Final Thoughts

by Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier

We greatly appreciate all of the wonderful postings this week on America Between the Wars and thank all of those who participated. We wanted to conclude by touching on two of the issues raised in the discussion. One is the question Matt Waxman raised concerning the future of the U.S. political debate about democracy promotion. The other is Roger Alford’s recognition of the continuities between the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, which also implies speculating about policy continuities looking forward (a point raised by Ken Anderson who was kind enough to post from his trip to Paris).

Matt is quite right to wonder about the future of democracy promotion, especially given the political taint it has assumed as Bush has talked about the so-called “freedom agenda.” Many Democratic politicians and activists seem to forget that this was once their issue, not only in the 1992 campaign and during the Clinton years, but from Wilson through Roosevelt and Truman to JFK. Too many now see democracy promotion as a George W. Bush invention, and a number of people we interviewed, for example, Madeleine Albright, are quite upset that the war in Iraq has given democracy promotion such a bad name for those on the political left. In the early 1990s, there was also the euphoria associated with the collapse of communism, and the flourishing of democracy not just in Central and Eastern Europe, but in countries such as Mongolia and Namibia. As Matt notes, the international trends are less favorable today.

If the Democrats prevail in November, winning both the presidency and larger majorities in Congress (as polls now suggest), some will be tempted to adopt an “Anything but Bush” attitude as the Bush team did with Clinton policies in 2001. We hope they will avoid doing so – especially when it concerns democracy promotion and the place of liberal values in American foreign policy. To be sure, we must learn from Bush’s hubris and failures: there are far better ways to promote democracy other than overthrowing regimes. And while it is hard to see how a Democrat could define a progressive foreign policy that was purely realist in outlook, it will be tougher to raise democracy promotion as a central concern in this political environment. Matt is right to point to the institutional deficiencies in U.S. foreign policy in helping to do build civil society elsewhere, but it is also politically difficult because unlike holding elections, the institution-building takes time, and that means clear payoffs are way down the road, often after administrations have left office (witness Jimmy Carter’s efforts in Latin America, for example).

As Matt notes, McCain has raised the notion of a League of Democracies (which seems to build on the Clinton administration’s Community of Democracies). The League, however, seems largely focused on having countries with shared values come together to deal with common challenges. So far, at least, it seems not as focused on promoting democracy where it doesn’t exist. But if it were to get off the ground (and a number of top Obama advisers also have supported similar ideas), then democracy promotion might be an obvious agenda item for such an institution.

Roger is quite right to notice the continuities between the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations when it comes to the challenges of wielding American leverage and might. The Clinton team was not happy about leaving Saddam Hussein in power. And the United States did go to war in 1999 over Kosovo without U.N. authorization. Continuity across administrations since the end of the Cold War is a big theme of our book, and we do believe that on many of these questions there will be continuities after January 2009, as Ken’s discussions in Paris also indicate.

For example, it’s not clear how much emphasis there will be on humanitarian intervention in the next administration given that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be front and center for some time. But certainly if the next president believes that the use of force is necessary somewhere in the world (whether for humanitarian reasons or to meet a security threat), and if he believes that Russia and China will not support such action, then he is likely to go forward anyway, either as Clinton did under NATO auspices in 1999 or as Bush did with his “coalition of the willing” in 2003. And that certainly raises questions about the future of international law and the role of the United Nations in legitimizing the use of force.

In this sense, we’ve come full circle, which is exactly what we set out to do in this book. Our belief is that instead of dismissing the years we describe as a meaningless “holiday from history,” we can learn valuable lessons from this recent past, becoming better informed about our current debates, and hopefully making better choices in the future. As America grapples with the complexities of the 21st century, struggling to find the right balance between its power, responsibilities, and ambitions in a globalizing world, the lessons and legacies of the years America between the wars, from 11/9 to 9/11, will endure.

Worldviews, Grand Strategies, and Bumper-stickers

by Derek Chollet

The View from Paris

by Kenneth Anderson

The Clinton Administration and International Law

by Roger Alford

Grand Narratives and Grand Strategies Between the Wars

by Chris Borgen

America Between the Wars: The Future of Democracy Promotion

by Matthew Waxman

A Response to Roger Alford

by James Goldgeier

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.

Who Said This? (And Why You Should Care)

by Chris Borgen


by Roger Alford

America Between the Wars: Lessons for the Next Presidential Administration

by Matthew Waxman

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.

The Five Myths of American Foreign Policy

by Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier

Let us begin by thanking Roger Alford and his colleagues here at Opinio Juris for hosting this conversation about America Between the Wars, as well as Ken Anderson and Matt Waxman, who so kindly agreed to help keep the discussion lively! Since the book was published a month ago we’ve been doing a lot of events and talks, but we really welcome this opportunity to have an in-depth discussion with such a fine group.

Our book tells the story of the struggle to define America’s role in the world between two pivotal dates, which for us serve as bookends to what we describe as the modern interwar years: the day the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989 (or 11/9), and the day of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which will forever be known as 9/11. In the course of our research for this book, we talked to as many people as we could who had a role in the events of these years – a diverse group from Colin Powell and Newt Gingrich to Madeline Albright and Robert Rubin to Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader – and our narrative very much reflects the insights and stories that we gleaned from these revealing conversations.

In writing about America from 11/9 to 9/11, we tried to do several things. This book is an intellectual history of the debates between liberals and conservatives (and among factions inside both the political right and left) about the world after the Cold War and America’s role in it. It is also diplomatic history, in that it is a narrative of the major events and key turning points in American foreign policy during these years. And finally, and perhaps most importantly for our readers during an election-year summer, it is a political history of how the politics of national security played out during these years, as liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, responded to the end of the Cold War and tried to reshape themselves to face the new global landscape. It is impossible to understand this era without seeing the interweaving of the ideas, events, and politics, which we argue very much shaped the history of the past eight years and continues to shape the foreign policy choices McCain and Obama will argue about in the months ahead.

As a way to get things rolling, and hopefully to provoke some debate, we’d like to offer five myths that we believe our story shatters.

Myth 1: When it comes to America’s role in the world, 9/11 changed everything.

Reality: Describing the events of 9/11, President Bush asserted, “All of this was brought upon us in a single day, and night fell on a different world.” With these words, he reinforced a general perception that global politics had changed irrevocably on September 11, 2001. It was a day we will always remember and honor, but the president was articulating an emotional truth – not an analytical one. Just as history did not end in 1989, it did not begin on 9/11.

The tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath had its origins twelve years earlier, when the world shifted in ways that were incomprehensible at the time. On 11/9 the Berlin Wall fell, and the Cold War was effectively over. That year, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, and the former superpower battleground was left unattended until Bill Clinton bombed Al Qaeda training camps there in August 1998 in retaliation for the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. As we show in the book, by 1998, the Clinton administration believed it was “at war” with Osama bin Laden and his followers, and Clinton told George W. Bush after the 2000 election was decided, “One of the great regrets of my presidency is that I didn’t get him [bin Laden] for you, because I tried.” Of course, conservatives at the time were hardly focused on the threat from Islamic extremism.

But it wasn’t just terrorism. Other national security problems we face today – including failed states and civil wars, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea – all arose in the years after the collapse of communism.

Myth 2: Our problems began with George W. Bush, and will end when he leaves.

Reality: There is more continuity between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush than partisans on both sides care to admit: Clinton feared Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and tried to bring about regime change in Iraq. Bush is now pursuing Clinton-type policies on Iran, North Korea and the Middle East Peace Process. Both bypassed the UN to take military action, and both saw America as “indispensable.” There was continuity from George H.W. Bush to Clinton to George W. Bush – and there will be probably be a surprising degree of continuity after January 2009 regardless of who wins.

Myth 3: Democrats are incompetent at protecting America’s national security.

Reality: While that’s been the conventional wisdom conservatives have peddled for decades, especially at election time, we show that by the end of 2001, the charge rang pretty hollow. When Clinton left office, he had used military force in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Balkans, transformed NATO, and brought China into the World Trade Organization. Democrats used to get defensive when Republicans asserted they knew better how to conduct national security, but those days are over. Just look at how Obama is taking the fight to McCain on national security issues.

In fact, the shoe is on the other foot. Republicans are facing their own “best and the brightest” moment. Just as leading national security Democrats were tarnished by Vietnam, so are many leading Republicans today in the wake of the George Bush presidency. When the George W. Bush team came into office in 2001, many in the press and among the foreign policy elite believed that individuals such as Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz represented the “A-team” in American foreign policy after the seeming confusion of the Clinton years. But that was both a misreading of the latter years in the Clinton presidency and unwarranted optimism about the Bush team.

Myth 4: There is a strong Republican consensus about America’s role in the world.

Reality: Since the end of the Cold War nearly 20 years ago, conservatives have been deeply divided about America’s global role. Traditional pragmatists such as George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft hoped that America could lead through institutions like the United Nations. Isolationist Patrick Buchanan ran on the old George McGovern slogan, “Come Home, America” in 1992 and nearly won the New Hampshire primary against a sitting president. Many neo-conservatives believed with the end of the Cold War that America no longer needed a global mission, and the neo-conservative movement appeared dead by the mid-1990s. And on Capitol Hill, the “Contract Republicans” who swept to power in the 1994 elections combined neo-isolationism with strong nationalism and anti-Clintonism to focus their attention on missile defense, the rise of China, and UN bashing.

The aftermath of 9/11 created an illusion that conservatives were unified behind the “war on terror” as they had been against communism during the Cold War. But now we are seeing Republicans splitting into familiar factions, with neoconservatives, traditional realists, and neo-isolationists facing off against one another. This presents huge challenges for John McCain, whether as a candidate or, if he wins, as president.

Myth 5: America needs a simple foreign policy doctrine like “containment.”

Reality: For twenty years people have been trying to come up with a replacement for the Cold War’s “containment” policy. We tell the story of how Clinton himself was obsessed with coming up with a theory of the case, but was ultimately unsuccessful. George W. Bush thought he had found the new defining concept after 9/11 with the “war on terror.”

But that concept has lost its luster – most senior military leaders don like the phrase, and even Colin Powell told us in an interview that the “war on terror” is a “bad phrase…it’s a criminal problem.” So we argue that the quest for defining a simple concept to guide American foreign policy is fruitless, overrated and even dangerous in the complex world of the 21st century. As the book recounts, in 1994, the Clinton team asked 90-year old George Kennan to come down from Princeton so they could get his advice on replacing the doctrine that he had articulated so successfully in 1947. The former diplomat’s sage counsel: “forget about the bumper sticker; try to come up with a thoughtful paragraph or two.”

Well, there’s some food for thought. We look forward to your responses to this or any other aspect of the book. And again, thanks so much for having us here.