Putting China in a History-Free Zone

In confronting any policy problem, a grounding in the past is well nigh indispensable to accurately framing the present and plausibly projecting the future. (The case for the public relevance of the past has been admirably made in the recent The History Manifesto by Jo Guldi and David Armitage.) The current U.S. policy preoccupation with the China problem offers a glaring and disturbing example of the failure to take advantage of historical perspective.

Recent comments on the South China Sea controversy (prompted by China’s push to consolidate its claim to disputed islets and reefs and the U.S. push-back) reveal the failure in spades.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s statements during his recent swing through Southeast Asia invoked a version of the past so divorced from historical reality that I’ve described it as “fairy tale.”

Amitai Etzioni, hardly a proponent of policy orthodoxy, gestured in the right direction when he observed that “history shows that states should be leery of stepping on an escalator without first asking how far they are willing to ride it and how to get off.” But then he failed to bring that point down to earth and consider the nature of the crises that have plagued U.S.-China relations or at least the lessons that might be drawn from them.

John Glaser writing from Washington for The Guardian tried to get a handle on the controversy by citing a string of authorities none of whom are historians. To his credit, he framed his account with an eminently historical concept — the idea of an American empire — but then provided no historical grounding. Thus left amorphous and ahistorical, empire means everything and nothing.

The Obama administration’s broader “privot to Asia” rests on the same presentist concerns evident in treatment of the South China Sea dispute. Washington seems perilously close to becoming a history-free zone even when it comes to dealing with China where behavior and outlook are famously shaped by the past.

Relevant work is available in abundance for anyone interested in cultivating a historically-informed position. Several generations of scholars have labored with considerable success to make sense of China’s past and suggest implications for the present. The long and often troubled record of U.S.-China interaction and U.S. involvement more generally in eastern Asia are also well developed parts of the historical literature.

Just looking at my book shelf, I see pertinent works of recent vintage:

–Mao: The Real Story as well as Deng Xiaoping: A Revolutionary Life, both by Alexander Pantsov with Steven I. Levine and both excellent on the system these two dominant figures created and the enduring national visions they promoted;

–Odd Arne Westad’s Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750 , invaluable on the trajectory of a regional and global player;

–Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World, which provides a more astute, historically informed treatment than its breathless title suggests; and

Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (which I co-authored with Levine), notable for highlighting the prolonged — and continuing — conflict between the U.S. and China over regional dominance.

The challenge, it seems clear, is not the paucity of appropriate works to consult but rather the resistance of those absorbed in making and talking about foreign policy to consult them — and in the process to open their minds to the broad insights and the cautionary tales they offer. If policy were all tactics, then history would be largely irrelevant and its neglect of no matter. But most in Washington insist they are committed to a “strategic” approach, and for that a good grasp of the past is not optional but mandatory.

The Pentagon’s Durable Asian Fairy Tale

The Pentagon’s fairy tale history of U.S. involvement in eastern Asia appears alive and well. So at least statements made by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during his recent visits in Singapore and Vietnam suggest. Following the lines of the mythology that seems to exercise strong appeal in official U.S. circles, Carter claimed that the United States by playing a pivotal military role in the region over the past seven decades has “helped maintain peace and stability.” (See the transcript of his address in Singapore on 30 May and his interview in Vietnam with the BBC dated 1 June.)

The notion of the U.S. military as a force for peace and stability doesn’t hold historical water now any more than when Carter’s predecessor invoked it. (See my earlier post on this topic.)

From the late 1940s Washington extended the Cold War struggle from Europe to Asia and in the process spawned regional disorder. U.S. policymakers recruited clients, created dependencies, and resisted calls for revolutionary change wherever they were heard throughout the region. In defense of the status quo, U.S. forces fought in Korea and Vietnam, helped defeat insurgents in the Philippines, and devastated Cambodia from the air. These efforts twice resulted in costly military collisions with China, first in Korea and then in Vietnam. To the surprise and dismay of the U.S. political class and military leaders, neither confrontation with Beijing went well — and this at a time when Mao Zedong’s China was just getting on its feet. (Readers interested in the details are invited to consult Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam, which I coauthored with Steven I. Levine.)

An important shift in the early 1970s has no place in Carter’s simple generalization about America in Asia. President Richard Nixon recognized the quixotic nature of this effort to maintain the status quo in what was even then a dynamic Asia. The U.S. might be dominant but, Nixon reasoned, China could no longer be marginalized. In 1972 he accepted China as a regional power in a world in which he saw regional powers more and more defining the international system. What Nixon left to his successors was how to adjust policy as China’s power waxed and U.S. power waned at least in relative terms. This has been no easy task for U.S. policymakers who recognize the strong impetus behind China’s rise but who also cling to a dream of global dominance and regard regional powers as threats to that dominance. Carter’s simple history conceals the fundamental contradiction facing U.S. policy not just in Asia but also in the Middle East, South America, and Eurasia.

Carter and others in the Obama administration who fancy themselves realists should not think in a historical haze however comforting they might find the official mythology. They would do well to base their grand strategy for Asia on real, not imagined, history.

The Ukraine crisis and the rules great powers play by

Amidst all the commentary occasioned by Russia fishing in troubled Ukrainian waters, one fundamental point tends to get lost from sight. Like many other recent points of international tension, this one raises the question of what are the rules great powers play by.

The United States has championed a values-based approach with a strong missionary impulse behind it. Woodrow Wilson provided its first full-blown articulation, and post-World War II policy saw to its full-blown application. Holding a dominant global position, Washington sought with varying degrees of urgency and determination to advance a basket of ideological goods. U.S. leaders have articulated these goods in a variety of ways such as “democracy,” “free-market capitalism,” and “human rights.” But underlying all these formulations is a strong and distinctly American belief in the autonomy of the individual and a commitment to political liberty and limited state power. In the rhetoric of American statecraft these notions are a leitmotiv. They have generally set the direction of U.S. policy responses to problems of the sort that Ukraine poses.

This American approach contrasts with a core dictum of classic realism: great powers have fundamental security interests most often manifested territorially. The venerable term to describe this situation is “spheres of influence.” What happens near borders matters considerably more than what happens half a world away. Globalization has perhaps qualified the dictum but hardly repealed it.

Even American policymakers observe this territorial imperative in their own neighbourhood. Consider the continuing importance of the proximate in U.S. policy: the persistent neuralgia over a defiant Cuba; military interventions in Grenada, Panama, and Haiti; recurrent covert meddling against troublesome governments south of the border; and the intense attention given Mexico. No U.S. leaders these days invokes the Monroe Doctrine (or at least the robust Teddy Roosevelt version of it), but the pattern of U.S. action reveals what they can’t afford to say.

To be sure, Russian leaders would also like to have it both ways. They too have championed their own set of values though with less enthusiasm than did Soviet leaders, who in turn themselves fell short of the Americans in their commitment to missionary projects.

But Russian and Soviet leaders alike have given clear priority to the near frontier. The consolidation of control over eastern Europe after World War II reflected this concern. So too did the dramatic interventions of 1956 and 1968 to crush unrest and the constant string pulling by members of the Politburo assigned to keep a hawk-like watch over clients in the East bloc. The intervention in Afghanistan, shaped by a fear of Islamist unrest spreading into nearby Soviet territories, fits within this pattern. That Putin would now respond to, even exploit the political disintegration in Ukraine just as he took advantage of the disputes along Georgian border can come as a shock only to observers oblivious to the dictates of realist statecraft.

The Ukraine crisis is a striking reminder of the continuing, fundamental division over the rules of the international game. Do major powers have special regional interests, or are they tightly constrained by far-reaching standards posited and defended by the United States? The American answer doesn’t have to be the latter. FDR in his conception of the postwar order and Nixon in moving toward detente and normalization — to take two striking exceptions — recognized the need for some degree of accommodation among the leading powers. They accorded diplomacy a central role in identifying areas of accord while setting to one side knotty issues connected to lands that adjoined the major powers.

But on the whole U.S. policy has downplayed diplomacy as a regulator of great-power relations by often making capitulation the precondition for any opponent entering into talks. Real diplomacy would get in the way of the overriding preoccupation with holding in check regional powers whether China, Iran, Russia, or India that might pose a challenge to the United States. (The EU occupies an ambiguous position in this list of regionals as a powerhouse that hasn’t yet figured out how to realize its potential and for the moment speaks through Germany.) This U.S. approach, most forcefully articulated by the Cheney doctrine at the end of the George H. W. Bush administration, is a prescription for unending tension, with the U.S. policy a source of constant discord at one point and then another around the world.

It is hard to imagine a more misguided basis for policy, especially for a once dominant power steadily slipping in clout. The foundations for a better managed, more peaceful, and even more humane international order is more likely to emerge from great-power negotiations and compromise. Promoting a sense of security and comity among the dominant states may in the bargain discourage rough stuff in their neighbourhoods far better than confrontation and high-minded if hypocritical blustering.

Troubles with empire: Reviewing the reviews of ARC OF EMPIRE

Co-authored with Steve I. Levine, this essay marks the appearance of our book Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Phillipines to Vietnam in paperback.[1]


Empire has had a long and troubled career in U.S. politics and culture—and the old angst is still very much with us. Over the last decade or so we have heard the familiar refrain adamantly denying the existence of an American empire, even as some have insisted just as adamantly on the reality or at least the possibility of an American empire. We embarked on our study of the four U.S. wars in Asia with no intention of getting mixed up in what seemed a tired, unproductive debate. We had our hands full working out the contours of our wars and tracing the relationship of each to the others.

But as we proceeded, we encountered empire at every turn. It was rampant at the beginning of our story in the 1890s, when Americans decided to join the imperial hunting party by taking the Philippines, itself in the midst of an internal struggle to shake off the Spanish empire and achieve independence. Empire remained prominent in subsequent decades when the weakening European territorial hold in Asia was accompanied by rising Japanese ambitions deeply worrisome to American observers. By mid-century the Japanese empire was gone, the Europeans were on their last legs, and anti-colonial and revolutionary fervor was stronger than ever in lands of the western Pacific. The age of empire may have been coming to an end, but American leaders were so transfixed by what they saw as a rising Soviet empire that they launched an anachronistic effort to assert their own control at strategic points in eastern Asia. By 1950 Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—the latter still a French colony, but an area of increasing interest to Washington—stood alongside the Philippines as U.S. strong points on the western side of the Pacific.

That eastern Asia was a cockpit of empire and that the United States was an active, forceful participant in the regional struggles for control of territory seemed such stark features of our emerging story that we began to give serious thought to how we might understand empire and whether it might enrich our understanding of warfare in Asia. Wary of the semantic confusion that seemed to attend much of the popular and some of the scholarly discussions of empire, we took a step back the better to consider the problem historically. After reading in the general literature and reflecting on a variety of cases around the globe and over time, we finally settled on the definition that appears at the very outset of the book:

Empire is fundamentally a centrally directed political enterprise in which a state employs coercion (violence or at least the threat of violence) to subjugate an alien population within a territorially delimited area governed by another state or organized political force. Once created, empires acquire other structural features. Maintaining control depends on collaboration between metropolitan and colonial elites (with each exercising disproportionate influence within their own societies) supplemented by a variety of other mechanisms. These mechanisms include an army ready to do the dirty work of repressing “restless natives,” a network of proximate military bases to facilitate the movement and rapid response of that army to insurgent threats, a system of intelligence and police to serve as the eyes and arms trained on sources of subversion, a class of imperial administrators to oversee elite clients and monitor social developments, and ideological orthodoxies that rationalize dominance both at home and in the field.[2]

By emphasizing structural feature—including, notably, the role of force—we hoped to transcend the persistent impulse to define empire in terms of the good or bad intentions of policymakers or the even more nebulous standard of good or bad consequences. Such preoccupations had long since turned debates over empire into inconclusive standoffs

Hovering over these debates has been the spirit of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson articulated and helped perpetuate what remains the core dogma of the American nationalist faith­­—namely, that whatever the United States did, however coercive or destructive, no blemish would attach because the United States acted not from self-interest but in the interests of those who were the objects of its supposed beneficence. In 1900 he enthusiastically embraced the conquest of the Philippines, helped by the happy thought that Americans were selflessly responding to a clarion call “to play a part, and a leading part at that, in the opening and transformation of the East.” The United States as well as Britain had an obligation, as Wilson saw it, to help people forced to change to take up liberty, to learn order and self-control, to respect the rule of law. To that end Americans themselves had “to learn colonial administration” and show the Philippines “we have only their welfare at heart.”[3]

Those who follow in Wilson’s footsteps make intentions and outcome the touchstone for understanding empire. They deny the pejorative “empire” is appropriate for instances of outside control that serve the best interests of the subject people. Some other more respectable term such as “tutelage” or “alliance” or “humanitarian intervention” better serves. If the Wilsonian appeal to good works exculpated even such an obvious case of direct control as the Philippines, how could one possibly employ the concept of empire with respect to the informal control the United States exercised no less benevolently in Japan, South Korea, and South Vietnam for much shorter periods?

Setting aside Wilson’s dubious rationalizations and their latter-day incarnations, we took the final step in our quite deliberate approach to the empire problem: we considered whether our formal definition applied to the developments surrounding our four wars. In each case the historical facts seemed to fit. Irrespective of the specific historical context in which it was acquired or the motivations and purposes of U.S. policymakers, American control depended on a major application of force, the negotiation of bargains with local collaborators, and the application of administrative skills of the sort first displayed in the Philippines. Empire lasted as long as collaborators played along, and it disappeared when Americans withdrew their support (South Vietnam) or yielded to regimes able to stand on their own and resist or parry U.S. interference (Japan and South Korea by the 1960s). Empire, we concluded, offered a conceptually refined frame for viewing the conflict-prone U.S. engagement in eastern Asia from its origins at the end of the nineteenth century to its apogee at mid-twentieth century to the retreat in the early 1970s.

Of the twenty-five reviews published of Arc of Empire, we have been gratified that roughly one-third have accepted our empire line of argument and helpfully suggested ways of refining, sharpening, or exploring its broader implications. For example, two of the most acute reviews from this group asked for an account that went beyond our emphasis on the role of war in creating and sustaining empire and that paid more attention to the actual lineaments of the imperial positions—the institutions, practices, and domestic consequences. These two reviewers, it is worth noting, came to our book well prepared by their own scholarly engagement in the study of empire as a historical phenomenon.[4]

Another third of the reviews side-stepped the empire argument or noted it without any evaluation or engagement. This stance left us uncertain whether they were reluctant to grasp this thorny theme, preferred to concentrate on issues that interested them more, or had only enough space for summary.[5]

It is the last third of reviewers that have fascinated us and made us think of Arc of Empire as a kind of conceptual cat let loose among the historian pigeons. Startled by our empire claims, they went fluttering off in a variety of directions.[6]

One direction might be described as Wilson redux: Americans operating in eastern Asia were well intentioned and thus the empire label is not only unfair but inappropriate. A version of this line of thought contended that imposition of U.S. control, however lamentable, promoted better outcomes than if the locals had been left to their own devices. American intervention saved South Korea from takeover by a brutal North Korean dictatorship while also preserving Taiwan from Maoist madness. Following the same logic, it is possible to argue that the control of Japan followed from a just war and was exercised with no malign intentions or grand imperial designs. Moreover, Americans rule was brief and benevolent. Another version emphasized that burdened U.S. policymakers made the best decisions they could. This sympathetic reading of the U.S. record would rule out the indictment Arc of Empire had seemingly lodged.

In both cases the Wilson syndrome seems at work. Both substitute our stress on structural features with the time-honored concern with reading intentions and outcomes. Both torture empire into caricature—malign, calculated, self-interested—that no reasonable person would think to apply to American conduct. With the United States facing multiple counts of empire, these reviews hand down the resounding verdict of “not guilty.”

Another direction followed by those doubtful about the American empire label was to question whether Korea and Japan fit at all. Both instances, the skeptics claimed, failed their test of empire, which required direct control exercised over the long term. The problem with this approach is that it derives from a schoolchild (or perhaps even Hollywood) version of the British empire, above all the long-lasting, formal rule over India. Measured against this standard, the Philippines only make the imperial cut. It may be true, as these reviewers seem to say, that U.S. proconsuls purged, governed, reformed, and relaunched Japan and South Korea as military strong points as well as economic and political dependencies of the United States. Consequently, they followed the French retreat from Vietnam by creating a government whose economic, political, and military dependence on the United States was so complete that it ultimately took a major American military effort to prolong its survival. But whatever these events attended by good intentions and happy endings may be called, they were not empire.

Our suggestion to those who make this claim is that they ought to spend some time with the British empire as depicted in recent scholarship, not the empire of popular imagination. It would reveal the importance of indirect as well as direct rule and even the shifting from one to the other depending on circumstances. Moreover, that literature would also reveal that imperial projects can altogether fail or be relatively short lived, yet they still fit under the imperial rubric.

The quarrel that these reviewers have then is ultimately less with the particular cases than with the definition of empire that we apply to the cases. They might imagine empire as some grand and enduring edifice, but in fact instability is an abiding feature of empire. And at no time has empire been more unstable than in the twentieth century—the very time our story plays out. Anti-colonial and revolutionary nationalism has managed to mobilize elite resistance (as early as the Philippines), to make collaboration illegitimate and risky, to facilitate popular mobilization, and as a result, to render outside control fragile. Even in the Philippines at the beginning of the century, American policymakers were forced to tailor both their goals and their timetable to rising nationalist sentiment. Control in Japan and Korea was brief and in Vietnam ultimately untenable for good nationalist reasons. For Washington to have persisted as though nationalism had not become a potent force would have been stupid, and nowhere does the definition of empire suggest that its practitioners have to be stupid. From history, we can see that this is not the case given the tricky, multifaceted, cross-cultural nature of empire whether in its creation, its maintenance, or its liquidation.

What is most striking in general about this third group of reviews troubled by empire is their neglect of the Asian dimension. Their fixation with what Americans thought and did comes at the expense of Asian nationalism with its capacity sometimes to create rifts that facilitated U.S. control, sometimes to complicate U.S. oversight, and always ultimately to undermine U.S. dominance. A one-sided picture also minimizes the impact of U.S. military operations. In each of our wars, they inflicted massive destruction and disruption that has to be counted against any claim to benevolent intentions or benign outcomes. By ignoring or downplaying these facets of the American entanglement in Asia, those uncomfortable with empire indulge an ethnocentrism that may be critical to sustaining their denial. But in studying empire as well as warfare, looking at only one side of the story is a serious mistake.

Readers drawn to this on-going argument over empire can turn for instructions to a recent batch of admirably broad scholarly treatments.

Julian Go’s Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), is notable for its elaborate, systematic approach. This carefully crafted, illuminating exploration of two oft-compared cases of overseas expansion takes both theory and history seriously. In the process, it makes a strong case for informal, indirect rule as well as formal control as manifestations of empire.

Reacting against recent calls for Americans to live up to their imperial obligations, Timothy Parsons puts the spotlight on the problematic role of collaboration and nationalism in the making and breaking of empires. The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) develops seven case studies—all instances of formal direct rule where the resistance that empire generates was most dramatic. Parsons’ argument closely parallels our concern with including Asian actors and Asian costs noted above.

Herfried Münkler, Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007), deserves attention for its wide-ranging, sophisticated, and stimulating theoretical treatment. To his credit, Münkler draws widely on history though at some key points his grounding could be stronger.

Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010), is striking for its treatment of empire as a pervasive historical phenomenon that has shaped the human experience over centuries. This contribution may, however, do more to confuse than clarify the empire debate. Empires are defined here as large political units with an expansionist agenda and distinct hierarchies among its peoples. They are distinct from nation-states, which Burbank and Cooper associate with equality and commonality among peoples within a defined territory.

Perhaps the least helpful of this crop of books in bringing empire into conceptual focus is John Darwin’s After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 (London: Penguin Books, 2008). This fluent volume follows a succession of great powers, all designated empire because of their considerable span of control and significant impact on the making of the modern world. This amorphous notion of empire serves the purposes of grand narrative if not theoretical precision.

With historical controversies over empire giving no sign of going away, anyone interested in formulating their own informed opinion should find stimulus to further thought in these scholarly works—and others that are sure to follow.


[1]  Thanks to Kevin Hewison for making possible an exchange on empire at the Carolina Asia Center, 6 February 2013. We first articulated some of the points made here in our response to the four reviews commissioned by H-Diplo posted 8 April 2013 and are available at http://www.h-net.org/~diplo/roundtables/PDF/Roundtable-XIV-27.pdf.

[2] Arc of Empire, 3-4.

[3] Quotes from Papers of Woodrow Wilson, ed. Arthur S. Link et al., vol. 12 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 18 (on “opening and transformation of the East” in his essay on “Democracy and Efficiency,” October 1900) and vol. 11 (Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 440 (on “administration” and “welfare” from public lecture, February 1900).

[4] The reviewers in question are Anne L. Foster in Reviews in American History 41 (March 2013): 134-39; and Emily S. Rosenberg in the H-Diplo collection of reviews noted above. Others in this group: Zach Fredman in Cambridge Review of International Affairs 25 (December 2012): 690-92; T. Christopher Jesperson, also in H-Diplo; Tom Keyser in On Point: The Journal of Army History 19 (Fall 2013): 55; Qing Simei in Journal of Political Criticism (Seoul) 11 (December 2012): 167-92; David Ryan in International Affairs 88 (November 2012): 1380-81; and Marilyn B. Young in Pacific Historical Review 82 (May 2013): 288-89.

[5] Treatment was necessarily cursory in the thumbnail reviews by M. O’Donnell in Choice 50 (September 2012): 156; Jeremy Spencer in Library Journal 137 (1 January 2012): 113; and Geoffrey Wawro on the History Book Club website at http://www.historybookclub.com/american-books/20th-century-books/arc-of-empire-by-michael-h-hunt-1074273193.html (accessed 13 June 2013). See also Kenton Clymer in American Historical Review 118 (June 2013): 888-89; Robert Entenmann in History Teacher 45 (August 2012): 633-34; Georg Schild in H-Asia posted 10 February 2013 and available at http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=38261 (accessed 13 June 2013); Ronald Spector in Journal of Military History 76 (July 2012): 887-89; Don Spritzer in Missoulian (Montana), 22 July 2012, available at http://missoulian.com/entertainment/books-and-literature/arc-of-empire-authors-say-asian-wars-an-attempt-to/article_d6b6c3ca-d215-11e1-8c78-0019bb2963f4.html (accessed 13 June 2013); and Jingbin Wang in H-Empire, posted July 2012 and available at http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=36533 (accessed 13 June 2013).

[6] William Stueck and Jeremy Friedman in the H-Diplo collection cited in note 1; Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox in History: Review of New Books 42 (January 2014): 1-4; James C. McNaughton in Army History 87 (Spring 2013): 32-33; Jonathan Mirsky in New York Review of Books 60 (20 June 2013): 63-64; Nathaniel Moir in Military Review 93 (January-February 2013): 80-81; Tal Tovy in H-War posted March 2013 and available at http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=38115 (accessed 13 June 2013); and Edmund F. Wehrle in Journal of American History 99 (December 2012): 987-88. Our letter to the editor responding to the Wehrle review appears in Journal of American History 100 (June 2013): 327.

Syria’s civil war: Historical forces behind “regional realities”

Critics of the Obama administration’s Syrian policy have lamented its failure to take into account regional realities. With surprising speed those realities have put the brakes on U.S. intervention. The anti-regime forces in Syria have remained deeply divided — indeed turned violently against each other — and resistant to outside guidance. Government armed forces have retained their integrity and the battlefield initiative. China and Russia have refused to sanction outside meddling. These are the obvious constraints on U.S. activism. But there are broader forces at work that deserve attention.

A good place to start is the Islamist resurgence so important to developments in Turkey, Gaza, southern Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, and Tunisia not to mention Syria. Islamist political movements appearing in all shapes and sizes have discomfited the monarchies of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain as well as long-established modernizing regimes with a nationalist and secular agenda such as the military-dominated ones in Egypt and Algeria.

The Syrian government dominated by the Ba’ath Party and the Assad family is one of those modernizing regimes up against disruptive Islamist currents. The Ba’ath Party, headed by Hafez al-Assad from the 1970s til his death in 2000, blended nationalism with pan-Arabic sentiments. Its secular, socialist agenda put the party-state at distinct odds with the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was brutally crushed in a confrontation in 1982. As the successor to his father, Bashar al-Assad talked at first of reform but since 2011 has fought for survival against a loosely-organized, armed opposition including prominently jihadi groups. Civil war has reopened the divisive question not only of Islam’s role within Syrian political and cultural life but also of whose version of Islam should prevail. In Syria as elsewhere the answers vary depending on whether you ask in the city or the countryside or address Sunni, Shia, Christian, Alawites, Druze, or Kurd.

The questions posed by a reinvigorated Islam fit neatly under the heading of nationalist contestation. Edward Said’s caution against thinking about the region in terms of “vast abstractions” that yield “little self knowledge or informed analysis” remains particularly pertinent. Civilization and identity, he contended in The Nation in October 2001), were not “shut-down, sealed-off entities” but rather fields of on-going, multifaceted ideological conflict. Were American leaders to embrace this general truth about the modern world, they might have a better chance of reaching an “informed analysis” of Syria in particular. Outsiders, it should be clear, can try to shape nationalist debates, but they are not likely to have much of a clue about the terms of the debate and even less legitimacy.

Much like nationalism, empire casts a long shadow over the Syrian crisis and the region. The United States, Britain, and France are associated with colonialism, military intervention, and cultural imperialism. They win no points for having shored up dictators, favored Israel, and cultivated a distaste for political Islam. The United States is in a particularly compromised position. While Obama insists (as he did in his Cairo speech in 2009) that the United States was not “the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire,” the historical record argues strongly against him. From Egypt and Palestine to Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, British overlords yielded after 1945 to the primacy of a rising power with greater financial resources and military muscle. The Americans not only followed in the British footsteps but also generally continued the strategy of indirect rule reinforced by an occasional coup, a pacification campaign now and then, and an occasional dose of gunboat diplomacy. This approach kept down the costs of empire (especially important for a weakened Britain) but it also avoided the more blatantly imperial direct rule (so distinctly at odds with the American self image).

Syria is a variant in an old story of outside interference remembered, resented, and resisted. Assad was making more than a casual observation when in an interview this year he associated empire with a “divide and conquer” strategy. “By division, I do not mean [just] redrawing national borders but rather fragmentation of identity, which is far more dangerous.” This preoccupation with the legacy of empire — economic and political as well as cultural — is region wide and to judge from a July 2013 Pew survey of public opinion makes U.S. policy distinctly suspect. A substantial proportion of respondents flatly declared the United States “an enemy” rather than “a partner.” This was the view of roughly a half to three quarters in Turkey, Lebanon, the Palestinian territory, and Pakistan and from a quarter to a third in Egypt and Jordan. In all these cases the percentage of “enemy” responses exceeded the “partner” responses.

Finally, Syria suggests the importance of bringing globalization into our mix of big, defining historical forces. The Syrian conflict has played out within a complex of transnational networks carrying most notably people (refugees and fighters), NGO’s offering humanitarian assistance to several million driven from Syria by the fighting, and digital information (most evident in the propaganda wars of the combatants). Perhaps most striking of all (and surprising to Washington) has been the capacity of genuinely international norms and institutions to make a difference. The international agreement on chemical weapons and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have effectively defused a crisis created by Obama’s careless “red line” declaration and demonstrated what American leaders seem to forget: the efficacy of international law and diplomacy and the need to take seriously other powers with divergent views (not least Russia and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council) in resolving knotty problems of the sort the Syrian civil war poses.

The absence of historical perspective in the pronouncements of the Obama administration is striking but nothing new in Washington. The denizens of the foreign policy establishment as well as the media tend to lapse into the “vast abstractions” that Said decried. The prevailing version of history is dated and superficial and applied in the main to shoring up predetermined policy, offering inspirational insights on political leadership, or affirming comforting notions of national mission. Reflecting on the particular problem of Syria highlights a general and dangerous blind spot in U.S. policy. A global power with a diminished sense of the past has few resources to illuminate the future.

Obama’s Cairo, then and now

President Obama’s “new beginning” address delivered in Cairo four years ago was filled with the high-minded platitudes that have become a hallmark of his speech making. He stood before the audience at Cairo University as the exponent of progress, peace, and cooperation. No surprise here. He made clear his opposition to “violent extremism in all of its forms.” Again no surprise. He worked his way through the list of other Washington preoccupations: stopping nuclear proliferation, cleaning up failed interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and managing the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The passage of time has done nothing to make this address seem either fresh or illuminating.

What does stand out in retrospect is the president’s silence on the role that the United States has played as supporter of secular autocrats in the region over the last half century, often stepping in where the British or French had earlier taken control and then faltered. Far from focusing on the U.S. entanglement in the region as a source of conflict, Obama pointed instead to a set of grand abstractions — centuries-old tension between the West and Islam, colonialism, and globalization. His United States was a benevolent bystander while other powers and other forces made history and created the tensions now coursing through the Middle East.

Perhaps the most telling part of the 2009 Cairo address came when Obama chided those who have misperceived the U.S. in terms of “the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.” Is it really possible he does not understand the degree to which the U.S. has been guided by self interest? Surely his aides can tell him what any textbook makes abundantly clear: that U.S. policy was long shaped by Israel, oil, and containment. Today Israel and oil persist with the terrorist threat substituting for the old communist menace.

Equally striking is Obama’s inability to see that the sustained U.S. attempt to shape the region follows closely the pattern of imperial intervention by other powers, with the tools much the same whether diplomatic pressure, the creation and support of clients, the reward of aid packages and trade deals, and the training of friendly militaries. The “crude stereotype” may be not be so crude. Indeed, like some stereotypes it may have a considerable element of truth about it.

What this speech says today — in the wake of the military coup against an elected government in Cairo — is that the change president is mostly about policy continuity. Washington’s support for autocrats is an old story. Reliance on strongmen, especially military strongmen, was a pronounced feature of the global Cold War. The Cold War, far from an aberration, built on a pattern that had become well established earlier in the century. Elected governments, Washington feared, might be swayed by popular passions or betrayed by their own immaturity. Coups whether in Iran in 1953 or in Egypt in 2013 paved the way for strongmen promising stability and accommodating U.S. interests. Alas, the clients often are less responsive than we would like. There is a long record of the tail wagging the dog. But the national security establishment has recognized that some local waywardness is part of the price of any collaborative relationship.

However anguished the Obama administration may be, it is not rudderless. It is following the course long ago marked out by an intrusive and regionally disruptive policy of “strategic realism.” Egypt is important not because it is (as that mystifying phrase has it) “a bedrock of peace” but because it blocks an Islamist party that was feeling its oats and because it guarantees easy access for U.S. armed forces so active in the region over the last two decades. Putting up with state repression is the price to pay for advancing self interest.

There is a larger price for pursuing this course. It confirms not just in the Middle East but worldwide the “crude stereotype” that Obama decried. The United States continues to prop up friendly, secular authoritarians and thus continues to feed popular antipathy and suspicion that in turn inspires the resistance we call terrorism.

This course also leaves American policy locked in a long standing contradiction, professing high minded principles, above all support for democracy, while in practice giving priority to national self interest. So even as we deepen alienation abroad, we compound our own confusion about what what we really want from this part of the world.

The Obama administration may yet decide to call a coup a coup and quit propping up the Egyptian military — and with good reason. The U.S. project in the Middle East has lost its mojo. Domestic tolerance has dwindled while the U.S. tools to shape the region are not working. But the difficulty Washington is having turning in a fresh direction is testimony to the claims of self interest and the constraints and confusion spawned by a now troubled half-century campaign of regional intervention.

Obama and Syria: Trapped in a web of words

Language is potent, a truth confirmed by President Obama’s recent, reluctant decision to escalate the U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war. The President has given every sign of wanting to give priority to “nation building at home.” Important to popular welfare, this course is arguably also indispensable to shoring up the sagging foundation on which U.S. global influence rests. An electorate pinched economically and a federal government living beyond its means is going to impose international constraints. Obama is right to consider popular discontent and national insolvency big deals that deserve urgent attention.

Despite this carefully calculated commitment to national recuperation and international restraint, Obama has fallen prey to the old familiar axioms with their continuing power to shape thinking in Washington and the terms of policy debate. Read the arguments of the interventionists determined to see the Assad regime ousted. They speak of “resolve” that U.S. leaders have to demonstrate to a watching world. They point to a “responsibility” that the United States has to live up to. They invoke “interests” that demand protection. They talk of “credibility” at stake.

Each of these vaporous notion is advanced with great certitude. Each draws its strength from a foreign policy discourse that has over some seven decades served as the natural language of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Free of any detailed demonstration of the truths they encapsulate, these magic words depend on notions ingrained in the nationalist imagination to carry the day. Precisely because of its ritualistic quality and its association with nationalist and policy orthodoxy, the appeal to resolve, responsibility, interest, and credibility do not invite discussion or scrutiny. The mere pronouncement suffices. Thanks to this gossamer stuff, those clamoring for more decisive U.S. action in Syria have entangled Obama.

Yet the world in which this vocabulary gained currency has changed. This is the point that critics of deeper involvement in the Syrian crisis have made in a variety of ways. The Middle East which the interventionists with their heads filled with old truisms seek to manage is in the grip of new regional sentiments and under the sway of rising regional powers. No less important, the shape of the international community has changed with the rise of new powers impatient with U.S. dictation and uncomprehending in the face of ritual language coming out of Washington. Finally, the domestic world in which old catchwords are supposed to mobilize support is more recalcitrant. A U.S. population polarized and pinched has problems enough at home. Any attempt to decisively sway the outcome of the fighting in Syria would deepen the disarray.

Language is in its potency a trap — in this case an inducement to action even when careful consideration warns of potentially dire consequences. Put differently, the axioms handed down from earlier policy practice have demonstrated their capacity to overrule prudent calculation.

That insight leaves us with a set of genuine questions:

  • Do proponents of intervention not recognize a world transformed — or do they see changes but think they can ignore or reverse them? Do they really think the imagined glory days of the World War II and the Cold War when the magical words became orthodoxy can really be restored?
  • How long do the consequences of costly and even counterproductive decisions have to pile up before the justificatory language is discredited? Or does the accumulating damage to U.S. standing and material conditions make the comforting familiarity of the old language even more attractive?

These questions by their very nature suggest the United States is in the throes of transition, and the answers, if only we knew them, would tell us how long and difficult that transition will be.

Obama and the war on terror: toward greater realism

I’ve been a regular consumer of Barack Obama’s public statements, looking for a window into his mind. To be sure, it’s a risky business. Speech writers always to some degree get in the way, and the statements themselves can be more responses to political exigencies than expressions of faith. But those statements are by default some of the best evidence we have on the president’s perspective. (We don’t get fairly full declassification of pertinent records until some three or four decades after the event.) Moreover, my experience over the years suggests that presidential speeches often line up reasonably well with internal discussions as revealed in later declassified documents.

I confess approaching with low expectations what was advertised as a speech on the controversial drone strikes. Most of Obama’s speeches on international issues have struck me as stale and vacuous, reflecting none of the subtlety and insight that he has shown himself occasionally capable in other areas of public concern.

Reading the address delivered yesterday (23 May) at the National Defense University surprised me not just because it went well beyond the drone issue to address the conduct of the war on terror. More than that, Obama took some significant steps toward dealing with the war in terms of classical realism.

Responding to one realist proposition, Obama sought to carefully balance cost and benefit. The costs included notably the sacrifices made by members of the armed services and a massive diversion of material resources badly needed at home. Having rejected out of hand an open-ended prosecution of the war, he suggested that the lives, money, and effort invested so far had achieved significant results but had reached the point of diminishing value. Time to rebalance the commitment.

Responding to a second realist notion, Obama raised the relationship between ends and means — between U.S. goals and the methods used to realize those goals. The struggle to defend the homeland could undermine and distort vaunted American values. Practices such as detention, surveillance, and summary execution of citizens collided with ultimate U.S. goals. Similarly, while drones no less than special forces operations were attractive ways of striking at this particular enemy, the effect on the policies of states in the region and on public opinion could damage U.S. standing and prolong rather than shorten the conflict.

Alas, Obama’s realism has badly failed him on one major, difficult point — the very nature of the conflict that Americans call the war on terror. What a realist examination might suggest is, first of all, the current conflict that Obama along with most Americans conventionally imagine beginning on 9/11 is rooted in a long history of U.S. intervention in the Middle East. Any modern history of the region will trace in detail the pervasive pattern of U.S. intervention not to mention the resulting opposition. Read the words of Qutb and Khomeini onward to bin Laden on the close connection between U.S. actions and the resentment that has in turn bred resistance.

That resentment persists fed by continued U.S. meddling in all sorts of ways in countries across the region. Obama’s leaves no doubt that the meddling must continue. The region has to work out its destiny not on its own terms but with U.S. guidance ranging from diplomacy to political, social, and cultural development and under the shadow of a extensively deployed U.S. armed forces. “Moderates” in particular need backing against “extremist elements” and “violent extremists” in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria, while Washington should help “modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship” in an echo of the old and troubled faith in nation building.

Obama, who may think his war is winding down, has failed as as realist in another way. He does not take the perspective and intentions of the enemy seriously. It may be comforting but not smart to write off the other side as a collection of deranged minds delighting in terror. This dismissive view does not alter the fact that the foe has resorted to resistance that military jargon describes as asymetrical and that social sciences label as “the weapons of the weak.” Fighting the United States conventionally is a lost cause (ask Saddam Hussein), but random violence visited on the enemy population can be hard to counter.

Nor does stereotyping supply a good sense of the enemy’s commitment. The determination and sense of righteousness that matters in this war has come from various politicized forms of Islam. They have helped to inspire the dedication, solidarity, and sacrifice indispensable to sustained confrontation. Obama’s speech works hard to keep this insight at bay. It issues the usual denials that the Americans are at war with Islam and makes the predictable distinction between good Muslims who reject an ideology of violence and those led astray by the mistaken conviction “that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West.” Those on the wrong side of this imagined divide are hostile not because they have reason but becaucse they are the product of “deep rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred.”

Obama the realist can get only so far before lapsing into familiar clichés. Perhaps his imagination has constrained him or the politically loaded popular images of the enemy have intimidated him. Nonetheless he deserves credit for making significant progress toward a policy couched in more sensible terms. Let’s hope in time he and other policymakers will move toward a more realistic public assessment of the other side of the “global war on terror.” The first step might be to find another name for this conflict.

The Iraq War: Learning lessons, ignoring history

Talk about a gap between serious academic history and the policy community. The New York Times, which has made a big deal of the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, offers a stunning case in point. At least five different items in the paper for Wednesday, 20 March, seek some perspective from “authorities” heavy tilted toward policy specialists and former Bush administration officials. There is nary a historian of any sort to be seen.

The paper’s editorial on the anniversary advances several startling propositions suggested by the U.S. experience in Iraq. These include getting our intelligence right, approaching decisions for war with an open mind. and understanding our regional influence is limited. Of course, nothing about how the press should guard against get rolled by the White House in the run up to war!

One of the David Petraeus acolytes, John Nagl, offers an op-ed that adds an additional deep insight: war holds surprises so military leaders need to be flexible. Unfortunately nothing more profound can be expected from a counter-insurgency camp whose use of history over the years has been at best tendentious.

David Sanger’s report on the lack of consensus on lessons learned features extensive quotes from ex-Bush officials offering predictable justifications. Sanger clearly has no historians in his Rolodex so what he reports comes from the echo chamber that is the policy world.

Five experts jump into a debate over whether removing Saddam Hussein was a good idea. No card-carrying historians of Iraq, the Middle, or U.S. foreign policy in this mix.

Perhaps the most revealing piece is Peter Baker’s treatment of Washington’s relative silence on the anniversary. He notes that the capital like the country more generally “seems happy to wash its hands of Iraq.” The real lesson learned, his piece suggests, is to forget wars that don’t go well. Just celebrate the ones you win. Forgetting may already be a sturdy feature of the American way of war. Silence followed the aftermath of the conquest of the Philippines, the frustrating war in Korea, and the Vietnam War (at least for a decade).

Anyone in the lesson business who wants to ignore history does so at their own peril. As any historian worth their salt will tell you, assessing a war just ten years gone is very difficult. Not enough time has passed for dispassionate perspective; partisanship and wishful thinking are still strong (a point that Times inadvertently drives home). Moreover, the evidence on which any compelling judgment depends is thin; it will take years for the historical record to become full enough to tell us with confidence who did what to whom and why.

But along with these cautions historians would make an additional point. The past is always helpful in setting context, and it is indispensable in cases so close to the present and so poorly documented as Iraq is. How did U.S. involvement in the region help set the stage for the Iraq imbroglio? Were there long-term forces or preoccupations in play that may have helped drive U.S. policymakers toward their decisions? What other wars offer parallels with Iraq that might be revealing? What long-term developments internationally and at home might have facilitated or obstructed the march to war?

Historians pursuing these kinds of questions can shed badly needed light on important issues otherwise for the moment necessarily obscure. Perhaps here’s the issue the Times staff might have explored: how can history serve as a resource to help us understand Iraq and our role in the world more generally?

Nationalism and the debate over U.S. hegemony

[The following is my contribution to a symposium on the end of the American century that appears in the most recent issue of the RSA Journal (Revista di Studi Americani) published by the Italian Association of North American Studies. I am grateful to the editors for permission to post my essay here.]


I devoted the Conclusion of The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) to the issue of hegemony. Returning to the topic today, I find that the fate of U.S. hegemony has become a hot topic that evokes both pessimistic and optimistic appraisals.

Historians and political scientists with a historical bent have gravitated toward the view that U.S. hegemony is in deep trouble. David S. Mason’s The End of the American Century (2009) is a good case in point. Mason surveys the erosion of American dominance in compelling domestic and international detail. His conclusion: “At a minimum, the United States will suffer decline in wealth, standard of living, and global influence” (215). Others convinced of the weakness of the U.S. position emphasize that dominance even at its zenith in the post-World War II years was limited and from the 1970s was badly battered. (Good recent summations of this perspective can be found in the Andrew Bacevich and Walter LaFeber contributions to The Short American Century: A Postmortem [2012], edited by Bacevich.)

Those pessimistic about long-term U.S. prospects can point to the doleful conclusion of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, the broadly damaging 2008 economic crisis, the frustrating resistance on the part of regional powers (from Iran and Russia to China and North Korea), and the prolonged and ineffectual hand-wringing over fiscal affairs.

Despite this evidence for U.S. decline, some observers cling to optimism. Robert J. Lieber, Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why the United States Is Not Destined to Decline (2012), embodies that tendency in spades. Lieber makes the slide in U.S. influence a recent development, dating it from the 1990s, and he minimizes the ground the U.S. has lost since the triumph over the Soviet Union. Invoking familiar neo-conservative themes, Lieber contends that lost ground can be recovered through social and ideological mobilization at home. By restoring something akin to the old Cold War outlook, Americans will regain the confidence and policymakers the capacity critical to the continuation of global leadership. Thus can the United States live up to its special mission in the world and serve as the indispensable guarantor of international order, security, and liberal values.

International relations realists seem to maintain a guarded optimism about U.S. prospects grounded in a conviction that policymakers in Washington can preserve U.S. dominance if they correctly read and adjust to the current configuration of interstate power, the rise of new non-state actors, and the challenge of acute trans-national problems. Steven Weber and Bruce W. Jentleson in The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas (2010), for example, think a salvage operation possible. U.S. leaders have only to bring their policy in line with the world as it is today rather than with a world nostalgically remembered. To take another example, G. John Ikenberry’s Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (2011) contends that the liberal global order that the U.S. put in place is still basically intact and amenable to U.S. leadership. This realist tendency to make continued U.S. influence dependent on reading international developments aright is also evident in the U.S. government’s recent forecast, the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds (2012).

In reviewing these divergent pessimistic and optimistic approaches, I am struck by the absence of attention to U.S. nationalism as an element in the decline equation. The Tea Party revolt and the seemingly eternal presidential election campaign have provided forceful reminders of how badly frayed the national consensus has become and how important national consensus is as the basis for politics and policymaking. Nationalism’s conceptual utility is precisely its capacity to get us to reflect on what collective views Americans have embraced and how those views with both domestic and international ramifications have changed.

Bringing nationalism into the picture is strikingly easy to do. The ground has been prepared by a large, sophisticated collection of theoretical writings going back to the 1980s, and on that ground has arisen a considerable body of historical scholarship on various facets and phases of U.S. nationalism. This rich literature can help us think about the currently troubled U.S. position in three basic ways:

–First, U.S. nationalism is important today as earlier because it provides indispensable framing for policymakers by addressing the three preoccupations central to most nationalisms. It tells us who qualifies as a full citizen and thus has a genuine voice in national affairs, what kind of role the state should play as the embodiment and proponent of nationalist values, and what foreign forces pose a threat to the nation’s survival and values so serious that they require a collective response.

–Second, consistent with a central theoretical point, U.S. nationalism is not fixed but rather has evolved. It has arguably gone through three stages over the last two and half centuries. The most recent ran from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1960s and was organized around and promoted by a modernizing, burgeoning American state. This state-dominated nationalism came to accept and even advance an expanded understanding of citizenship (overcoming previous racial and gender barriers). And it was fixated on and galvanized by a string of international dangers beginning with the Kaiser’s Germany and Bolshevism, continuing with Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan, and concluding in its heyday with a communist monolith that gave way to distinct Soviet and Chinese threats.

–Finally, U.S. nationalism, again true to the general pattern, has never been static. What it means to be an American has always been contested — and quite intensely so at those points of transition from one phase of nationalist faith to another. We arguably find ourselves today at one of those points of transition with the old state-centered nationalism losing its grip.

Our current transition is in part the result of the demise of the world of empire and interstate conflict in which state-centered nationalism took shape. Today’s globalized world poses different challenges and imposes different constraints. The transition is also a result of a striking changes in U.S. society since the 1960s. The most important may be the rise of a consumer regime that has thoroughly reshaped the basic outlook as well as daily activities of most Americans (a development adroitly sketched by Emily Rosenberg in the Bacevich volume). But there are other contenders for the loyalty of Americans including the free-market religion so assiduously promoted over the last three or four decades not to mention a resuscitated version of the old statist faith along the lines articulated by Lieber.

Only when some alternative view speaks in a clear and broadly appealing way about the nature of citizenship, the role of the state, and the identity of the “dangerous other” will the country be able to move on to a new, fourth stage of nationalism, and only then will U.S. leaders gain the policy compass they so badly need. When and how this transition might occur no one can confidently predict. Even more difficult to anticipate is what impact a new nationalism might have on U.S. hegemony — whether to breathe new life into it or to intensify its problems.

This is only a sketch of the contours of U.S. nationalism as I think it applies to the current hegemonic disarray. Readers wanting more detail can turn to my December 2012 Krasno lecture (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyfGhPXTBfw). An even fuller treatment should in time appear in a book tentatively (and perhaps immodestly) titled “Bridging the Gap: Academic History and the Future of U.S. Foreign Relations.”