Provincialism in the air

In the wake of the Brexit vote and the rise of Trump, there is a distinct whiff of provincialism in the air. These developments have brought to mind an address I delivered to the UNC graduating class in December 2003 on the fragility of globalization. I wondered at the time if writing in the aftermath of 9/11 had made me too pessimistic about the role of the United States in a troubled world.

Now fourteen years later with the alarm bells again going off here and abroad, the old worry and doubts have returned. Is the rising tide of provincialism in the the UK and the US a sign of gobalization in trouble? Or is it merely a reflection of a loss of confidence and direction in two countries whose days of dominance are done? Perhaps we are not witnessing the end of the open global order but its transformation as new powers and players take a more prominent role. For Americans accustomed to thinking of their country as model and leader, the prospect of a diminished role in the world will be hard to understand and even harder to accept.

Excerpts from the 2003 address follow. (A full version can be found at Readers can judge for themselves how well the insights served up fourteen years ago apply to the current crisis unfolding in the Anglo-American world and how much we should worry.


Looking Beyond September 11”

(21 December 2003)

We live in somber times. September 11 continues to cast a dark shadow over the early years of the new century. Almost certainly that September morning of stunning destruction is now burned in the collective memory of the graduate’s generation. That day may well define a national watershed. Before, Americans were cavorting carefree with the jolly green giant of peace and economic prosperity. After, our lives seemed stalked by dark forces, the world less welcoming, our perplexities piling high. In the name of greater security we have bolstered government surveillance, raising the classic issues of how a free society safeguards itself without compromising its basic principles. We have launched military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq that have turned into open-ended and problematic commitments. The war on terrorism promises like predecessor crusades against poverty and drugs to be long and dispiriting and perhaps inconclusive.

There is yet another worrisome consequence of 9-11 that I’d like you to think about. So strong a grip does that attack have on our national imagination and policy that it may obscure a broad, gradually building set of global problems. . . .

. . . In question is the air you breathe, the climate you live with, the microbes you absorb, the networks of commerce and confidence you depend on for a livelihood, even the responsibility you bear for needless suffering within the human family.

These difficult problems are made yet more difficult by the eroding sense of international community. On one side Americans have good reason to feel frustrated and chagrinned by post-9-11 developments and to ask: Why not withdraw from an ungrateful, unyielding, dangerous world? Might a more solitary America be a safer place? It might be less vulnerable to attack, less dependent on fickle friends, less likely to get entangled in distant quarrels, more secure in its homeland and its domestic liberties. This logic is seductive.

But following this logic would mark a major reversal. Over the last half century, U.S. vision, generosity, and leadership have done much to shape the global order. Our finger prints are everywhere. Washington promoted European integration at its fragile start as well as Japan’s recovery from crushing defeat. Major international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank exist as a result of U.S. initiative and support. The same can be said for the world-wide free trade system, the drive to elevate human rights, and the campaign to hold leaders responsible for what have become widely accepted norms on genocide and crimes against humanity. American leadership – consistent and collaborative – remains as critical today as it was earlier to the development of international community and order. How can it be otherwise for the world’s largest economy, the unquestionable master of military power, the most widely admired model for social mobility and technological innovation, and the fount of cultural trends that reach around the world?

No less serious than turning our back on the world is the world turning its back on us. We run the risk of losing our legitimacy as architect and keeper of global order. Poll after poll over the last several years reveals that vaulting U.S. national ambitions and talk of being either with us or against us has generated world-wide resentment, even among long-time allies. While we remain widely admired socially and economically, elites around the world are regarding our policies, even our national style with growing suspicion, even aversion.

So now we come to the heart of the matter: If my reading of the current situation is right, your generation stands at a turning point. The coming half century that will round out your lives has the potential for change no less great than that witnessed over the previous half century. It is critical that we not let our fixation with the war on terrorism obscure the significance of the choices that loom.

One course is to recognize that global abundance and peace is inextricably tied to the resolution of the global problems now before us. Inequality, disease, environmental stress, and grass-roots disaffection are an inextricable and unsettling part of a highly dynamic and highly productive global society. Whatever its flaws, that society has made extraordinary strides and brought great benefits to many people. Simply consider the resources now available to us (an annual world-wide output of $30 trillion) compared to fifty years ago when it was a tenth that figure. Imagine what those resources mean today in the lives of people in all lands – in their health and welfare. Think about the capacity that this amazing, unprecedented leap in global productivity gives us to deal with the very problems that confront us. Only by addressing these mounting problems can a new generation hope to extend the considerable achievements of the previous fifty years.

What is to be done? Sustaining hope in the notion of a better world, seeking understanding of the workings of that world, and looking for ordinary ways of acting within your means as voters, consumers, investors, and professionals come at once to mind. Of these elements, understanding strikes me as especially important. You cannot deal with something that you do not understand or want to understand. The starting point is the simple but profound realization that there is more than the U.S. perspective on any of our current problems. That basic insight orients us to the importance of the diverse perspectives prevailing among other peoples and a sensitivity to the power and persistence of different national and regional values molded by sometimes profoundly different histories. We are getting a crash course on this point in regard to Islam and the Middle East. But the challenge to understanding is much broader than one religion or one region. It arises almost anywhere we turn – from the seemingly familiar European Union (with its distinct notions of welfare capitalism) to China (with its deep attachment to strong, centralizing state power) to the indigenous communities in Central America (fighting for cultural survival). Other peoples’ insistence on their own particular set of values does not mean that we have to embrace a paralyzing moral relativism. We do have to recognize that that ignoring or dismissing their views foredooms any sustained, fruitful attack on global problems in the years ahead.

Your effort to understand, to act, and to preserve hope will not necessarily be crowned with success. But the other course of making no effort will surely bring a global unraveling. The possible consequences of that unraveling are not pleasant to contemplate: discord among states and peoples leading to rising cultural intolerance, flaring nationalist fervor and rivalry, deepening international division, and fraying economic ties slowing growth and pressing down life span and health in wide swaths of the human population. This would be a world of narrower horizons, fewer choices, and less interaction among peoples and cultures. This would be a world in a downward spiral with diminished capacity for addressing the very global problems threatening us all.

. . . Those who think my crystal ball excessively pessimistic should think back to a not-so-distant history. In 1914 things began to go disastrously wrong and ultimately on a global scale. A world at peace amidst a rising tide of wealth stumbled into a thirty-year military and economic catastrophe. By 1945 millions upon millions lay dead, some of the world’s leading cities were rubble, starvation widespread, hope shattered. The road from that hellish period to our own relatively blessed state was long and by no means inevitable. Roads can carry traffic both ways – what has been accomplished can be lost.

The CIA, espionage, and profiling Trump

One of my all-time favorite books is Psychopathology and Politics, which offers insights now applicable to the endlessly fascinating current occupant of the White House to a degree that its author, Harold Lasswell, could never have imagined. For those unfamiliar with Lasswell’s work, the media has over recent months provided tutorials by psychologists and psychoanalysts venturing insight on Donald Trump’s complicated psyche.

Now the CIA has seemingly weighed in on the problem — though to be sure in the most oblique fashion imaginable and perhaps only inadvertently. The June 2017 issue of its Studies in Intelligence contains an article by Dr. Ursula M. Wilder on “The Psychology of Espionage.” Wilder, a psychologist with twenty years of government service, provides a crisp sketch of the three kinds of personality deformation displayed by Americans who have abused their access to top-secret information and betrayed their country: psychopathology, narcissism, and immaturity. (Extracts of the most pertinent sections of the article are supplied below; the the full version is available at Wilder’s crisp sketch of each of the three conditions speaks clearly to any layperson trying to make sense of the leader thrust to the fore by the 2016 election.

Aside from the insights it offers, the piece raises two fascinating questions. Why at this point has the CIA — or more exactly the editorial board that oversees Studies in Intelligence — decided to make public an updated version of Wilder’s classified 2003 study? A hidden agenda seems unlikely. But given the antagonism between the president and the intelligence community, it is not impossible to rule out malign intent. Or perhaps we have here the bureaucracy indulging a sense of mischief.

The other question: Is it an accident that a set of personality profiles that keep calling Trump to the reader’s mind appears in a study devoted to spotting and stopping those who would betray state secrets? Given the depth of concern within the intelligence community over Trump’s Russia ties, the connection is again not impossible to rule out.

So read on and judge for yourself to what extent the profiles of those prone to espionage also apply to the Trump presidency. My own own favorite for fit is narcissism, but elements of the other two disorders also seem unnervingly pertinent.


Excerpts from Ursula M. Wilder, “The Psychology of Espionage”

On the signs of the psychopathological personality: Psychopaths are predators, approaching life with remorselessness, manipulation, pursuit of risk and excitement, and sharp, short-term tactical abilities alongside poor long-term and strategic planning. They frequently leave people with a positive first impression. Over time and with extended exposure, the initial impression wears away as people become aware of, or are directly victimized by, the psychopath. Before they are unmasked, psychopaths can cause severe damage to individuals and institutions.

Psychopaths cannot consistently follow laws, rules, and customs and do not understand the social necessity of doing so. They have limited capacity to experience the feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse that are the building blocks of mature conscience and moral functioning. They are facile liars. In fact, many psychopaths take inordinate pleasure in lying because perpetrating an effective “con” gives them a sense of power and control over the person lied to, an emotional charge sometimes termed “duping delight.” Their glee in manipulating others may be so acute that it overrides judgment and good sense, causing them to take foolish risks simply for the pleasure of temporarily conning others.

Psychopaths are interpersonally exploitative. The condition is not infrequently associated with acute cruelty and the enjoyment of inflicting pain on others. Harming or alarming others is, to psychopaths, its own reward. They pursue these pleasures with relish irrespective of the risks involved or the limited potential for gain. . . .

Finally, psychopaths rarely learn from mistakes and have difficulty seeing beyond the present. Consequently, they have deficient long-term planning, and their judgment is weak. In contrast to their problems in strategic planning, psychopaths can be supremely skilled tacticians and exceptionally quick on their feet. Absent the usual prohibition against violating rules or social customs, psychopaths are tactically unbound and remarkably uninhibited. . . .

Because psychopaths thrive in an atmosphere of turbulence and instability, corporate cultures that tolerate risk taking and controversial or even abusive behaviors will provide congenial ground for them.


On the features of narcissism: Narcissistic personalities are characterized by exaggerated self-love and self-centeredness. Alongside an all-encompassing grandiosity runs a subtle but equally pervasive insecurity, into which narcissists have limited insight. Their internal world typically is built around fantasies about their remarkable personal abilities, charisma, beauty, and prospects. They are compelled to exhibit their presumed stellar attributes and constantly seek affirmation from others. Though their imaginings distort common sense or everyday reality, narcissists nevertheless believe in the accuracy of their daydreams and act accordingly. Others, therefore, often experience them as lacking common sense and twisting reality. When facts or other people contradict or interfere with their fantasies, narcissists become combative and vengeful. Their defensive hostility to criticism—even mild feedback—is often well out of proportion to whatever provocation sparked it.

Narcissists possess a careless disregard for personal integrity and can be very unscrupulous and manipulative in pursuing their own ends. They are, on the whole, indifferent to the needs of others, who in turn see them as having flawed social consciences. Narcissists feel entitled to special—even extraordinary—favors and status that they do not believe they have to reciprocate. They heedlessly exploit others emotionally and financially, or in other ways that suit their ends. They are deeply antagonistic to sharing decisionmaking with others, irrespective of the legitimacy of the claims of others for some degree of control. Convinced of their own inherent superiority, they blame others for their problems or for negative things that happen to them, including social rejection. Because they do not consider themselves at fault for any troubles or setbacks, narcissists feel at liberty to take whatever steps they deem necessary to redress wrongs or regain a sense of mastery and superiority.

Narcissistic self-absorption should not be confused with an inability to grasp the perspective of others. Their hunger for affirmation produces acute awareness of the reactions they are provoking from the people around them. This deep hunger for affirmation also makes them vulnerable to manipulation, particularly by people whose admiration or approval they desire. Narcissists are particularly sensitive to authorities or to otherwise socially prominent or powerful people. Conversely, they can be inordinately indifferent to or contemptuous of the feelings or needs of people whom they believe to be insignificant or social inferiors.

Narcissists are often magnetic because their supreme self-confidence wedded to their urgent drive to impress enables them to project the appearance of talent and charm effectively. Over time, the charisma wears thin as it becomes evident that this appearance is not built on substance, but rather on fantasies and fabrications. Furthermore, narcissists’ pervasive tendency to see others as inferior causes them to be needlessly sarcastic, belittling, or supercilious.

People around narcissists may note stark contrasts in their conduct toward different classes of people, depending on their social rank and usefulness. Furthermore, the hostile and vindictive attacks narcissists mete out when others challenge their grandiosity tend to provoke angry responses in return. The result is that narcissists frequently find themselves the recipients of antagonistic feelings at distinct odds with their view of themselves as infinitely superior and admirable. They have limited insight into their role in these dynamics and tend to blame others for their own lack of social success, in the workplace as elsewhere. Their managers will frequently have to intervene in the interpersonal conflicts they habitually generate.

In addition, narcissists often show a pattern of violating organizational rules and disregarding institutional or managerial authority. They trivialize inconvenient regulations or hold themselves superior and exempt from policies, directives, and laws. . . . Finally, narcissists will lie, fabricate information or events, willfully exaggerate accomplishments, and often believe their own fabrications, all in the interest of appearing successful or important.


On the tell-tales of immaturity: The most salient characteristic of immaturity is the ascendancy of fantasy over reality. Immature adults spend an inordinate amount of time daydreaming, deliberately calling to mind ideas that stimulate pleasant or exciting emotions. In contrast to mature adults, immature adults do not readily distinguish their private world from objective external reality and, in fact, may expect reality to conform to their self-serving and stimulating fantasies. Their fantasies about their special powers, talents, status, prospects, and future actions can be so seductive that they become resentful of conflicting real-world truth

. . . Because the reasoning, judgment, and self-control of immature adults are underdeveloped, such individuals are less tied to factual reality than their mature peers and more dependent on fantasy to cope with events and to maintain stability.

Consequently, immature adults generally expect others to embrace what to them is the self-evident legitimacy of their personal ideas and longings. They often cannot understand why others do not share their perspective and fail to see that reality itself works against the validity of their fantasies. They frequently will act on their fantasies with little anticipation of consequences that to most people would be completely predictable. They are often genuinely shocked when reality intrudes on their plans and interferes with anticipated outcomes.

Furthermore, immature people are persistently egocentric, they see themselves as the epicenter of any crowd or event. They believe others are paying close attention to them personally in most contexts, and as a result they are acutely self-aware. When it becomes clear that they are not the center of attention and that others might, in fact, be indifferent to them, they often react negatively and take steps to bring attention to themselves.

Immature people have difficulty moderating their feelings. Rather than appropriately disciplining and channeling feelings, they are subject to them. As a result, they are given to dramatic displays of emotion when stressed or excited, and while these displays may be congruent to whatever stimulated the feelings—for example, they will become very angry at perceived injustices or delight in successes—observers will sense that the emotions lack proper proportion and moderation.

A significant consequence of poor emotional control is impulsivity. Immature people have difficulty restraining their immediate wishes in the interest of anticipating long-term consequences. When prompted by sudden feelings or urgent desires, they take precipitous action. They tend to have limited attention spans and need to be emotionally engaged with a task or a person to retain focus. They can be quite fickle and easily distracted.

Finally, like psychopaths and narcissists, immature adults have defective consciences, but they are capable of feeling real guilt and often have well-developed moral codes. Their egocentricism and impulsivity limit their capacity for foresight, but in hindsight they often deeply regret their impetuous actions. Though they may want to behave ethically and feel guilt and shame when they behave badly or hurt other people, their capacity to apply their moral understanding and desires consistently to control their behavior is compromised.

Trump’s Korean crisis in the light of international history

Amidst all the fevered discussion of the current crisis over the North Korean nuclear program, history has some important things to say. This is hardly the first crisis U.S. policymakers have confronted over the last century or so. While only some have been nuclear, all offer lessons on the precarious and uncertain ground on which crisis managers tread. Those lessons are most penetrating and least comforting when crises are viewed internationally and not simply as a U.S. drama.

Some two decades back I selected seven cases of serious high-stakes crises in which U.S. leaders became embroiled. My special concern was to understand them in a way that gave the role of the U.S. adversary as much attention as that of the Americans and thus captured the full dynamic of the interaction between the two sides. The lessons from those cases, laid out in the conclusion of Crises in U.S. Foreign Policy: An International History Reader (Yale University Press, 1996), are worth recalling today.

In the most basic terms, it is easy to forget that policymakers, whatever their nationality, are human and thus vulnerable to passion, confusion, and accident. They are, moreover, each constrained within their own particular country’s political, cultural, and institutional framework.

The most obvious consequence of this situation is incomplete or flawed information that can hobble both sides in a crisis. Even were the crisis environment transparent, information would not necessarily assemble into a coherent and accurate picture. And even if the available information was assembled into such a picture, a rapidly changing situation would soon leave it outdated. That policymakers tend to play their cards close only compounds the problem, making it difficult to gauge the crosscurrents in the minds of antagonists. The marked belief in American policy dating back to Woodrow Wilson that diplomatic contact is not a practical necessity but a sign of moral approbation only adds to the difficulties. Washington often has no easy or regular way to interrogate those whom it is most likely to condemn and thus confront.

No less serious is the difficulty of policymakers locked in crisis have in speaking clearly, directly, and coherently. Doing so can help avoid a crisis in the first place and then, once engulfed by one, can facilitate a way out. But crisis communications can easily become distorted. The principals themselves may be uncertain about the dangers they face or the outcomes they desire. Far from having a simple or settled point of view, policymakers caught in a complex and tension-filled situation in which the outcome carries potentially great personal and national consequences often display a fuzzy, inchoate, or even shifting definition of their interests and goals. To say that leaders want more than one thing at a time and that that what they want changes only underlines the point made above: they are human.

Perhaps the most profound gulf that policymakers in crisis must bridge is cultural. They are themselves conditioned by their society and bear unexamined ideological biases. Little wonder they struggle to understand the language of the other, both literally and symbolically, and thus have difficulty reading the mental world and the guiding concerns of their antagonist. The more marked the differences between countries locked in crisis, the more likely perceptions will do more to obscure than to illuminate the beliefs and behavior of the other. To be sure a cadre of specialists exist for policymakers to turn to, but the specialists may themselves usually have different points of view and in any case are often kept on the margins of decisionmaking.

In all these ways historical case studies of crisis highlight policymakers’ inevitable lack of clairvoyance, their extreme vulnerability to mixed convictions and goals, and their unavoidable cultural blinders. This debilitating trio introduces a dynamic element into crisis as each side rushes to keep its estimate of the situation, the adequacy of its will and resources, and the nature of its overall goals current with the gyrations of equally agitated policymakers on the other side. Under stress the multiple, perhaps divergent goals of each side become exposed and the ambiguities of calculations are revealed. Viewed in these international terms, “crisis management” becomes a kind of psychological St. Vitus dance that two rivals induce in each other and that ends only after exhaustion sets in or disaster occurs.

The worrisome point that emerges from this set of historically grounded generalizations is that all crises are dangerous, harboring the potential for misperception and unpredictable behavior, resulting in an outcome neither party may have wanted. Like Russian roulette, most crises will not prove deadly, but who knows whether in the next round the outcome may be grimly consequential.

The presence of Donald Trump adds an entirely unprecedented element of danger into the equation. To a remarkable degree he lacks the very qualities of a successful crisis manager. He is impulsive, thus posing for his opposite number a puzzle that may lead to a misreading and miscalculation. He is inexperienced and to make matters worse incurious and thus likely to assess his foes goals and options in the most superficial, conventional, and culture-bound terms. He has a short attention span and is thus unsuited to the prolonged, intricate exchange with his advisers on the nature of the crisis and the most effective, prudent way forward. He is contemptuous of expertise, thus banishing to the sidelines those who might bring valuable insight to bear. He is fixated with public reputation and thus reluctant to make the difficult compromises and concessions that are at the heart of crisis management, indeed foreign policy of any sort.

These characteristics of the president have long been in evidence but until now with less deleterious consequences in prospect. Behaving like a cavalier egomaniac during his election campaign won him the support of a dissatisfied electorate. Once installed in the White House he has acted like a bull in a china closet, but at least in domestic affairs he has been constrained by Congress, the courts, the media, and interest groups. By contrast in the international arena Trump occupies a presidency in which much power has over the decades been concentrated so that the incumbent can act with great freedom for better or worse. The likelihood of worse is quite likely in the era of Trump.

The most pessimistic commentators on the current crisis have good reason for worry. Indeed a reading of the past suggests that in their pessimism they may be underestimating the dangers. We may need what Dean Acheson gave as the reason for the successful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis: “plain dumb luck.”

H. R. McMaster’s road to the White House: Reflections personal and historical

H. R. McMaster’s sudden elevation to policy prominence has prompted reflections that are in part personal. Herbert Raymond McMaster came to UNC-Chapel Hill in the early 1990s, a captain in his early thirties intent on working in the UNC-Duke military history program under the direction of Richard Kohn. A 1984 graduate of West Point, he had already made a name for himself during the first Gulf War by leading a bold tank charge that overwhelmed numerically superior Iraqi forces. I got to know him through course work and our shared interest in the Vietnam War, which landed me on his MA and PhD committees. By the time he defended his PhD thesis in 1996 it was clear to me (as Senator John McCain has put it) that McMaster was “a man of genuine intellect, character, and ability.”

He was also a man on the move (already clear in the rapid completion of his doctoral requirements) and a risk taker (also clear in a dissertation that took sharp aim at the Joint Chief of Staff). In 1994-96 he returned to West Point to teach and complete his dissertation (published as the book Dereliction of Duty in 1997). He moved on through the regular Army cycle of staff, school, and combat unit assignments, building his reputation as he went. Not afraid of the limelight, McMaster got considerable notice in 2005-2006 for his pacification strategy in Iraq, which prefigured the counter-insurgency boom that developed under the auspices of General David Petraeus.

His forthrightness and command of the public spotlight riled some senior officers. Having been promoted early three times in his career, his promotion to brigadier general was delayed twice and a third snub would have ended McMaster’s career. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates intervened, and a third review chaired by a distinctly friendly Petraeus finally got McMaster his first star in 2008. The next two followed in short order as he continued to burnish his reputation as a warrior-scholar. In the most recent and dramatic turn in his career, a floundering Trump administration tapped him to head the National Security Council. The resignation of retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn had set off an urgent search for a replacement. After Navy Adm Robert Hayward refused the position, McMaster got the nod. In late February he traveled to Mar-a-Lago where the president introduced his new National Security Council head, who would remain on active duty while serving in the White House.

* * *

This rise to prominence of the warrior-scholar has also prompted me to look back at McMaster’s book and his involvement in the war on terrorism through my historian’s prism, especially my interest in the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy.

My own sense of Dereliction of Duty based on a fresh reading some twenty years since its publication and some twenty-one years since I read it as a dissertation is that it is impressively researched, clearly written, and strongly argued. It deserves the plaudits that it earned at the time and repays reading today. It has a two-part structure. The introduction and epilogue boldly indict the Joint Chiefs and their civilian masters. “The disaster in Vietnam was not the result of impersonal factors but a uniquely human failure, the responsibility for which was shared by President Johnson and his principal military and civilian advisers.”1 Lyndon Johnson was in McMaster’s eyes guilty of lying, manipulation, and subordination of Vietnam to his domestic agenda. The senior military leaders for their part failed in their duty because of their fixation on the parochial interests of their respective services and their “go-along-to-get-along” reluctance to challenge their commander-in-chief and his civilian advisers.McMaster_Dereliction

Between those bookends are some three hundred plus pages of careful, fresh, detailed, archivally-based treatment of the policy process — the exchange of memos, the meetings, and the inspection tours to Vietnam — that culminated in LBJ’s July 1965 decision to make a major U.S. troop commitment in Vietnam. In its detail and bite Dereliction of Duty brings to mind David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972), another carefully marshaled indictment of the men who led the country into a disaster.

McMaster’s explanation for the Vietnam debacle was not the first to command attention of the officer corps, but it was arguably the one that resonated most strongly. By pointing to a failure of leadership on the part of the military’s most senior officers and a refusal by policymakers to respect military advice, Dereliction of Duty spoke to a deep sense of grievance within the military over the loss of life and institutional reputation resulting from flawed leadership. It became required reading.

Neither McMaster nor his readers seemed inclined to grapple with some hard “what if” questions. How would events have played out had the JCS stood up to LBJ? Would insistence on being heard have altered major decisions and led to a different outcome in the war? Or would standing up to LBJ have simply caused the president to further distance himself from the military, thus deepening distrust and dysfunction in civil-military relations?

A reading of McMaster’s book today evokes the same fundamental interpretive objection I had to his doctoral dissertation several decades ago. McMaster doesn’t give Lyndon Johnson a fair shake and in the process fails to understand the broad context in which policy was then — indeed is invariably — made. I accept the charge that the president was duplicitous, manipulative, and calculating. These were the traits of a great politician but also of a policymaker caught in an impossible situation that genuinely deserves to be called tragic. Johnson knew all to well why he was trapped. Vietnamese nationalism was a potent fuel for the resistance to U.S. intervention, and abetting that resistance were stout Chinese and Soviet allies. Documentation that came available even as McMaster was working on his project confirmed Johnson’s conviction that a U.S. invasion of the North would have triggered a dangerous international crisis and if not a nuclear confrontation then likely an expanded and prolonged ground war.

LBJ was also constrained domestically by a strong anti-communist consensus. Johnson feared with good cause that the abandonment of Vietnam and thus the blow to the bipartisan policy of containment would create a political uproar. Johnson worried about the threat from the Right even more than the one from the Left and was convinced that any concession would not only weaken him politically but also create a groundswell of support for a dangerous escalation of the war.

The only satisfactory course — the only imaginable course in the context of the times — was the safe middle if muddled option of doing just enough to keep the Saigon government afloat and hope that the fates would somehow favor the U.S. cause. In short, Johnson had an acute understanding of the limits of U.S. power from the outset that far exceeded that of the senior military. Johnson needed the help of military leaders both professionally and politically, but he could not as the price of that help abandon his safe if unsatisfactory middle course of gradual escalation.

There is ample evidence on Johnson’s views. Take for example my favorite: his taped telephone comments to Robert McNamara on 21 June 1965 on the eve of his major troop deployment:2

It’s going to be difficult for us to very long prosecute effectively a war that far away from home with the divisions that we have here [in the United States], particularly the potential divisions. . . . I’m very depressed about it ‘cause I see no program from either [Department of] Defense or State that gives me much hope of doing anything except just prayin’ and gasping to hold on during the monsoon [season] and hope they’ll [the Vietnamese Communists will] quit. I don’t believe they ever goin’ to quit. I don’t see how, that we have any way of either a plan for victory militarily or diplomatically.

After this remarkable summary of the difficulties facing the U.S. role in in Vietnam, the president pronounced abandoning Vietnam impossible. “I don’t think we can get out of there with our treaty like it is and with what all we’ve said. And I think it would just lose us face in the world, and I shudder to think what all of ‘em would say.” These last observations reflect the hold of commitments to a communist-free Vietnam going back more than a decade and to his determination not to allow an opening for the Goldwater Right to whip up anti-communism at home, to promote a dangerously hard-edged foreign policy, or to undermine the Great Society program.

That McMaster in his inaugural outing as a historian drew up an indignant indictment of the policy process and downplayed the broad international and domestic context in which policymakers functioned was understandable. It was his Army that got mauled in Vietnam as a result of Johnson’s decisions. And in any case a dissertation and first book should not be expected to draw on the experience of a lifetime but rather to demonstrate skill at sound research and clear exposition. That is what Dereliction of Duty did in spades. But what the author now running the NSC is going to need is much more of that breadth of view missing earlier. Policy does not take shape in a vacuum. The interests of other powers matter and so too does the state of political play at home. Is this an insight McMaster has taken on board?

* * *

Not much in the warrior-scholar’s engagement in the post-9/11 war on terrorism, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, offers a clear answer to that question. Nor do we know whether he thinks that U.S. policymakers have been more successful in waging the war on terrorism than they were in Vietnam and whether he actually anticipates a more favorable outcome after a decade and a half of sustained engagement, military and otherwise.

McMaster’s Iraq experience began in mid-2005 as the U.S. occupation faced growing resistance. As commander of the 3rd Armed Cavalry Regiment, he made his goal the pacification of Tal Afar, a city of 200,000 in northern Iraq west of Mosul. The population was mainly ethnic Turkmen, a majority of whom were Sunni and the minority Shia. The city had changed hands several times. Following the U.S. invasion in 2003, insurgents had wrested control, only to be pushed out by the U.S. Army in 2004 and then to return in 2005.

McMaster brought with him to Tal Afar ideas about the conduct of counter-insurgency formulated while working on General John Abizaid’s Central Command staff during 2003-2004. He was guided by two sources, both based on the European colonial experience, that were to become required reading among those drawn to counter-insurgency around this time. One was David Galula, a French officer who had fought in the battle to hold Algeria in the late 1950s and then written up lessons learned. The other was the British pacification program in Malaya during the 1940s and 1950s.

McMaster together with Petraeus and other champions of counter-insurgency failed from the start to recognize how deeply steeped in colonial assumptions Galula and other sources were and how neo-colonial their objectives were. Like the French and the British, they were asserting dominance over other peoples and assuming the right to shape their future. The counter-insurgent crowd also conveniently downplayed the idiosyncratic reason for the success the British had in Malaya: the insurgents were ethnic Chinese without significant international support and easily isolated from the country’s majority Malay population. Either an unquestioning sense of mission or a deep sense of national exceptionalism blinded them to their awkward role as liberators trying to impose order and instill new values and institutions.

The sudden Army infatuation with counter-insurgency did at least lead to the sensible realization that pacification was less military than political and that force had to be employed with restraint. According to an illuminating study by Mac Owens, McMaster concluded that the way forward was to focus on the civilian population, “isolating residents from insurgents, providing security, building a police force, and allowing political and economic development to take place so that the government commands the allegiance of its citizens.” The critical assumption underlying this program was that the population was passive, taking a wait-and-see attitude. Adroit handling could win that population over and leave insurgents isolated, demoralized, and vulnerable.3

McMaster started the operations at Tal Afar first by schooling his troops in a new norm of limited force and respect for civilians and then by building a berm around the city to channel movement to a few checkpoints. With the stage set, he dispatched 5,000 Iraqi and 3,800 American soldiers into the city to eliminate insurgents, set up some thirty command posts, recruit and train police, deliver basic services (roads, electricity, water, schools), calm Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict through power sharing arrangements, and address popular grievances.

This far-reaching, deliberate approach along with heavy investment in generators, school supplies, training for police, and funding for city operations proved a success — but only as long as the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment was there to run the show. When it departed in mid-2006 leaving Iraqi forces in charge, the security situation deteriorated. Sectarian violence returned and became routine by early 2007. In 2014, three years after the withdrawal of all U.S. combat units from Iraq, ISIS captured the city and today still holds a portion of it. From the current perspective, Tal Afar reveals in microcosm the limits rather than the promise of counter-insurgency.

The Afghanistan phase of McMaster’s education began in 2010 when he was assigned to the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. His job was to curb if not stop blatant, pervasive, crippling corruption in an Afghan government heavily sustained by international funding. This time there was not even a short-term glimmer of success. In time-honored fashion a government heavily dependent on outside support for survival turned aside a hard-charging foreign reformer. Indigenous collaborators knew all too well that they were indispensable to the outsiders and could extract a price for their collaboration.

Despite disappointing results, McMaster assumed the role of the “go-along” general of the sort he had criticized so harshly in Dereliction of Duty. Before his departure in 2012 he publicly professed optimism about the general direction of the campaign against the Taliban. Attacks were down, Afghan security forces were more numerous, school enrollments were up, and communications had improved as cell phones proliferated. He concluded with the cheery view that the next step forward was to consolidate these gains politically and psychologically.

Despite McMaster’s happy talk, it has long been evident that the nation-building project in Afghanistan had gone off the tracks. Stephen Walt, a scholar of international relations with a strong realist outlook, has very recently pronounced that project “an endless, costly, and unrealistic effort with no clearly discernible endpoint and little hope of success.” Government security forces have suffered heavy casualties as they have taken over more and more of the fighting. The insurgency either controls or has a foothold in about a third of the country’s 402 districts. All this, Walt reports, after the United States has “spent more than $65 billion on training along with nearly $120 billion in reconstruction efforts and nearly a trillion dollars in actual war costs.”4

How would McMaster today compare the Vietnam policy he indicted in his book with the failed record of counter-insurgency in which he has played so signal a role? What lessons does McMaster take from his ultimately disappointing efforts in Iraq? How does he assess a situation in Afghanistan now that seems to diverge dramatically from his earlier, rosy assessment? How does he evaluate the investment of American life and treasure in those two countries with so little to show for it? The answers might tell us much about the mindset and the assumptions of the new head of the NSC and how he might evaluate the proposals directed at his boss from agencies across the executive branch.

* * *

But first the warrior-scholar has to gain control of an agency that functions as a miniature version of State and Defense Department combined with the CIA. McMaster suffered an early setback when he tried to fire his senior director for intelligence (a thirty-year-old Flynn protégé, Ezra Cohen-Watnick). Jared Kushner and Stephen Bannon supposedly intervened with the president to block the move, and Trump had Cohen-Watnick reinstated. But McMaster pressed ahead. He revised the NSC principals list to exclude Bannon and to include at the table the JCS, the directors of National Intelligence and the CIA, the UN ambassador, and the Energy Secretary. Moreover, McMaster brought the Homeland Security Council within his purview and got he got his deputy inherited from Flynn, K. T. McFarland, appointed ambassador to Singapore.

McMaster-TrumpThe next challenge is to socialize an undisciplined president in the kind of systematic staff procedures so ingrained in the military culture. This has already proven no easy matter. His boss has a short attention span, an antipathy to reading, a tendency to shoot off his mouth, and an instinctive preference for quick, informal decision-making. His pronounced inexperience is compounded by his antipathy to expertise and especially intelligence and by his heavy reliance on family and loyalists. McMaster’s efforts to tutor, guide, and curb have not surprisingly made him in Trump’s estimate “a pain.” Perhaps most serious of all is the president’s serial, seemingly compulsive lying with its insidious effects which McMaster himself underlined in Dereliction of Duty, most forcefully in a quote by Thomas Jefferson: “He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.”5 McMaster has personally felt the corrosive effects of the “falsehood of tongues” after gamely spinning Tump’s mishandling of intelligence during his meeting with the Russians. 

Beyond staff control and the president’s dysfunctional style lies that greater challenge of what course to pursue in that large part of the Muslim world now in upheaval, not to mention in eastern Europe and Northeast Asia. The serial U.S. failures there are notable and the way forward not obvious. Is the United States so hopelessly entangled that there is no choice left but to try to hold Afghanistan and Iraq together while playing whack-a-mole against opposition groups raised up by the diverse, pervasive, and dynamic currents of political Islam. Walt has asked, “What would you do if your boss ordered you to teach a sheep to fly?” McMaster presumably knows that sheep can’t fly, but what will he tell the president? Will he succumb to the “can-do” spirit familiar from the Vietnam-era JCS? Would Trump welcome a “no-fly” declaration? He has been outspokenly critical of nation building and presumably is unhappy with money going down a rat’s hole abroad when the needs at home are so great. But he also likes winning and is uninterested in the intricate diplomacy that would be required to bring the regional powers (Turkey, Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia) as well as Russia into some kind of accord that might help to calm a much agitated neighborhood.

The greatest challenge of all is arguably the declining U.S. position as a world power. Slippage is evident at home in the erosion of civic comity and consensus, in declining educational standards relative to peer countries, and in the failure to invest in human welfare and infrastructure. Slippage is also evident in the steady rise of regional challengers that goes back to the Cold War era. The pronounced multi-polar nature of the international order today leaves U.S. policymakers constrained in general and frustrated by an inability to control developments in key regions around the world. Finally, U.S. hegemonic legitimacy has suffered repeated blows. Claims to leadership turn hollow and become more expensive without willing followers. When it comes time for the NSC to offer some sense of a grand strategy suited to difficult times, what will it recommend? Following some version of “America First” that promises an end to foreign entanglements while making Americans feel proud of their country? Or resuscitating the old orthodoxy of global leadership, broad regional engagement, and economic integration shaped during the Cold War and still much favored today by the policy community? Or exploring some third course that takes into account the vast transformations effected by globalization over recent decades?

Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army officer critical of recent U.S. foreign policy, has expressed doubts that McMaster has the chops to confront these overarching challenges. He would have to shift from thinking in narrow military terms to imagining a realistic grand strategy not only for the Middle East but for world affairs in general. “McMaster is a resourceful and demanding military leader. As a field commander, he has exhibited impressive tactical skill. As a staff officer he has filled high-profile assignments both at home and abroad . . . . For all that, he remains a professional soldier, not a global visionary.”6

But that judgment may be beside the point. It misunderstands the role of the National Security adviser, which is more about creating a process for making decisions that work for the president than serving up a grand design for him to embrace. If there is to be a grand strategy for the United States, it has to come from the president. The ultimate challenge of arriving at a sense of how the world works and how the U.S. ought to fit is thus one not for the National Security adviser but for his boss. Without that sense the president will have difficulty knowing what questions to ask and ultimately how to use the NSC to refine, test, publicly articulate, and implement his vision. The best McMaster can do is introduce Trump to the possibility of thinking in a more deliberate, expansive, and coherent fashion. And this is well within McMaster’s demonstrated skill set. It would be no small achievement — and one with distinctly ironic overtones — if the warrior-scholar turned policymaker could help Trump become as astute and engaged in the making of policy as LBJ was in his time.

* Thanks to Judith Pulley for the opportunity to test the observations laid out here, to James Huskey for a close, critical reading of a draft, and to Richard Kohn for a reassuring vetting. This post was updated on 20 May 2017.

1 Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 334.

2 From a secretly recorded conversation held by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas, and widely reproduced in books on the Johnson presidency.

3 Mac Owens, Naval War College study, May 2009, available at (accessed 9 April 2017). See also Jon Finer, “H.R. McMaster is hailed as the hero of Iraq’s Tal Afar. Here’s what that operation looked like,” Washington Post, 24 February 2017, available at (accessed 2 April 2017).

4 Walt in Foreign Policy magazine online (28 March 2017) available at (accessed 29 March 2017).

5 Dereliction of Duty, 85.

6 Bacevich appraisal at (accessed 2 April 2017).



Remembering Marilyn Young — and her Vietnam War classic

The tributes to Marilyn Young following her death last week have been fulsome and much deserved. She was a talented historian. She was also an engaged observer with a keen eye for the morally significant. Her rock-solid judgment, generosity of spirit, and wry sense of humor endeared her to colleagues and students.

I came into Marilyn’s orbit very early in my career, probably mid-1968. She had just published her first book, The Rhetoric of Empire, and I was newly launched on the dissertation that became Frontier Defense and the Open Door. Then in residence at Dartmouth, she welcomed me into her home and administered the Marilyn treatment. I left feeling I had found a kindred spirit in what was then the nascent field of U.S.-China studies.

My conviction that I could trust Marilyn to both shoot straight and offer encouragement was confirmed time and again over the following decades as she vetted my project proposals and scrutinized my manuscripts. For example, her review for UNC Press of The American Ascendancy in 2005 had nice things to say, but it concluded with a withering treatment of my short draft conclusion. She reported that “it read to me like apologia [for U.S. policy] and came as a great surprise.” There followed a full page of single-spaced, rat-a-tat criticism meant to save me from what was in fact a badly formulated finale. Needless to say, I went to work on rewrites immediately grateful that she had not only spoken sharply but also laid out in helpful detail all the points needing a careful rethink.

Marilyn and I widened our range of scholarly interests over the years to include U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, American empire, and the American warfare state. Her The Vietnam Wars was always close at hand and often on my mind as I thought about ways to approach these and other topics so important in the history of the United States in the world. The book was filled with passion that showed how to make the past pertinent. She would not take the pronouncements of American officials at face value, nor would she let her readers off the hook. Because history mattered to her, she made it matter to readers. Her forcefully drawn interpretations pushed them to take a stance whether in agreement or in dissent.

Even more important in my estimate, the book offered an example of the complexity of war and set a standard of sophistication that she challenged others to met. Her Vietnam War was not just about U.S. decision-making and military strategy. It treated in generous detail the domestic consequences of the U.S. commitment. It insisted on a prominent place for the Vietnamese side with all its complexity, and it made room for the other peoples of Indochina caught up in conflict. Its astutely selected photo essay drove the point home in an unforgettable way that the people swept up in conflict supremely mattered. Now a quarter century old, the book stands as a landmark that still repays reading for its conceptual clarity and breadth as well as for its humane passion.

In both her life and her work, Marilyn Young leaves us an object lesson in what it means to take the profession of history seriously.

Giving historical context to the Trump presidency

Predicting, even imagining the future of the Trump presidency is a fool’s errand. “Unprecedented” was used repeatedly to describe Donald Trump’s candidacy, and the word has kept appearing as he has pivoted from campaigning to governing. “Unprecedented” leaves a lot of room for speculation and not much to ground that speculation on. Will the narcissist show up every day in the Oval Office, driving the administration into constant, self-defeating dysfunction? Is there a craftiness at work that observers may still underestimate and that may produce significant achievements? Will the new president preen and strut and leave the real governance to his uneasy coalition of conservative Republican politicians, businessmen, and white populists?

While history can’t tell us which Trump will show up over the next four years, it can identify the context in which he will be operating. There are two long-term developments which not only helped elevate him politically but also are now likely to constrain him. Both might fairly be described as part of a tectonic shift dating back to the 1970s.

The first is the crisis of U.S. nationalism. (A previous post has dealt with the important aspect of this crisis related to citizenship.) The consensus about collective purpose and identity has eroded over the past several decades. As the nationalist formation that dominated much of the twentieth century has come into doubt, a three way debate has taken shape over the American future.

The debate began in the 1960s with a conservative challenge to the dominant nationalist point characterized by an activist state, a commitment to international leadership, and a multi-cultural conception of citizenship. The challenge was inspired by the growing appeal of neo-liberalism with its faith in the role of markets freed from state intervention and regulation both at home and internationally. By the time of the Clinton presidency Democrats had joined the neo-liberal chorus even as they defended old progressive government programs. To confuse matters much of the public seemed to side with the small government cause with its irresistible promise of lower taxes, yet that same public was not prepared to give up the government programs that provided a modicum of security.

Further destabilizing the nationalist consensus has been the recent revolt of the marginals. They included whites who felt displaced in an increasingly diverse society and put off by a black man occupying the White House. They were disproportionately found among older Americans who dreamed of restoring an idyllic 1950s America. They were workers with limited education and thus limited access to the job market and stagnant or declining wages. They were residents of backwater counties where manufacturing and mining jobs had dribbled away, where population was shrinking, and where longevity and other indices of welfare have pointed downward. They became politically relevant with the appearance of the Tea Party in 2008 and helped power an insurgent candidate to victory in the 2016 presidential contest. As the ostensible champion of the marginals, Trump has scrambled the old left-right debate by questioning free trade and overseas commitments, both cornerstones of the old nationalist faith, while also exploiting the resentments of whites who felt ignored and left behind.

What is now in broad terms a three-way division over national identity will not be soon resolved. Along the way there will be a lot of intense division and discord much as in the past when U.S. nationalism has moved from one phase to another.

The other tectonic shift has been playing out globally since the 1970s. U.S. policymakers after World War II had rescued globalization much battered by war and depression by promoting supportive values and institutions. For their commitment Americans were repaid in international leadership, world-wide prestige and influence, and economic prosperity. By the 1970s globalization under U.S. auspices began to accelerate with consequences that have since shaken U.S. dominance. New powers in regions around the world emerged resistant to U.S. direction. International institutions and organizations have multiplied and wielded increasing authority, thus further eroding U.S. clout. A more open international economy has prompted U.S. corporations to move abroad, leaving rust belts behind. As it went into financial overdrive, that economy demonstrated a tendency toward instability, first evident in regional crises in the 1980s and 1990s and then in the 2008 meltdown that shook the United States and spread to Europe.

In general, free movement of goods and capital brought not good GDP numbers but a growing inequality that spelled stagnant income for most and a rising fear that a system that was supposed to produce for each generation a better life than the one before was broken. Americans fell prey to political alienation evident in voter turnout and to distrust of institutions and the elites who run them, resulting in democratic dysfunction and sharp political contention. Here we see the connection between the inroads of globalization and the loss of nationalist consensus. A society disrupted by global forces has good cause for domestic disagreement about the way forward. The more profound the disruption, the deeper the disagreement.

Until Americans face the pervasive effects of globalization and decide how to find a fresh accommodation with it, the problems noted above are likely to persist. Building walls, renegotiating trade agreements and putting America first are good bumper sticker solutions, but they are not likely to either restore comfortable small-town values or “make America great again.” No matter what the Trump administration does, globalization will remain a potent force technologically, economically, and culturally.

The task engaged Americans now face is formidable. On the one hand it involves understanding the global influences now deeply embedded in their lives so they can figure out how to channel them. On the other hand it involves coming to some kind of agreement on the kind of society they want they want to create and protect in a dynamic, globalized world. All the evidence to date suggests that Donald Trump lacks the sophistication to address either the challenge of figuring out how to live with globalization or how to resolve the contradictions disrupting the national consensus. But the troubles likely to attend his presidency may well help clarify for many of his fellow citizens and even some of his supporters the hard choices before us. The road is likely to get rougher before there can be any hope of smoother going.

Trump and foreign policy troubles ahead

Donald Trump will enter the White House next month intent on a disruptive foreign policy. His campaign promises pointed in that direction, his recent key appointments give no reason to doubt his resolve, and his initial free-form contact with foreign leaders provides confirmation. The next four years could bring whole-sale change in the U.S. global position — from trade and regional commitments to nuclear proliferation, human rights, and the environment (to name only the most obvious in what is a long and mind-bending list). On the table are changes greater than anything seen since World War II and the early years of the Cold War.

There are good reason for concern that are intrinsic to the very scope of Trump’s ambitions. Given the magnitude, breadth, and intricacy of the looming policy shifts, the odds on misadventure are quite high. Any big changes carries big consequences that are hard to foresee, and a raft of such changes make the future even more murky, dangers harder to anticipate, and mishaps thus difficult to forestall.

Historical perspective can add an additional layer of concern. The diplomatic record suggests strongly that what presidents know when they enter the Oval Office, how well formulated their ideas are, and how systematically they make their decisions matter a great deal. While these features do not guarantee a successful foreign policy, the absence of any one increases the odds against success.

It may be obvious that knowing something about the world, the U.S. policy record, and the institutions that shape that policy can be extremely helpful to the new inhabitant of the White House. But few postwar presidents have met the mark. The exception are Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and arguably Lyndon Johnson. Ike wrote tellingly on his first day in office: “Plenty of worries and difficult problems. But such has been my portion for a long time — the result is that this just seems (today) like a continuation of all I’ve been doing since July 1941 — even before that.”

If Ike felt that the woes of the world had fallen on him, they were woes he knew. Trump’s woes will be compounded many times over by an ignorance of policy and process deeper than any of his recent predecessors. Will he recognize how little he knows? Does he understand that what he has learned from negotiating deals overseas should not be confused with a command of statecraft? In any case, Trump will learn that limited knowledge carries serious consequences. Presidents who have to embark on a crash course on world affairs are likely to pay tuition for a couple of years (assuming they have the time and discipline to go to class). Meanwhile, world affairs come crashing in on them from all points of the compass, while the bureaucracy clamors for guidance and the public expects reassurance. In the long and awkward interval devoted to on-the-job training, the damage done to the presidency not to mention the country and the international community can be substantial.

Presidents ideally not only know the world but also have managed to assemble their ideas into some coherent form that approximates a strategic vision — some cultivated sense of the forces in play on the international stage and the best way for U.S. policy to engage them. In fact, few presidents have had enough exposure to international affairs and enough time before election to reflect and test their ideas. Nixon is perhaps the most notable and instructive exception. His exposure to varied aspects of U.S. policy extending over years provided more than an education; it forced him to think in an ordered, systematic way about the nature of the global system and the most promising direction to take U.S. policy. In his first weeks in office he began exploring courses of action that would culminate in détente with the Soviet Union and accommodation with China.

Trump does bring some broad policy notions to his presidency. But they don’t amount to a coherent body of ideas grounded in experience. They are rather a hodge podge of undeveloped, even conflicting positions that are likely to produce policy disarray and in turn generate mistrust abroad and dismay at home.

Finally, Trump gives every promises of turning his back on a little noticed and easy to ignore feature of a successful policy: the orderly formulation of policy options followed by their careful evaluation by senior staff with the president’s active, informed participation. A successful policy process requires taking experts seriously and involving them intimately. It also requires that the president listen to senior advisers with the expectation that they will speak candidly in private while executing policy decisions loyally in public.

Attention to staff work at all levels can make an enormous difference, as Eisenhower demonstrated during his eight years in the White House. He had learned the virtues of a good staff during a long Army career including his oversight of the massively complex reconquest of continental Europe in 1944 and 1945. The Kennedy White House was by contrast free-wheeling, and the results were policies that damaged and pained the president. The Bay of Pigs is a good example of the former; the assassination of Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem serves for the latter. From recent presidents, George W. Bush is a good example of the failure of staffing, whereas no-drama Obama has from all appearances been scrupulous in listening to the specialists and engaging in a sustained way with his advisers.

Trump seems likely to suffer the Kennedy fate — or worse. His reported disinterest in receiving daily intelligence briefings, his misplaced self-confidence, his off-the-cuff comments, his love of theater, and his appetite for public acclaim combine to give reason to expect a lot worse.

The coming months will be interesting. Policy veterans inside the beltway, already suffering one heart attack after another, will watch in anguish as things go from bad to worse. The media that Trump likes to bash will make much of his misadventures and the leaks that will begin to flow from his administration like the sap in Spring. The public, perhaps even in the Trump heartland, will begin to recognize that something is amiss. Faced with setbacks to national interests and reputation and mounting criticism, Trump is likely to follow his favored ploys of denying, diverting, discrediting, and decrying. That may suit him and it may work politically but it won’t make the troubles go away. Almost certainly we can look ahead to greater dysfunction afflicting U.S. policy and an acceleration of the national decline already decades in the making. The Trump presidency could be revolutionary — but not in the way intended. It could very well turn his “Make America Great” slogan on its head.

Trump and the reshaping of American nationalism

Vast quantities of ink have been spilled over the astonishing rise of Donald Trump. The explanations for the Trump phenomenon are now legion, ranging from an economy that has been unkind to many Americans to generational conflict to a media-savvy candidate in a supremely media-fixated age. The one perspective that deserves more attention is the way the Trump campaign, knowingly or not, has posed a direct challenge to a long established and still vital aspect of American national identity.

Though most Americans may not realize it, their country entered the twentieth century a white male republic. White men dominated the electorate; virtually everyone else was excluded from full citizenship and in some cases flatly denied citizenship. By the 1960s the outsiders who had gained or were claiming a fuller place in national life included women, native Americans, and Americans of Asian, Jewish, Italian, African, and Hispanic descent. The pressure for inclusivity has persisted down to the present, with the most recent wave of change evident in LBGTQ demands for rights enjoyed by others. Immigration legislation passed in 1965 further diluted the dominance of white males by opening the doors to peoples from all around the world to a degree not seen since the influx of newcomers that peaked around the start of the twentieth century. Collectively, these changes in status and demography have transformed the country and especially its understanding of citizenship in ways more dramatic than anything earlier in U.S. history.

How and why this happened is an important story. The short version is that the American state came increasingly under pressure during World War II and the Cold War to make good on its much vaunted international claims to embody a fully functioning democracy free of racism and prejudice and devoted to opportunity for all. That pressure was generated by citizens demanding change. It was also generated by political leaders such as Truman and Johnson who were determined to make good on claims to global leadership by closing the gap between the promise and reality of American democracy.

The consequences were the rise of an inclusive, multi-cultural polity and society but also the marginalization of white males as once subordinate groups made good on calls for equality. In short, as women, ethnics, blacks, and others have claimed a full place as citizens, white male privilege has inevitably suffered. A black man in the White House and a woman trying to follow him there are galling reminders of the continued deterioration of the old order. They pose the question “How far to the margins will white males ultimately be pushed?”

What is surprising is how long this transformation in our understanding of citizenship has taken to generate a full blown challenge. The Tea Party was a harbinger; the Trump candidacy is its full fledged expression. Skillfully Trump has managed to tap white male resentment by demeaning talk of women plagued by periods, Muslims bent on harming the homeland, Mexican criminals and spongers, and African Americans who don’t grasp their own interests. While always careful to leave room for retreat or denial, Trump has played on old, still potent ethnic, gender, and racial stereotypes.

We would all do well to recognize what is at stake in this presidential election. It is nothing less than the reconfiguration of American nationalism. Trump should admit that his claim to the presidency rests on renegotiating the terms of citizenship in what would amount to a reversal of the long-term trend toward inclusion and to a restoration of at least a modicum of white male privilege. Hillary Clinton for her part should directly confront the magnitude of this challenge and make explicit its long-term meaning for all Americans. She needs to explain what she means by her bland claim that we are “stronger together.” Perhaps most important of all, Americans of all political persuasions should recognize that they like other peoples operate within an envelop of their own nationalism and that nationalism is not fixed but undergoes changes, sometimes dramatically for better or worse. We now may be approaching one of those times of change and the consequences could be momentous.

A council of historical advisers on foreign policy: a misguided idea revived

I first encountered in the 1970s the idea of a council of historians to provide foreign policy guidance to the president. It was a proposal made by Ernest May in his classic The Lessons of the Past. I had my doubts then. Encountering the idea today in the form resurrected by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson in The Atlantic, I find my doubts even more pronounced.

Certainly a massive gap separates the work of professional historians and the policy world. Arguably that gap is wider today than earlier because the nature of the historical enterprise has expanded dramatically beyond what policymakers are schooled in. Scholarship has in recent years become more diverse in its interests, broader in its coverage, and more sweeping chronologically. By contrast, the past that rattles around in the mind of those in the policy community tends to be dated, often shaped by readings in college decades past. It also tends to be invoked opportunistically to support some already fixed line of policy.

So what is wrong with the idea of a council of historical advisers when it seems to address a real problem? Three things do the most to put me off.

First, there is a practical concern. Where does the multiplication of council of experts end? The economists are already formally represented at the highest level. Once historians get their nose in the policy tent, political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, international lawyers, scientists of various stripes, and so forth will all want to be heard. Imagine the poor policymaker faced with so many kinds of experts with a seat at the table, all eager to help and all quite capable of generating an avalanche of well intentioned guidance. Faced with the choice between getting overwhelmed or keeping the experts at arms length, guess what the harried president or presidential adviser is most likely to do?

Perhaps even more worrisome is the question of which historians deserve a seat at the table. Historians disagree in their understanding of major issues and hence in the interpretive significance they would draw for policymakers. Neither of the alternative solutions seem satisfactory: create a council diverse in its composition and inchoate in its advice or opt for a more homogeneously composed body wedded to a predictable and limited perspective.

Beyond this fairly obvious point about diverse points of view is the tendency of historians who have things to say to policy to approach their role in dramatically different ways. There has long existed a kind of court historian who plays a therapeutic role in relation to the policy world by gazing admiringly on its achievements. There is also a kind of historian that aims at helping policymakers do their job better but within their framework of assumptions and current concerns. Yet a third mode of doing history takes a step back from work-a-day policy concerns and asks questions not about policy per se but about the context — both international and domestic — in which policy operates. While history in the third mode might be the most useful in bringing a fresh perspective to a policy community heavily invested in a particular set of assumptions and convictions, its subversive, disruptive influence is unlikely to be welcome.

The ultimate reason for regarding the historical council skeptically derives from classical realism. History is a critical tool that makes the most difference when it is part of the mental armory of the policymaker. A sense of the past offers both the self-knowledge and the knowledge of others essential to the wise management of great-power relations. Farming out historical wisdom is a poor substitute for a disciplined mind steeped in the historical approach as a way of understanding the world.

The gap between history and policy will not be easily closed because the sources are so deep. The U.S. policy community operates within a national culture estranged from the discipline of history whether in its K-12 educational curriculum, its media coverage, or its political discourse. This doleful situation is not likely to be much helped by the instruction of a council of historians however well intentioned.

The American greatness debate

A leitmotif of this election year has become American greatness. As with much else, Donald Trump set the terms of the conversation by making his rallying cry “Make American Great Again.” That cry has not only resonated in his campaign but also featured prominently during the Republican convention. The country had fallen from grace and who else but Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were responsible. The Democrats had, of course, to respond to the gauntlet Trump had thrown down. America, according to party luminaries, is great and has to be kept that way by making sure that Clinton follows Obama in the White House. Clinton in her acceptance speech returned to the theme already sounded by earlier speakers at the Democratic National Convention: “American is great — because America is good.” Every generation, she explained, has made the country freer, fairer, and stronger. She promised that if Americans continued to work together “America will be greater than ever.”

What is most striking about this nationalistically charged exchange is how empty the Democratic response has been — more a knee-jerk denial that the country has been on a downward slide than a considered appraisal of where the country is and where it ought to go. Trump’s bill of particulars supporting his charge are, to be sure, simplistic whether considered in relation to the economy, immigration, or international affairs. But to respond with blanket denials seems not the most compelling route to take, especially when the a substantial part of the electorate appears to share with Trump the sense that all is not well in the American house. The same doubts afflict Democrats who fervently backed Bernie Sanders. Denial and empty rhetoric doesn’t seem a good strategy for winning anxious Republicans and fervent Sanders supporters, and they don’t seem a good basis for governance were Clinton to win the election.

Let’s step back and consider where in reality the country stands. How great in fact is the United States? Scholars and pundits have been contemplating that very question for a decade and a half. They have come to a rough consensus that the U.S. position in the world has declined. Shaping their conclusion was the doleful outcome of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, a general Islamist upsurge in the Middle East, and the growing resistance to U.S. leadership on the part of emerging regional powers (from Iran and Russia to China and North Korea). The consequences of the neo-liberal experiment in freeing the market caste an additional pall over the U.S. global position. The broadly damaging 2008 economic crisis began with upheaval in the financial markets, plunging the United States into the Great Recession and pushing Europe into its own prolonged and painful troubles. These mishaps mushrooming during the Bush administration and burdening the Obama presidency have shaken the confidence of many in the future of the country and renewed debate over whether the “American century” has come to an end.

Where these observers differ is on the prospects for American greatness though they hardly follow the lines drawn by Republicans and Democrats. Their division is over whether the decline is so marked that it cannot be easily overcome or whether by determination and skillful leadership U.S. dominance can be restored.

Historians joined by political scientists with a historical bent have presented the more distinctly pessimistic case. A comprehensive and compelling survey of an eroding U.S. position flatly predicts: “At a minimum, the United States will suffer decline in wealth, standard of living, and global influence.” (David S. Mason, The End of the American Century [2009], 215.) Deepening difficulties suggested to those in the pessimist camp that the United States was already caught in a downward spiral of deteriorating national morale and diminishing material power.

On the other side, prominent political leaders, influential commentators, and students of international relations (political scientists for the most part) have questioned the depth of the U.S. slide and even expressed optimism about reinvigorating global dominance. The United States, they pointed out, sat astride the largest of the national economies and commanded a military force of unrivaled potency. Whatever ground had been lost in recent years could, so they argued, be made up by smart grand strategy directed by astute leaders. Sustaining the country’s premier international position was important in its own right but also to global stability, world peace, and human progress.

The optimists’ position was weakened by the narrow way it was framed. It imagined reversing decline without paying serious attention to the domestic foundations on which the U.S. international position has depended. The optimists thus missed the role of socio-cultural and ideological forces such as rising individual preoccupation with consumption or a fractured sense of national purpose that polarized politics and debilitated governance. Calls for smarter grand strategy to revive U.S. fortunes seem in this light facile, wishful thinking. The optimist position is further compromised by its understanding of dominance in terms of military force and to a lesser degree economic prowess, with little weight given to the international limits of U.S. influence. Claims to international leadership depend for legitimacy on more than military and economic prowess. Those claims are deeply discounted when they issue from a society that fails to inspire admiration and emulation and a polity that falls short even by its own standards. The rise of strong regional powers and competitive economies reflects not a world homogenized; rather they sustain multipolar and multicultural trends that make the exercise of U.S. dominance inherently difficult in a way omitted from the calculation of the optimists.

The optimists have also suffered from weak historical perspective. They take a drastically foreshortened view of the evolution of U.S. dominance, ignoring the long period of preparation before 1945 and the erosion of that dominance since the 1970s while fixating on the Cold War triumph as confirmation of enduring U.S. strength. When they do invoke history by drawing comparisons between Britain’s dominance during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the subsequent American rise, the case they make is thin and tendentious. The optimists contended that the British case could offer lessons and inspiration for Americans striving to stay on top. But theirs was a distinctly dated school boy version of the British position that failed to recognize how significantly different was the British case from that of the United States in regard to both national power and the international context in which each operated.

“Is America great — or what?” That’s the simple-minded way the question has been posed in the current political season. What neither Trump the Restorer nor Clinton the Cheerleader are willing to confront is the fundamentally paradoxical position the United States is in. The country can fairly claim a strong military and a robust economy. But it also cannot hide a compromised democracy and a people divided on multiple and fundamental lines including the basic ones of identity and wealth. Sloganeering on either side of the political divide is not going to alter these circumstances. Facing reality would, so some smart people who have given the matter some thought, be a good first step.



Those interested in recent works on American standing in the world will find them split fairly neatly between optimists and pessimists. Good examples of the latter include Mason’s The End of the American Century (noted above); Vaclav Smil, Made in the USA: the Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing (2013), especially chaps. 4-6; and Andrew Bacevich, ed., The Short American Century: A Postmortem (2012). My own views, which are distinctly on the side of the pessimists, are spelled out in a July 2011 post that is, I think, still pertinent. On the other side, Robert J. Lieber, Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why the United States Is Not Destined to Decline (2012); Zaki Laïdi, Limited Achievements: Obama’s Foreign Policy, trans. Carolyn Avery (2012); Steven Weber and Bruce W. Jentleson, The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas (2010); and G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (2011), all profess optimism that the United States can retain its dominance. Vaclav Smil, Why America Is Not a New Rome (2010), makes a compelling case against those on both sides of the decline argument who invoke imperial comparisons.