Tuesday, June 14, 2005

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Debating grand strategy

Diplomatic History is "the sole journal devoted to the history of U.S. diplomacy, foreign relations, and national security," according to both its publisher and its editor. In a laudable attempt to generate topical scholarship, the journal has recently asked eminent historians to write about current American grand strategy from a historical perspective.

The June 2005 issue has a roundtable on "The Bush Administration’s Foreign Policy in Historical Perspective," led off by Melvyn Leffler. His thesis:

My argument is that there is more continuity than change in the policies of the Bush administration. Bush’s rhetoric and actions have deep roots in the history of American foreign policy. Understanding these roots is important because they help to illuminate the different trajectories that inhere in the American diplomatic experience. The possession of immense power and the belief in a universal mission have the potential to produce great good and great harm. Given this dynamic mix of power and ideals, there is no substitute for the exercise of good judgment.

While stressing continuities, there has also been important change. Change, however, does not constitute a revolution. The change I see constitutes a recalibration in the complicated interaction between the assessment of threat, the calculation of interest, the enunciation of values, and the mobilization of power. In the history of U.S. foreign policy, threats, interests, ideals, and power always have had a dynamic and changing relationship with one another. At times of heightened threat perception, the assertion of values mounts and subsumes careful calculation of interests. Values and ideals are asserted to help evoke public support for the mobilization of power; power, then, tempts the government to overreach far beyond what careful calculations of interest might dictate. The genius of American foreign policy is the capacity to recalibrate the relationships between these variables; the nightmare of American foreign policy is that the relationships forever remain unstable, subject, as they should be, to changing perceptions of threat.

The editors of Diplomatic History then did something really provocative -- they asked non-historians to comment on Leffler's hypothesis.

This is a longwinded way of saying you can read my take on Leffler's hypothesis by reading my rejoinder, "Values, Interests, and American Grand Strategy." If you're pressed for time, here's the gist of it:

First, it is far from clear that the dichotomy of ideas and interests is as stark as Leffler presents. Second, time is a powerful constraint on the push for value-heavy foreign policies. American grand strategies are constantly revised over time—and even during periods of heightened threat perception, the power of ideational factors in determining grand strategy wanes as uncertainty about the state of the world decreases. Third, the distinction between rhetoric and action needs to be stressed—and on the latter account, it is unclear just how value laden the Bush administration’s foreign policy really is.

Click here for a summary of the issue -- other contributors include Robert Kagan, Walter L. Hixson, Carolyn Eisenberg, Arnold A. Offner, and Anna Kasten Nelson (plus a final reply from Leffler).

More importantly, congratulations to Diplomatic History for generating a useful and policy relevant debate -- and for giving me the guilty pleasure of publishing outside my disciplinary boundaries.

posted by Dan on 06.14.05 at 11:34 AM


First of all I want to make clear that I do not believe Dan Drezner's essay or the one to which he was responding represent in any way the reason the WWE keeps folding chairs at ringside. Absolutely not. No way.

Having made this disclaimer, in pure and perfect sincerity let me add, I observe that Leffler and his associates seem apt to throw around phrases like "grand strategy" rather loosely. Underlying their analysis appears to be the assumption that references to values and appeals for public support of a values-based foreign policy are intended as components of and aids to foreign policy.

One really only needs to read the papers to know that this is exactly backwards today, and has often been in the past. Absolute priority in the Bush administration has gone to designing a foreign policy that would appeal to the domestic electorate, something that was largely true of the Clinton administration as well. Where foreign policy does not have an obvious short-term political angle, drift is likely to result -- once again, not unlike the situation in the years before 9/11. The gap between words and actions that Dan makes so much of has a fairly obvious explanation.

The service foreign policy now pays to electoral politics is hardly unprecedented, but it was muted rather severely thoughout the Cold War. With a major, long-term and existential threat to the United States it wasn't always enough for politicians to say pleasing things about foreign policy; the maintenance of public confidence often required some demonstration of competence in national security affairs. With the fall of the Soviet Union that ceased to be true, and we are still far from the public attitudes in this area that prevailed during the Cold War.

It is possible, under certain circumstances, for officials today to use whatever campaign themes appeal to the public in order to gain office, and then proceed to conduct foreign policy according to their own ideas. But recent Presidents have not had that many ideas; they were either novices in the foreign policy field or, in the case of the elder President Bush, temperamentally inclined to passivity and reaction unless this posture was plainly unsustainable. At best it is not likely to be strategy driving the foreign policy of their administrations -- it is inertia. At worst grand gestures and big projects -- and, of course, doctrines -- may be promoted in response to crises, to persuade the electorate that there is a hand on the tiller.

The other observation I would make is that it is unwise to assume that public attitudes in other countries and even the foreign policies of other governments are always and exclusively reactions to American foreign policy, as Leffler appears to. In particular the idea that backward tribal cultures roiled by modernity and overwhelmed by the world economy are only sympathetic to someone like Osama bin Laden because American foreign policy has not been sensitive enough seems rather obtuse and likely to lead us in some mistaken policy directions. One example might be the path of seeking to make terrorism unattractive by promoting change in political processes -- not that such change might not be a nice thing to see, but making that our major objective effectively means that American policy depends for its success entirely on the actions of other people who may not share or even understand the values that have made our political system so successful and enduring.

posted by: Zathras on 06.14.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

" Absolute priority in the Bush administration has gone to designing a foreign policy that would appeal to the domestic electorate, something that was largely true of the Clinton administration as well"

Hmm... not sure how well that holds up, especially considering the crown jewel of Bush foriegn policy, Iraq, garners an ever dwindling minority of support. For that matter it seems pretty likely that Bush breezes through his 04 reelection with perhaps 60% if he strikes a flashy (if toothless) deal with the Europeans instead of invading Iraq. No, i'd argue that if anything Bush tends to follow his own instincts and then find a way to bring the public along if possible. I think there would be a lot less nervous democrats if they really believed Bush had a poll driven foriegn policy in the era of increasing war weariness. The Syrians, Iranians, and NKs certainly dont seem to buy it.

"At worst grand gestures and big projects -- and, of course, doctrines -- may be promoted in response to crises, to persuade the electorate that there is a hand on the tiller."

I buy that in general, but again not really in regards to Bush. The American people generally like to be liked, and certainly no president since Reagan has been more willing to spurn world opinion in favor of principle. I think Bush is a changed man from who was elected in 00. The Bush you described is exactly the Bush of Sept 10,2001. The new Bush has a true vision, like it or not, and is not going to be stymied from implimenting it his way, again like it or not (and those are two very seperate issues).

Bush is going to go down as a very intruiging historical figure, hero or villian. I think at the end of the day even his enemies will acknowledge that he was a true believer at least. That has proved to be a powerful force in a cynical world. Bush either knows it instinctively or has figured it out, but it ultimately _ideas_ that shape the world, and you have to struggle to prove your ideas are the superior ones (how you go about that is of course debateable). That is why the Europeans are dying as a power. What few ideas they do have nobody else wants much a part of, and they themselves seem to world weary and post-givingacrap to put up much of a fight.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 06.14.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

"The American people generally like to be liked, and certainly no president since Reagan has been more willing to spurn world opinion in favor of principle ..."

Principle trumps obsequiousness. We like to be liked by honest people.

The world we spurned is the one that birthed the U.N. Oil-for-Food Scandal.

The other world, populated by allies such as Australia and never mentioned in the press, is the world we want to like us.

posted by: Oil4Food on 06.14.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

Let's accept as an axiom the statement that no administration intends to screw up.

Neither President Bush nor anyone on his team went into the Iraq operation with the idea that we would still be fighting over two years later, or that the scale of the fighting would be large enough to require more troops than we had available, or that the primary justification for the war -- Iraq's threat to the United States -- was based on intelligence that was plainly wrong. Rather, having declared war on terrorism after 9/11 and dispatched the Taliban easily the administration sought the next place to strike a blow. Iraq was a plausible target; few would lament Saddam Hussein's fall or question the likelihood that he had either been involved with terrorism before or would be at some future time. Bush felt he needed to do something, and Iraq was something.

That was the grand strategy.

Let me say for the record that I do not for a moment doubt that Bush is sincere about wanting democracy to spring up in Arab countries. He might be fairly criticized for being longer on talk than action outside of Iraq, but this criticism applies to many other areas of policy as well -- once again, something Bush has in common with his predecessor in the White House. Just as sincerity in pursuit of unrealistic objectives can appear as devotion to principle, steadfastness in the implementation of badly conceived policies can appear as heroic action on one's instincts. Whether it actually does appear that way depends on circumstances and, I suppose, on the gullibility of one's audience.

posted by: Zathras on 06.14.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

On the general topic of Bush and Grand Strategy, patriotic Americans might want to check out the plan to create 'North America', an EU-style superstate consisting of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.

Now, you might at first think that's a black helicopter and tin foil link, except it's to Senate testimony from a CFR-linked American University professor. And, Bush seems to be behind the plans to create this superstate. From the testimony:

This trilateral approach should be institutionalized in a new North American Advisory Council... Its principal purpose should be to prepare a North American agenda for leaders to consider at biannual summits and to monitor the implementation of the resulting agreements. It should be an advisor to the three leaders but also a public voice and symbol of North America... ...North American governments can learn from the EU's efforts to establish EU Educational and Research Centers in the United States. Centers for North American Studies in the United States, Canada, and Mexico would help people in all three countries to understand the problems and the potential of an integrated North America--and to think of themselves as North Americans.... Until a new consciousness of North America's promise takes root, many of these proposals will remain impractical...

I'm leaning towards calling this plan explicitly anti-American and I'm sure some might consider those who push it to be traitors. Perhaps DD could weigh in on it at some future date.

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 06.14.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

Its black helicopter, tinfoil hat stuff.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 06.14.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Buehner an ardent Bush supporter?

From the link, we can see that if this is indeed black helicopter stuff, our elites are piloting the choppers:

By Dr. Robert A. Pastor, vice president of international affairs, professor, and director of the Center for North American Studies, American University... Testimony before a hearing of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee... "You asked me to place the issue of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative within the context of North American cooperation and border control and to relate it to the recent report by an Independent Task Force [from the Council on Foreign Relations] on the Future of North America sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The Chairs and Vice Chairs of the three nation, 31-person Task Force were John F. Manley and Tom d'Aquino of Canada, Pedro Aspe and Andres Rozental of Mexico, and William F. Weld and I from the United States. Entitled Building a North American Community, the report offered a blueprint of the goals that the three countries of North America should pursue and the steps needed to achieve those goals... [I worked at] the Carter Center... On March 23, 2005, President George Bush, President Vicente Fox, and Prime Minister Paul Martin met in Texas... [they] announced a "Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America,"... The Report spells out such a vision.

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 06.14.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

"Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Buehner an ardent Bush supporter?"

I'll correct you. I've probably been as critical of Bush of anyone that voted for him.

"From the link, we can see that if this is indeed black helicopter stuff, our elites are piloting the choppers"

Obscure professors from weird colleges tangentially related to minor Bush appointees. Pretty powerful stuff. Also I apparently dont have the secret transnational-conspiracy decoder ring that turns seemingly innoculous phrases like "a new consciousness of North America's" into a devious design to surrender American soveriegnty to Ottawa and Mexico City, particularly supposedly supported by the most viscerally pro-American president in 20 years. Diplomats and bored professors spend their lives spinning out meaningless papers about regional consciousness and all that crap. You could probably find 50 papers in about 5 minutes on the burgeoning regional identity of the Western Pacific. Somehow the Greater East-Asian Coprosperity Sphere has yet to return to haunt us. Wait a minute, GW Bush has a close relationship with Japan! The smoking gun!

posted by: Mark Buehner on 06.14.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

Apparently in MBWorld the CFR is just a bunch of powerless nobodies. In that same world, having a drawl (which gets stronger in Hobbs than in D.C.) and having some props makes someone "viscerally pro-American".

Those of you interested in the truth might want to follow this roadmap:

Read 2002's Mexico pushes for continental integration. That features Mexico's former foreign secretary Jorge Castaneda, Andres Rozental's half-brother (latter mentioned above).

Then, find recent articles by Castaneda proposing the same "integration." And, find statements from Vicente Fox proposing the same thing.

Then, compare what the Mexicans want with what Bush does. "Viscerally pro-American" indeed.

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 06.14.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

Keep your stick on the ice, compadre. We don't need no stinkin' badges to tell those gringos to take off, eh?

posted by: Take Off, Gringo on 06.14.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

"Then, compare what the Mexicans want with what Bush does. "

So you are arguing that any time a politician does something that happens to be in line with a political movement, he is obviously on board that movement with all their stated goals? That makes sense. So if the Mormons oppose stem cell research and so does Bush, Bush is actually looking for his second and third wives? Sure.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 06.14.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

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