America Between the Wars: Lessons for the Next Presidential Administration

America Between the Wars: Lessons for the Next Presidential Administration

This superb book is must-reading for students of contemporary foreign policy and for anyone hoping to be part of the incoming foreign policy team of the next president.

America Between the Wars is a book about ideas – the foreign policy and national security ideas that presidential administrations bring with them into office, and the competition of ideas within administrations and between administrations and other actors at home and abroad. One of the most interesting themes is the continuity of debates between and within parties about the purpose of American power (such as protecting U.S. interests versus exporting democratic values) and the source of that power (accumulating military and economic advantage versus harnessing soft-power influence).

But America Between the Wars is also about politics and institutional bureaucracy (see, e.g., military resistance to Clinton’s proposals regarding homosexuality in the military), as well as the unexpected crises that can overwhelm decision making and pull policy agendas off track (to take it up to the present, who would have expected that the George W. Bush Administration originally intent on “no nation-building”, especially by the U.S. military which it also planned to modernize and streamline, would end with 160,000 U.S. troops rebuiling Afghanistan and Iraq?).

When it comes to international law and diplomacy, both Senators Obama and McCain have promised a set of ideas different from the Bush Administration (Obama more so than McCain). Their agendas include a rejuvenated American leadership on issues such as global warming, non-proliferation and detainee treatment, and they both recognize that international legal constraints in these areas can enhance American power in a variety of ways.

But the new president and his administration will have to contend in his first few months with managing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Middle East peace process that’s at best fragile, as well as immediate strategic choices on Iran diplomacy. Those aren’t optional agenda items, and they already fill a plate. And some institutional players, such as the military and the Congress, will have strong views and entrenched positions. And then there are the wildcards (coups, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, domestic political scandals, or something totally new).

I am hopeful and confident that whoever wins in November will keep a restoration of American leadership and credibility on international law near the top of a huge agenda pile (yes, of course, this is not independent of the other issues I just mentioned, but tied tightly into them). But the story Chollet and Goldgeier weave so effectively is cause for caution. It teaches that the power of ideas only goes so far in foreign policy-making. Success or failure of the next presidential term in advancing a new global vision will turn on the White House’s ability to navigate politics, prioritize, cut deals, mediate internal disputes, and ride herd on a vast bureaucracy to ensure implementation. Advisers to the next president would do well to study those parts of the book.

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

McCain or Obama on detainee treatment will be meaningless unless they are willing to criminally prosecute high-level civilians and generals for the policy of torture designed, planned and implemented. The argument will be “we do not want a witchhunt”, but sometimes there are witches.