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.