and reduce costs. They too faced dissenters within their own ranks—advisers convinced that the global position of the United States could not survive any scaling back—and they too overruled them. The motto of America’s “retrenchment” presidents was the opposite of the one adopted by our “maximalists.” Do less, they said, not more. Think harder, not bigger. Hit the brakes, not the gas.

Strategies of “maximalism” and “retrenchment” bear an obvious cyclical relation to each other. Again and again, one has provided a corrective to the other’s mistakes. When the maximalist overreaches, the retrencher comes in to pick up the pieces. Then when retrenchment fails to rebuild American power, meet new challenges, or compete effectively, the maximalist reappears, ready with ambitious formulas for doing so.

Since the 1940s, we have seen this cycle played out at least three times. The first cycle began with the activism of the early Cold War—for many, American policy’s “golden age.” It ended with the seeming drift of the late Eisenhower administration. The second began with the activism of the New Frontier and ended with the abandonment of détente in the late 1970s. The third cycle opened with Ronald Reagan’s claim that America had the ability to “begin the world over again.”8 Whether this third cycle ever really ended—and if so, when; if not, why not—is one puzzle in the story ahead of us.

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