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.

Brexit’s real global significance

To many American pundits and denizens of the policy community, Brexit represented an existential threat. England’s gullible voters and opportunistic politicians seemed to have eliminated Britain as a prime fixture of the U.S. foreign policy landscape. A surge of Euroskepticism across the continent was bound to follow and in the bargain encourage a nationalist revival while weakening NATO. A Europe in crisis would tempt Putin to reach farther into eastern Europe. Amidst this upheaval, Trump’s presidential candidacy was bound to flourish and feed the U.S. drift back toward isolationism. With American global leadership abandoned, the world was headed for exceedingly perilous times.

The Brexit hysteria has begun to die down. The EU stands, perhaps even reinforced by the British rejection (to judge from recent polls taken across the continent). Britain has never fit well with the European project at least as it’s understood on the continent. Even the Remain campaign defended the EU as no more than a convenient economic arrangement. The international system still turns with the same speed and frequency that it did before Brexit. Britain isn’t after all that important (except in the minds of American Anglophiles and Brits still living in the shadow of the empire). Financial markets have rebounded after the initial shock.

Only in Britain have the effects been predictably pronounced, above all in London. Its inflated real estate prices are on the downswing as foreign investors look elsewhere, and London’s financial sector begins to consider exporting jobs into the EU as a hedge against a split. The pound has deflated even as Britain’s political class self destructs, with party leaders either resigning or facing pressure to quit. Scotland and Northern Ireland are contemplating leaving the UK. But there is no rush to the exit. Indeed, the decision in favor of Brexit has not brought much of a rush to actually leave the EU.

Brexit does have global implications that the hysterics have largely overlooked. Its a reminder of the consequences globalization (or at least a particularly free market friendly version of it) has visited on two countries that have enthusiastically thrown themselves into its web. In the UK long-brewing popular disaffection drove the Leave vote. Communities and regions found themselves marginalized economically while London prospered. Feeling powerlessness and unrepresented, they vented their frustration against immigrants, Brussels, and their own politicians. The emergence of a large disaffected class of citizens is no less a feature of the U.S. political scene. Like the British, Americans have neglected welfare and allowed class and regional inequality to rise. Immigration has become the lightning rod for unhappiness over a system that creates ever greater economic and social distortions while failing to deliver for many on the promises of a good middle class life.

For striking evidence on the broad and deep-seated nature of these discontents on both sides of the Atlantic, see The Guardian articles by Daniel John Harris, “Britain is in the midst of a working-class revolt”; and by Rob Ford, “Older ‘left-behind’ voters turned against a political class with values opposed to theirs”; and the impressions on the U.S. side by Amy Walter in the Cook Political Report, “When Conventional Wisdom Gets Ahead of the Voters”; and by Susan Bee, Why Are Voters Drawn to Donald Trump? in The Atlantic.

None of this is new. Globalization in its full-throated version been around since the late nineteenth century. So too has the popular reaction against the economic destruction and social disruption that global forces have inflicted. Over a half century ago Karl Polanyi described what he called a double movement consisting of a rising tide of globalization and the reaction against it as those most hurt by creative destruction mounted a political resistance. Polanyi’s insight into the link between globalization and popular anger seems more pertinent today than when I called attention to it here five years ago. Neoliberals with their blind faith in the market may imagine they live in a world irresistibly shaped by economic forces. Anyone who wants to fully understand that world and the political resistance and social discontents that it generates should take a lesson from Polanyi.

Why Brexit makes historical sense

With the vote looming on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, commentators have gone into overdrive. What is notably lacking is a historical perspective on Britain’s distinctly ambivalent relationship to European integration. That ambivalence is hardly a recent phenomenon.

The British stood aside as the idea of European integration began to gather momentum in the 1950s. They refused a role in the European Coal and Steel Community, proposed in 1950 by French Foreign Minister Robert Schumann and set in motion in 1952 in an effort to coordinate economic policy. They again held back in 1957 when the member states of the ECSC created a more ambitious European Economic Community. This initiative resulted in a single market, more wide-ranging economic coordination, and the establishment of political institutions to facilitate cooperation. This was all a bit too much for British leaders fixated on a glorious imperial past and determined not to have Britain become “just another European country” (as a Labour government’s foreign secretary had put it in early in the postwar). Better to concentrate on salvaging something from a rapidly dissolving empire by promoting a British-led Commonwealth.

London had second thoughts once the EEC proved a success. Concentrating on imperial prestige had proven a costly dead end. Moreover, manufactured exports, the basis for Britain’s reputation as a great trading nation, slid dramatically. Britain’s growth rate lagged behind those of the major economies of the EEC, and Britons enviously watched the rising living standard of their neighbors. But gaining membership was not easy. France’s Charles de Gaulle was adamantly opposed. In 1963 and again in 1967 he blocked Britain’s admission in part because he saw London as a rival for European leadership but also because he feared Britain would serve as a stalking horse for American influence on the continent.

Even after finally gaining admission in 1973, the British remained ambivalent. Margaret Thatcher during her time as British prime minister (1979–1990) embodied that ambivalence. While supporting membership in the EEC, she forcefully articulated widely shared reservations. She feared that centralized power in Brussels would encroach on British ­national identity and political autonomy. She disliked the European attachment to “welfare capitalism” with its proclivity toward intervention in the economy. The large subsidies directed toward the agricultural sector were a source of special irritation. Her critique had at times a distinctly contemporary ring: “Of course, we want to make it easier for goods to pass through frontiers. Of course, we must make it easier for people to travel throughout the Community. But it is a matter of plain common sense that we cannot totally abolish frontier controls if we are also to protect our citizens from crime and stop the movement of drugs, of terrorists and of illegal immigrants.”

Hesitation about a close relationship with the continent again came to the fore as talk of deeper integration culminated in the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 creating the European Union. While British leaders signed up for the EU, a familiar set of doubts held them back from full participation. They opted out of one of its signature initiatives, the single currency. The British pound was a reminder of past glories and a symbol of a distinct national identity. On the free movement of people within the Union and on aspects of social policy, they also demurred.

In recent decades, this habitual ambivalence about the relationship with the continent has persisted. The leading grievances have been the population influx from other EU states and the meddling of the Brussels bureaucrats. These are the very grievances trumpeted by the current campaign in favor of leaving the EU. That these complaints have now come to a head can be traced to some of same anxieties and resentments that have in the United States fueled the rise of the Tea Party and more recently the Trump presidential candidacy. Immigration, slow economic growth, and inequality have become the bane of the Anglo-American world in an era of globalization. Euro-skepticism has taken hold within the Conservative Party and fueled the rise of the UK Independence Party, finally forcing Prime Minister David Cameron to schedule the referendum on membership now nearly upon us.

The vote this coming week, no matter which way it goes, is not likely have cataclysmic consequences. Britain will remain a multi-cultural society. Defending Englishness against outsiders will remain an uphill battle even outside the EU. The British economy may well take a hit if the Leave-takers prevail, but the damage will probably not be deep or long lasting. Inequality, which cannot be blamed on the EU, is likely to persist in a global economy dominated by the neoliberal preferences that Thatcher instilled in her party. In promising dramatic changes, the Leave campaign is as misguided as the proponents of Little America. Both are looking for scapegoats and simple solutions.

Whatever the consequences for Britain, Brexit might prove a good thing for the EU. Its expansion eastward since the Communist collapse along with the continued British presence has created a political entity with widely divergent points of view. This divergence disrupts consensus on fundamental values and objectives and makes decision-making difficult. The priority given expansion has done the EU cause no favors. A deepening of integration — both economic and political of states on the continent — might well become easier to achieve were Britain to depart. A diminution of membership might seem to some a setback but losing the ambivalent Brits could prove a long-term blessing.

What a difference a year makes: U.S. policy orthodoxy in question

How different the U.S. foreign policy scene looks today from a year ago when I began a medical sabbatical. Now I return to find all hell has broken loose!

This is most obviously true in the presidential primaries dominated by insurgent candidates critical of business as usual and intent on pressing policies well outside the mainstream.

Bernie Sanders seems most concerned with insuring that international activism doesn’t get in the way of addressing domestic needs. He has pointed repeatedly to his own opposition to the Iraq invasion as the kind of tough-minded skepticism that should greet any call for fresh overseas adventures. His opposition to trade deals that work against ordinary Americans is another part of an “American First” approach. So potent has been the Sanders’ critique on both intervention and trade that Hillary Clinton, the epitome of establishment thinking on both points, has had to move in the direction of her opponent.

Donald Trump goes Sanders one better. Trump attacks free trade with abandon. He favors scaling back U.S. commitments in Europe and Northeast Asia that date back to the Cold War. He would be happy to raise the immigration drawbridge to judge from his controversial proposals for a wall along the Mexican border and a ban on Muslim arrivals. His strong nativist and populist appeal, wrapped up in his slogan “Make America Great Again,” has had great appeal among segments of the electorate even as it has defied the expectations of learned pundits and horrified policy elites with their longstanding fear of an emotional, ill-informed electorate.

Those now gone from the Republican race made their own contributions to upsetting the apple cart. For example, Ted Cruz suggested nuclear strikes as the best response to the ISIS threat while Rand Paul rekindled the old “fortress America” position once influential in the Republican Party but distinctly out of favor for decades in orthodox policy circles.

The election has thus put a lot in play, much of it fundamental to the country’s identity and its relationship to the broader world. The free trade ideals of the neo-liberals have lost their glow, the interventionism championed by the neo-conservatives is distinctly out of season; the financial institutions associated with the brave mew global order are in distinctly bad odor; globalization more broadly has come into deeper question than ever in a country ill equipped (or at least disinclined) to deal with its adverse effects; and a multi-cultural conception of the nation is under attack spearheaded by an older generation of whites who first rallied behind the Tea Party and now back Trump.

Perhaps most striking of all is the way President Obama has rounded on the policy establishment (to include the Pentagon, the State Department, the array of Washington think tanks, and even some on his own national security advisers). In his view (nicely articulated in Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic last month), they are entranced by “power projection” as the foundation of U.S. leadership, prone to favor “tough” military solutions, overly fixated on credibility, and disinclined to think through the likely consequences of their favored courses of action. In particular, the president’s refusal to get drawn into the Syrian civil wars set him at odds (as he put it) with “the overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus.” This included heavy weights within his own administration such as Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Leon Panetta, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice not to mention Republican hawks Lindsay Graham and John McCain.

The preoccupation of these worthies with the loss of American credibility and their faith in U.S. military power collide with Obama’s instinctive caution, captured in his mantra: “Don’t do stupid shit.”

The pattern of caution is evident not only in Obama’s refusal to take on the mess in Syria but also in his resistance to becoming more deeply engaged in the Middle East and North Africa, a region that he is convinced the United States cannot fix. He has no patience with the soaring vision of countries transformed under the American aegis. Caution is also evident in his avoidance of confrontation with other powers on matters not central to U.S. interests and in his acceptance of constraints on U.S. policy. This has led him to pursue what some would dismiss as “weak” diplomacy and led to some notable successes including deals with Iran, an opening to Cuba, and the creation of an alliance bulwark against China. Finally, Obama’s caution is evident in his cool attitude toward longtime American allies–notably the Saudis, the Israelis, the British, and the French–who fail to carry their weight (the free riders) and who try to manipulate Washington into making unwise commitments. In all these ways the president has proven himself self consciously at odds with attitudes that have long prevailed within the policy community.

The policy discontents given voice over the past year may well mark an inflection point. But the crystal ball is not so clear on where we go from here. Toward some new consensus that will soon give U.S. policy consistency and direction? Or is the disarray likely to prove prolonged? Might the warfare over fundamentals turn into a long term affair, absorbing energy and attention for many years just as it took many years for the critiques of policy to reach critical mass? Developments over the past year leave no doubt that change is afoot and that watching it play out should be endlessly absorbing.

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.