Republicans on foreign policy: Regional powers and regional problems

crossposted at the UNC Press Blog, 16 November 2011

The Republican candidates for president certainly have one thing right on foreign policy. Their recent debate confirmed that much of U.S. foreign policy is devoted to the management of regional powers and regional problems. Long-time troublemakers Iran and China were most on the candidates’ minds. But the list of regional worries is in fact quite long. It includes notably a pair of balky allies (Israel and Turkey), an overtly antagonistic North Korea, a failed state in Afghanistan, and a nuclear-armed and domestically embattled Pakistan. Lots for aspiring national leaders to address. What to do? Bomb them (the course Newt Gingrich seems to favor on Iran), banish bad leader to “the ash heap of history” (the fate Rick Perry wants for China’s Communists), or shut off U.S. markets (Romney’s way of bringing China into line)?

What strikes me as a historian is how long the regionals have afflicted U.S. policymakers and tied policy pundits in strategic knots. The pattern goes all the way back to the late 1940s and the globalization of U.S. commitments in the name of containment of communism. The difficulties became quickly apparent in eastern Asia where China posed the first serious challenge. The new Communist regime refused to go away (as Washington was convinced it would). Worse still, it took a surprisingly strong and successful military stand against burgeoning U.S. ambitions in its neighborhood. It blocked the U.S. drive to unify Korea in 1950, and it played a major role in driving out the U.S.-backed French from Vietnam in 1954 and then in ousting U.S. forces in South Vietnam. Richard Nixon decided to dial down U.S. goals in Asia (the Nixon doctrine) and to accept Mao’s China as a great power. Since that shift in the early 1970s, regional trends have rendered the United States less and less relevant even as U.S. leaders insist on their importance (a claim resting essentially on a Cold War residue of military might). (These points figure prominently in the forthcoming Arc of Empire.)

The story of U.S. involvement in another difficult region is similar. Recognition of Israel proved the first step toward making Washington an enabler of an increasingly overt and internationally condemned settler colonialism. The 1953 overthrow of the Iranian government was a great success that turned very bad a quarter century later. The post-shah regime has been a perpetual thorn in the U.S. side for better than a quarter of a century. Military intervention in Lebanon in 1958 signaled the militarization of U.S. policy in the Middle East while failing to resolve sectarian divisions. Reagan sent in the troops again in 1982-84 with no better results.

The strongmen recruited under the U.S. dispensation made control easier to exercise, but in the long run they put a crimp on political and economic development, closely associated the United States with autocracy and stagnation, and fed popular suspicions about Washington’s intentions. The confrontation with Saddam Hussein, a strongman gone wrong, yielded two military triumphs but also one disastrous occupation and a now badly divided and impoverished state with an uncertain future and with close ties to Iran.

The United States is today no closer to securing regional stability or consolidating control. Indeed, the popular ferment associated with the Arab Spring, Turkey’s self-conscious pursuit of regional influence, the durability of a defiant Iranian regime, and the uncertainties surrounding the states of Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan may collectively constitute challenges so serious that they announce for anyone willing to listen the end of an era of grand American aspirations.

What strikes me as a citizen is how hollow and dated U.S. discussions of regional policy have become. I fantasize about a debate that would grapple not with how to best crush regional rivals but instead deal with the hard, consequential questions. What is gained if Washington brings the Iranian or Chinese regime down? What will it cost and what might the consequences be? Is there really a way to build a nation in Afghanistan or to manipulate the one in Pakistan? How much are U.S. interests served by facilitating Israeli territorial expansion or preserving an independent Taiwan?

The exchange among the Republican candidates offered tantalizing hints of such a long overdue discussion. Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul—to be sure, neither rank and file favorites—denounced the U.S. practice of torturing Muslims as illegal and damaging to U.S. reputation, counseled caution in handling Iran, doubted the relative utility of nation building in Afghanistan, and refused to join in China bashing.

But we can be sure the slightest whiff of policy change will galvanize that formidable gang of stand patters: a politically potent Israel lobby, inveterate China critics, the arms industry, the Pentagon brass, and above all, spread-eagle nationalists on intimate terms with Mr. Prestige and Mr. Macho. Those old free-loaders, firmly ensconced in the U.S. policy house, are good at shouting down skeptical lines of inquiry. As long as they remain in residence, political leaders will make their default position the defense of dubious commitments even as regional powers grow stronger, more independent, and more numerous.

A 1978 critique of Gaddis on Kennan (prepared in collaboration with John W. Coogan)

The names of George Frost Kennan and John Lewis Gaddis have become closely intertwined in the minds of diplomatic historians. Kennan figured prominently in Gaddis’ first book, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 (1972). He was the model realist, preoccupied with defining the national interest, attentive to the ends of policy and the means available, and possessed of a keen understanding of great power politics. Against him was arrayed the isolationist sentiment, the political opportunism, and the misplaced idealism that afflicted the Soviet policy of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. When Foreign Affairs, the influential establishment outlet sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, wanted to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Kennan’s famous 1947 “X” article in that journal, the editor turned to Gaddis. And celebrate he did (in “Containment:A Reassessment” in the July 1977 issue). Kennan was once more the wise statesman who had wanted to make containment economic and political rather than military. Gaddis’ favorable reading of the record and his resolute stand against Kennan critics appear to have endeared him to Kennan. Now about thirty years later we are about to get the authorized study, George F. Kennan: An American Life (to be released by Penguin on 10 November), from the historian Kennan felt he could trust.

We were present at the creation of this entente. The late 1970s was a time of considerable excitement as U.S. government documents on the early Cold War entered the public domain as part of the venerable “Foreign Relations of the United States” (FRUS) series. We were avid consumers of the new evidence, including what Kennan had written at the Moscow embassy, at the National War College, and at the head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. The more we read, the more skeptical we became about the claims that he had made in the first volume of his wonderfully engaging if predictably self-serving memoir and that Gaddis had repackaged in his first book. Our doubts deepened as we shared impressions from the new evidence and as we directed senior essays by bright Yale undergraduates exploring one facet or another of Kennan’s official career.

Not only were we present at the creation of the Kennan-Gaddis entente; we now learn that we might have unknowingly facilitated it. The claims of Gaddis’ “X” celebration troubled us. Kennan had been neither so consistent nor so coherent as Gaddis seemed to think. We prepared a rejoinder focusing on three revealing cases illuminated by newly available evidence. (To save space we omitted Kennan’s 1947 suggestion of sending U.S. troops as well as Truman Doctrine economic aid into Greece as well as his pseudo-sociological analysis penned in October 1949 of why communism appealed to failed intellectuals and “maladjusted groups” such as African Americans, Jews, and immigrants. See FRUS, 1947, V, pp. 468-69; and FRUS, 1949, I, p. 404.) Our basic point was that Kennan, like most foreign policy advisers, said a lot of dumb things along with a lot of smart things and that we needed to pay less attention to his memoirs and more attention to the richness, complexity, and contradictions emerging from the archives.

James Chace, then Foreign Affairs managing editor, had no room for our little dissent. He had already agreed to a critical essay by Eduard Mark, then doing his doctoral thesis at the University of Connecticut. The policy establishment would be spared our rude archival challenge but not diplomatic historians thanks to Nolan Fowler, then editor of the Newsletter published by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. (Our comment appeared in no. 9 [March 1978], pp. 23-25 and available here as a pdf.) Gaddis, never one to miss a controversy, responded to our piece as he did to the Mark piece in Foreign Affairs. This avid, unwavering, and able defense of Kennan’s reputation helped settle the question of who would do the authorized biography.

Looking back, two things strike us. One is the “slippage” in the declassification process for the FRUS series. It takes longer than ever to get a volume into the public domain, and the documents made available have to fit into a much reduced number of published volumes. Moreover, attempts to get the CIA to account publicly for covert operations have largely failed. Forget bringing NSA into the picture. As a result, the documentation for critical episodes in past U.S. policy are radically incomplete, leaving historians to guess about the unknown unknowns.

The other is the comment of C. Wright Mills about U.S. policy as an expression of “crackpot realism.” Hans Morgenthau, the father of postwar realism with whom Kennan is often associated, seems to have come to the same opinion. His early doubts about postwar U.S. policy turned to open dissent as he watched the Vietnam commitment deepen from the mid-1950s. Christoph Frei’s illuminating Hans J. Morgenthau: An Intellectual Biography (2001) identifies the sources of Morgenthau’s discontent. Realism as Morgenthau understood it required a cultivated rationality and far-seeing prudence. These qualities were evident in Kennan’s memoirs but not always so evident in his often vaguely formulated ideas or his tendency to shoot from the hip or his penchant for military solutions to complicated problems. It’s fair to say that the policy Kennan sought to shape was also deficient. Like Kennan, it was swept along by a Cold War nationalist orthodoxy that led to ideological and strategic commitments far beyond the U.S. capacity to sustain in the long run. Kennan, Acheson, and Rusk shared this national orthodoxy, even as they shifted positions over time and disagreed on specific applications such as in Vietnam. But this is a topic to take up another day in relations to current U.S. difficulties.

American prospects: Confessions of a conflicted historian

This summer’s diet of the news has had me struggling to maintain a healthy optimism. Headlines have daily announced developments that bode ill for the United States — a stagnant economy, widening inequality and poverty, a deeply divided polity, a frustrated electorate, a global environment pushed beyond its limits, and regional powers less and less responsive to U.S. direction. These adverse trends are playing out on a remarkably broad front.

The historian in me warns against a rush to judgment. As a discipline, history inculcates a bias against forecasting. A familiarity with carefully drawn counterfactuals and a close acquaintance with lots of case studies drive home the unpredictable element that contingent events or personalities can introduce. A sudden change in one piece of a puzzle can dramatically change the overall picture. Historians also shy away from crystal balls because they are all too familiar with major events that even the most knowledgeable failed to anticipate. The future often heaves up on unexpected shores in unimagined forms as we have learned in our own times from the Soviet collapse and the Arab spring.

But if historians don’t attempt to see the future, who is better equipped? Only evidence systematically gathered and critically evaluated can get any analyst beyond pure guess work. Thanks to their devotion to evidence, historians have the data and the tools to chart the trajectory traveled by individuals, institutions, and nations and thus possess the most sound basis for contextualizing the present and imagining the future. Thanks also to their fixation with evidence, historians have at hand a rich catalog of case studies that suggest rough analogies and revealing comparisons and that warn against simple equations of past with present. History never repeats itself but it often rhymes.

One part of me wants to believe that this summer’s bad news has a silver lining. The pressures are building that must eventually produce a tectonic shift in American life. Americans may long for the return of the domestic prosperity, political consensus, and international dominance that prevailed during the decades after World War II. But surely, I say to myself, they must recognize that powerful trends mock their nostalgia, tear the fabric of their society, and undermine their international standing. How long can the country defer the enormous task of addressing festering domestic problems, grappling seriously with environmental dangers, and accepting a more modest relationship to the international community? It can be only a matter of time. That’s at least what I want to believe.

But when I put on my historian’s hat, I grow less hopeful. It then seems more likely that the United States is locked in paralysis rather than headed for transformation.

Perhaps the most entrenched feature of the current scene are all-encompassing consumer values. They define the outlook of virtually every American. They serve as the predicate for U.S. politics. And they have shaped the contours of the economy. But the consumer society has a built-in flaw that makes it unsustainable in the long run. That is its foundational notion that income will rise constantly across a lifetime and from generation to generation and that GDP is a good gauge of progress in that direction. This notion takes no account of environmental limits as people all around the world make claim to the same dream of steadily rising affluence. (For a timely reminder of the magnitude of this problem, see the recent New York Times piece “On Going Green.”) Nor does this notion recognize the way GDP omits social and environmental costs and ignores the value of unpaid services. Recent studies suggest that economic growth after a certain point ceases to yield higher levels of individual happiness even as it makes impossible demands on the earth’s resources. But challenging consumerism as a culture, an ideology, and an economic system and labeling GDP an outmoded fetish will prove extremely difficult. Popular inertia and entrenched interests will see to that.

Adding to the paralysis is the political system. The two leading parties are like crews on a sinking ship who sense something is wrong but don’t understand what. They busy themselves rearranging the deck chairs while quarreling over which way to line the chairs up.

Republicans are in denial so deep that they deserve to be called “the anti-science party.” Their base (perhaps a quarter of the electorate) and the presidential candidates courting that base make a point of pride their denial of global warming, their skepticism about evolution, their wishful thinking on sex education, and their embrace of simplistic economic nostrums.

Democrats may have by default become the party of science — but a lot of good it has done them. The policies of the Obama administration make the Republican base crazy while failing to impress most of the voting public fixated as it is on old dreams of endless plenty. A party already suffering at the ballot box is hardly in a position to confront the fundamental but electorally dangerous issue: the demise of a consumer society and the transition away from a mindless, self-destructive commitment to GDP growth.

Compounding this problem of an electorate in thrall to a vanished past are deep flaws in our democracy. It has become corrupted by money, burdened by cynicism, and gutted by apathy. This indictment may sound harsh, cranky, and even ahistorical. But there is reason for worry. Campaign fund raising has risen to an unprecedented level, forcing office holders to chase full time, not just on the eve of election, possible backers with deep pockets and to pause before giving offense to any interest group that might in retaliation target them. The cynicism is reflected in popular disapproval of Congress, now astonishingly high. Having bounced around the 50 percent mark from 1975 to 2005 (far from a ringing endorsement of the political system), it has recently risen to the 80 percent range (according to Gallup Poll). Cynicism is also reflected in the public’s conviction that half of every dollar the federal government spends is wasted (another recent Gallup Poll). This figure is at its highest point since 1979 and reflects deep doubt about the efficacy of the very state essential to addressing our national problems. Finally, apathy is easy to gauge in voter turnout, which has declined significantly since the 1960s and pales by comparison with the engagement of voters in other advanced democracies.

But the most worrisome feature may be an ill-informed citizenry. Voters are today arguably no more or less sophisticated than their counterparts fifty or a hundred years ago. But also, arguably, the magnitude and complexity of the problems facing the country are greater and thus require greater comprehension if the electorate is to have a meaningful role in supporting if not devising solutions to those problems. Most voters, with scant conception of how the economy works, want above all that it should work in a way that in effect reproduces the conditions of a by-gone day and that the president attend to that task. If one party can’t do the job, then the answer is to give the other side a try until someone succeeds. This strategy would be pragmatic were its restorationist goals realizable. But since they are not, U.S. politics threatens to become an endless, self-defeating round of missions impossible with each failure pushing public frustration ever higher.

Foreign policy adds to the logjam. Put simply, Americans’ conception of their relationship to the world is as inflated as it is outmoded. The elite long dominant in matters of policy have encouraged grand nationalist expectations in support of expansive international policies over the last half century. Yet U.S. global dominance that marked the late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s has since steadily faded. Other powers have asserted themselves. In East Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, Washington struggles to retain its relevance and hold its ground against what has become an extraordinarily long list of regional rogues and potential challengers (North Korea and China; India and Burma; Cuba, Venezuela, and Brazil; Iran, Syria, and maybe Pakistan replacing Iraq and Afghanistan; and Russia). At the same time Washington frets over the reach of the very international organizations which the United States helped give life but which have come to serve a broad international constituency.

A foreign policy establishment, like the public, is deep in the grip of nostalgia. It longs for the return of the post-World War II dominance. The sturdy residue from that time — a commitment to the active promotion a world remade in the U.S. image and a view of security primarily through the prism of military power — stands in the way of charting a new relationship to a world much transformed since 1945.

Any historical moment is, in the ultimate sense, open. The adverse trends that clouded my newspaper reading this summer are likely to persist, even intensify. They will erode American wealth and power, and they could well precipitate a rapid downward spiral. But the historian in me whispers, “Remember, good things have happened in the past that no one at the time had imagined possible, and they can happen again.” Something may yet jolt Americans awake to the new world impinging irresistibly on their lives and force them to come to terms with it. From this possibility we can spin a thread of hope to cling to.

revised 21 September 2011; crossposted at UNC Press Blog

Polanyi’s ‘Great Transformation’: A classic for our hard times

crossposted to the UNC Press Blog, 11 August 2011.

Head swimming from all the bad economic news as well as the summer heat? Alarmed by a volatile stock market and the prospect of return to recession? In despair over the incapacity of our political class to address a persistent fiscal deficit? Troubled by a public deeply divided over the right road back to good times? I’ve got something for you: a classic that speaks loudly and clearly to these troubled times. It may help not only clear your head but also fundamentally alter your sense of how to think about the issues now before us.

The Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi published The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times in 1944 at a time of striking intellectual ferment. The possibilities for postwar social reconstruction seemed enormous. Keynes had already made the case for state intervention to smooth out the economic cycle. Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was about to lay out what would prove an equally influential argument against state planning as inimical to political freedom. Hayek’s fellow Viennese, Joseph Schumpeter, joined the conversation by mounting in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy a defense of capitalism, highlighting its capacity for “creative destruction.”

Of these works, The Great Transformation stands out today precisely because it demystifies the free market faith now deeply entrenched in the public mind, in the programs of both major political parties, and in the policy debates now playing out in Washington. This study—drawing on the nineteenth century’s experience with the rapid spread of market activity, its deep penetration across Europe and North America, and its capacity for global economic integration—shows that free markets are not something natural that arise spontaneously according to some eternal law of supply and demand.

To the contrary, markets come into existence thanks to the actions taken by states. Political leaders had first to remove impediments to commerce, investment, and labor and then to provide at least minimal oversight of economic activity once it was freed from restrictions. Free economic activity was not at odds with an activist state; it was dependent on it. In Polanyi’s famous paradox, “laissez-faire was planned.”(p. 141)

Polanyi’s study makes a second important point pertinent to today. In the real world, as opposed to some utopian dreamscape, markets once unleashed have all sorts of deleterious effects. In Polanyi’s words, they tend toward

the exploitation of the physical strength of the worker, the destruction of family life, the devastation of neighborhoods, the denudation of forests, the pollution of rivers, the deterioration of craft standards, the disruption of folkways, and the general degradation of existence including housing and arts, as well as the innumerable forms of private and public life that do not affect profits. (p. 133)

Anything here that rings a bell?

Beyond social costs, Polanyi saw markets undercutting the very freedom that Hayek felt they supported. Operating without check, the market provided

the fullness of freedom for those whose income, leisure and security need no enhancing, and a mere pittance of liberty for the people, who may in vain attempt to make use of their democratic rights to gain shelter from the power of the owners of property. (p. 257)

Does a political system in which ordinary citizens feel angry, disenchanted, and powerless seem familiar? Know about a democracy in which economic entities (corporations, banks, their lobbyists, their campaign funding, rating agencies, and the IMF) seem to set the agenda and reduce politics to the process of accommodating to the diktat of the market? The generation of wealth and its play on a global scale—then as now—leave Americans not better off but discontented and longing for some way forward.

The Great Transformation follows this picture of the social and political loss inflicted by market vitality with a third point. A market given full scope generates a popular backlash. The more unchecked economic activity inflicts social disruption and environmental damage, the greater the popular demands for relief.

The very capacity of states to intervene to create markets also means they have the capacity to respond to public clamor and limit the destructive scope of markets, protect workers and their families, guarantee a modicum of social stability and solidarity, and defend the environment. Initiatives of just this sort took shape in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth not as part some grand socialist scheme but in an ad hoc fashion out of this collision between markets and the broad interests of society. Thus we come to Polanyi’s second paradox, his notion of a double movement: a planned laissez faire system so powerful that it gave impetus to unplanned state activism to protect society.

Polanyi’s classic suggests we should ignore the profoundly false choice between markets and the state. Markets depend on the state and by their inherent excesses evoke popular demands for relief in the form of state programs. It also suggests we should drop the illusion that every problem can be solved by giving the markets even greater play. Freed of an almost religious vision of what markets mean and can do, we can begin to think about social justice and individual welfare as matters of legitimate concern and thus tap and channel politically broad and deep discontents with the status quo.

So take a step back and a deep breath and learn from the past. We’re not the first to experience market penetration, market misbehavior, and societal push-back. Markets work on us, but because markets are man-made and not handed down from on high, we can work on markets.

Just as Americans and Europeans a century ago demonstrated how to tame an ostensibly sovereign market and bring to heel those possessed of great economic power, a state responsive to broad-based discontents can once more do the job of subordinating economic abstractions to real human needs. That’s Polanyi’s take home message to anyone concerned with U.S. politics today.

[A second edition of The Great Transformation is available from Beacon Press.]

How to think about the end of the “American Century”

Crossposted to UNC Press Blog, 20 July 2011

The whiff of decline is in the air, and everyone seems to smell it. The current debt ceiling impasse makes the odor impossible to ignore. My own nostrils began picking something up about a decade ago while preparing The American Ascendancy. With the troubled U.S. international position now so much in the news, it seems a good time to revisit the idea of an “American century.” Read More »

Isolationism: Behind the myth, a usable past

post to UNC Press Blog, 29 June 2011

The term “isolationism” has recently sprung to public prominence thanks to a rift in the ranks of the Republican Party. Some of its leading presidential candidates are calling for a more restrained U.S. global role. They are driven in part by Tea Party doubts about big military budgets and helter-skelter intervention, in part by unchecked presidential power, and for the rest by mounting fiscal problems.

These developments have alarmed keepers of the faith such as John McCain, who have instinctively responded with charges of isolationism. From a historian’s perspective, this clash is an opportunity to be doubly perverse—not only to reflect on a dubious term but also to direct attention to some signal virtues evident in a period in which isolationism supposedly governed U.S. policy. Read More »

Out of Afghanistan: Tragedy or Farce?

post to UNC Press Blog, 14 June 2011

Watching the Obama administration try to extricate itself from Afghanistan is like watching a familiar tragedy. You know it’s not going to end well. Instead of facing facts, the protagonists cling to the delusion that they can somehow—with the right decision implemented in the right way at the right time—avoid failure.

Two previous, major U.S. military interventions reveal how self-deceived policymakers can be. Gradually, inexorably, the U.S. position in Korea in 1950-1951 and in Vietnam in the late 1960s became impossible and forced Washington to abandon even the pretense of victory. The sequence of setbacks then as now is pretty clear but also not pretty. Read More »

Obama on the Middle East: Let’s Pretend

post to UNC Press Blog, 20 May 2011

Listening to President Obama’s address on the Middle East and North Africa made me think of a primitive Lego set. Its limited number of pieces can be arranged in a variety of ways to produce something that always looks fundamentally the same. What was billed as a major speech was carefully tailored to fit the current circumstances, but it won’t significantly alter U.S. policy. Read More »

The Bin Laden Killing and American Exceptionalism

post to UNC Press Blog, 12 May 2011

The president’s dramatic announcement over a week ago that U.S. commandos had killed Osama Bin Laden at once raised questions. What were the precise circumstances of the killing? What are the likely consequences for al Qaeda and its regional affiliates? What are the implications for the U.S. stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan? We are not going to get clear answers any time soon on these matters. What does seem clear is how a sense of national exceptionalism has informed much of the U.S. reaction to the announcement. The notion of the United States as a special country and Americans as a special people with a unique historical destiny has long been an essential element in U.S. nationalism. The current commentary provides a reminder of how much exceptionalism is still with us. Read More »

Questions that the Libya Intervention Begs

post to UNC Press Blog, 21 April 2011

It’s ok to feel conflicted over the Libyan intervention. You’re not alone—and you have good reason. The U.S. response to the uprising against the Gaddafi regime raises a welter of issues. Is oil driving decisions? Why the inconsistency if not hypocrisy of acting in Libya but not Gaza? Is Libya just another case of U.S. muscle flexing or quagmire making? All these are reasonable concerns, but I’ve begun wondering if deeper issues don’t lurk beneath the Libya confusion. Read More »