Worldviews, Grand Strategies, and Bumper-stickers

Worldviews, Grand Strategies, and Bumper-stickers

Thanks to everyone for what has been a very enriching discussion so far. I’d like to respond briefly to the thoughtful comments made by Peggy and Chris concerning what the story of these modern interwar years between 11/9 and 9/11 tells us about how to think about America’s role in the world – and whether that can be summed up in a simple phrase.

It is quite right that, as we admitted at the outset, this book is in part an intellectual history of how Washington policymakers, politicians and intellectuals tried to make sense of the world and America’s role in it after the collapse of communism. In that sense it is focused. I fully agree that it would be very interesting to broaden the aperture to see how others around the world were trying to do the same thing, and how they perceived our efforts – perhaps we can convince our publisher that that can be the subject of our next book!

Peggy raised the good question of why policymakers were so obsessed with finding a bumper-sticker for America’s global role especially when, as we hope the book shows, it became increasingly implausible and even misguided to do so. I think there are at least a couple reasons for this.

First, I think there was (and still is) a misplaced nostalgia for the supposed simplicity of the Cold War. Some seem to remember these years as ones when all the calls were relatively easy and everyone agreed on America’s global role. There was a sense that by having a single-word doctrine like “containment” we knew exactly what we were doing and why. Well, of course, the history of the Cold War is a lot more complicated than that, and in many ways actions came first and the words to describe them only later (on this point I strongly recommend Deborah Welch Larson’s 1985 book Origins of Containment, in which she uses psychological theories to argue that Truman and others came up with their worldviews retrospectively as a way to explain their actions, rather than the other way around). Yet looking back, policymakers during the 1990s saw America’s Cold War policies as successful because they were driven by an overriding concept – so to equal that success, post-Cold War policies needed a single concept too.

Another reason for all the interest in what we describe as the “George Kennan sweepstakes” during the 1990s was that politicians believed Americans needed something to rally them to stay engaged in the world. Bill Clinton was the consummate politician, and his own obsession with finding that one defining word or phrase was driven in large part by a desire to explain to people what was he was trying to do and why. This is understandable and perhaps even required in a democracy, where leaders need to gain public and Congressional support for what they are doing. It’s worth considering whether because of such pressures we are destined to always be looking for ways to over-simplify things in describing foreign policy goals and interests – no matter how fruitless that might be.

But we hope our book reveals the dangers of trying to sum all of America’s interests and goals into a simple concept. Conservatives looked back on the Clinton years with contempt for the failure to talk about doctrine and come up with an overarching strategy. They thought it was a sign of weakness. That’s one big reason why, in the wake of 9/11, they were so quick to beat their chests and talk about the preemption doctrine and the war on terror. And look where that got us.

This is not to say that moving forward leaders should embrace some kind of strategic nihilism. Of course ideas are important, as are lofty goals. The president should articulate a set of principles and priorities that will help guide the country’s policies. But we think the lessons of America between the wars show that solving problems is more important than laying out all-encompassing ideological pronouncements.

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