Bureaucracy, Ideas and Labels in the “Interwar” Years

by Peggy McGuinness

Before I offer my initial thoughts about the “Between the Wars,” it is only fair that I join Ken in disclosing my own biases. I joined the Foreign Service the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall and left the State Department at the beginning of the second Clinton term. My final post, fittingly enough, was in Berlin. In Washington, I served two stints on the Seventh Floor of the State Department (the location of senior management for the unitiated): one at the Operations Center (the 24-hour crisis center at State) during the last year of the George H.W. Bush administration and another as a Special Assistant to Warren Christopher (beginning on “day one” of the Clinton administration). You could say my service spanned the “interwar” years Chollet and Goldgeier discuss in their book. I was thus particularly interested to read a history of the events that I experienced from inside State, and also to see how the authors portrayed certain key players. (I had to chuckle at their characterization of the lanky southerner Bob Oakley –for whom I worked when he was Ambassador to Pakistan — as “the rugged [!]career diplomat” (p. 77).)

As with any history that tries to cover as many people and events as this ambitious book does, there is much that is lost – both in terms of events and nuance – to space constraints. I don’t mean this as a criticism of the authors’ considerable achievement in covering as much as they do in the space of one book. A thorough diplomatic history of the period, even one focused only on U.S. diplomacy, would require much more breadth and depth than the authors are constrained to here, including much more discussion of the many counterparts to the U.S. policy makers in foreign capitals and within international organizations. That quibble aside, the authors do a terrific job of capturuing what was truly remarkable about the years 1989-2001: the magnitude and breakneck speed of events. (Not suprisingly, perhaps, they both spent time on the Clinton foreign policy team.)

For those who lived through the early 1990s inside the foreign policy machinery, as the book accurately captures, the pace of events was simply breathtaking. The end of the Warsaw Pact, the dissolution of the USSR and the creation of a dozen or so new states in the space of just one year (1991) meant not only thinking about the “big ideas,” but, perhaps more important – and more daunting — handling the details: establishing new embassies; training diplomats; forging new military partnerships and relationships; rethinking our foreign humanitarian assistance; expanding the Peace Corps into states previously off limits, etc. On the international law side, international criminal law went from an historical artifact to a living legal regime; trade regimes created new and more robust dispute resolution mechanisms. The 1990s witnessed explosive growth, both in membership and missions, of the various international and regional economic, military, political and legal institutions – WTO, NAFTA, EU, APEC, ICTY, ICTR (and later the ICC) All these shifts required fundamental reorganization of the mechanics of our national security apparatus and rethinking about the spaces left open by vacuum of Cold War politics in a range of geopolitical and economic contexts. This work of bureacratic restructuring started under the Bush administration, picked up pace during the Clinton years and continued thorughout the current administration.

One might ask whether the bureaucracy matters and how it is connected to the intellectual history of the period. I believe it matters quite a bit, and will be of central importance to the next administration. It is one thing, for example, to present a theory of “soft power” as Joe Nye has done. It is quite another to figure out how to turn theory into action, to fund it, manage it and keep tabs on whether its exercise has achieved the desired results. (If we ‘ve learned anything from the disasters of the neocons, surely it is that competence matters.) The same, of course, can be said of change to the intelligence and military bureaucracies. Chollet and Goldgeier briefly discuss the challenges the post-Cold War changes brought to the CIA (pp. 261 -262), but largely gloss over the diplomatic restructuring debates of the early 1990s, including, e.g., the reintegration of USIA, USAID and ACDA into State. Execution – including the myriad little things — of diplomacy matters; errors in execution are not unique to intelligence and military operations.

One of the authors’ central claims [Myth Five] is that the post-11/9 era was not amenable to one unifying theory akin to containment. I strongly agree. Indeed, as the authors note, this idea that there is no simplifying (in Kennan’s words) “bumper sticker” to define the post-Cold War era has been kicking around since the day the Berlin Wall fell. (Perhaps the myth of a unifying theme appealed only to the vanity of a few foreign policy wonks!) But if that is true, why does the book keep circling back to the idea that either Bush I or Clinton “failed” in defining this new era and spend so much time on the public intellectuals and journalists who were so keen on putting their own label on this not-to-be-labeled era? (see, e.g., p. 27“[Bush] was unable to translate [the End of the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War] momentous achievements into a direction for his country….no one had assumed Kennan’s mantle as the country’s grand strategist.” p. 84: “With a disastrous first year in office, Clinton had lost the initiative to define the era.”) Put differently, why were many of the players portrayed in the book so obsessed with coming up with a label? If labels matter, as many in Washington clearly believe they do, why do they matter? (I have my own view on this, but am curious to hear what the authors think.) I wonder whether the book’s focus on the inside-the-beltway political and foreign policy establishment misses some of the broader trends of the 1990s that were occurring outside of Washington and beyond U.S. borders, but which nonetheless have had profound impact on our current foreign policy posture. More on that in my next post.


One Response

  1. I look forward to your next post.

    Even more, I’m looking forward to your book. No kidding.

    And kindly follow it up with one on U.S. competence and incompetence post-9/11. Lucid analysis is needed on the subject.

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