Editor's Choice: Alternative Histories
By Linda B. Miller, Wellesley College and Brown University, Argentia Editorial Team
Selecting new books to enlarge our understanding of American foreign policy is always a pleasurable task when the choices combine theory and practice and reflect both scholarly trends and insider reports. The Obama presidency has produced an array of volumes that do one or both. Whether such treatments have lasting value depends not only on the substance conveyed but also on the quality of the writing. Readers will judge.
In a previous issue (Argentia, Volume 6 Issue 1) I noted that current students of American foreign policy were often drawn to courses that featured thesupposedly "new" importance of non‐traditional topics like resource "cartels" ordrug smuggling. Now these students and others interested in the interaction of U.S.domestic politics and foreign policy during the entire history of the Republic have atleast one rich source to consult and savor. As well, observers of particular bilateralrelationships will benefit from realizing how their often narrower focus may fit intoa larger picture.
Our first book, Peter Andreas's Smuggler Nation, is essential reading because it places the multifarious activities that cross interstate boundaries in the historical context of both economics and security, subjects too often rigidly divided in theories of international relations. What he shows is that such activities are not new at all.Rather they date from the earliest days of the U.S., well before the contemporary era of Washington obsessions and buzz words like "nation‐building" or "global architecture". In fact, as his well‐written chapters demonstrate, American borders have always been porous.
By offering abundant details and case histories dating from the colonial erato the present, Andreas documents in a meticulous way the interaction of illicittrade and the emergence of the U.S. as a superpower. To understand theimplications of this argument, the tumultuous bilateral relationship of the U.S. and Mexico is revealing. Most Argentia readers will know (or think they know)the story of NAFTA, with its unintended consequences in terms of the movement of peopleand goods into and out of the U.S. What Andreas explains is that such results wereentirely predictable if policymakers in both countries had paid more attention tothe tangled past, especially to the efforts of their predecessors to regulate or policethe lengthy border as the U.S. grew to continental size. For an author to seeconnections between molasses and marijuana requires precisely this kind ofattention and the cleverness to see patterns. Andreas's capacity to discern suchpatterns is highly significant because it recasts the overall America narrative in aconvincing way at the same time as it illuminates a turbulent bilateral relationship.
Conventional accounts of the American "epic" stress renditions of good guysand bad guys, particularly since 9/11. It is refreshing to read a sustained account ofhow closely members of both groups have worked together, for example, in the U.S. Prohibition period. Similarly, in the 21st century, Andreas reminds us that lawenforcement and law‐breaking are in a symbiotic relationship. Writing of this interplay, he states that: "NAFTA, it turned out, was good for both licit and illicit commerce, though this was conveniently glossed over by NAFTA boosters eager notto let the drug issue derail the trade agreement." (p. 318) He then observes thatdomestic politics explains much of the subsequent focus on emphasizing border"controls". (p. 319) No surprise there.
Although finding the balance between international imperatives anddomestic constrains seems more difficult in the 21st century, with persistentdemographic and technological shifts, it has always been an elusive quest. Getting from Monday to Tuesday, as James Rosenau argued decades ago, is the principal task of policymakers and how they do it is the task of observers to explain.
T'was ever thus if we try to comprehend the twists and turns of contemporary U.S. debates on immigration. Sooner or later fictions about what looks good in theory but does not work in practice come to the fore, usually when investigative reports detail the day to day challenges on the ground. Policymakers may still speak in lofty phrases of the American dream or the Mexican dream, of American exceptionalism and its Mexican counterpart even though the reality on the ground is often quite different.
Andreas is careful in his summation to avoid straight line extrapolations. He insists that we acknowledge that "government" itself is often a player in illicit as well as licit trade. Fair enough. He is equally vehement that many convoluted U.S.policies require updating but not on the basis that history excuses us or American political leaders from rethinking stereotypes of state behavior or political culture.
Our second selection, Vali Nasr's The Dispensable Nation, is a polemical treatment of his experiences as a bureaucrat in the State Department during the early years of the Obama first term when the turf battles between the White House and the State Department played out both publically and behind the scenes. Now the Dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Affairs, Nasr wants to show that there was a very narrow range of options laid before the novice president whose lack of inclusiveness doomed the information he received before he made crucial decisions. It, too, is an alternative history. Nasr freely speculates on counter-factuals. Could America's trials and tribulations in Afghanistan and Pakistan have produced more favorable results if Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke had been taken more seriously by the Obama insiders who sought to marginalize them? Could a bolder U.S. approach to the Arab spring, something along the lines of a Middle East Marshall Plan, have turned the tide in countries like Egypt?
Like diplomatic memoirs that reveal who said what to whom when, Nasr's account blends analysis with a form of gossip. What gives his report credibility is that he was present at so many of the tense encounters he recalls, especially when he praises Holbrooke for his acute understanding of what local parties would demand in any negotiation and what they might ultimately accept if they believed that American officials actually had mastered the details of a region's history, anxieties, excuses and fears. Doing deals as a measure of success is the yardstick by which Nasr measures American efforts. It is a welcome relief from the accounts of so many former policymakers turned authors who simply rehearse opening positions, tactics and theatrics en route to such deals, particularly episodes in which they participated actively and for which they may be seeking redemption years later.
At a time when the second Obama administration is doggedly pursuing reopening talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Nasr's summing up of what went wrong in the first such attempts is insightful. He contrasts inspiring words from the White House, an Obama specialty, with cautious deeds, as he traces U.S. efforts to placate both Israel and neighboring Arab states in hopes of detaching Washington from the day to day flattery and flatulence these players demanded if they were to budge from their seemingly intractable goals. "Obama reacted to Israeli intransigence and Arab disappointment in much the same way he dealt with the thorny problems posed by Pakistan: he walked away." (p. 162) Hillary Clinton, the once and possibly future Obama rival, comes off better. She sees further down the road in the Middle East as she had done in the Af-Pak imbroglio. Nevertheless, whatever her reputed skills in the interagency squabbles, she could not prevail when Obama's protectors had their own story to sell, one that lauded the benefits of not doing too much, one that spoke of modest success in Afghanistan and gradual withdrawal since the domestic pressures to get out were mounting as the 2012 election came closer. The same attitude persisted as the Arab spring unfolded, Nasr laments.
The book's subtitle is interesting now as both Obama and John Kerry are clearly legacy shopping. Although "American Foreign Policy in Retreat" might suggest that Nasr could be comfortable in the "decline" school along with Robert Kagan whose own books look for the long view rather than the pointillist renderings Nasr offers, he wants to reframe the question of U.S. decline altogether. In his concluding chapter, he argues that the U.S. has gone too far in abdicating leadership, hardly a novel finding but one that merits consideration on the basis of looking at cases Nasr covers in his tour d'horizon. As other critics have argued, his chapter on Pakistan is among the best reviews of that tortured bilateral relationship we have.
Why so tortured? This step by step account of misunderstandings, misperceptions, poorly thought out strategies, and inappropriate tactics is a testament to Washington's strong belief in U.S. hard power at the expense of smarter power that might have kept the inevitable stresses and strains of the bilateral relationship from upending American goals regionally. Yet Nasr shies away from defining the goals-means conundrums in an even more sophisticated way as he seeks to upgrade Holbrooke's comprehensive grip on South Asia affairs. The book does stop short of hagiography, but, as other reviewers have argued, it would be even more persuasive if Nasr had taken on the pressing questions of global economic turmoil and the impact of non-state actors and their agendas in the complexities of regional politics in both the Middle East and South Asia.
Alternative histories shift our perspectives when their authors retrace familiar ground and either uncover new details or sketch out new interpretations that suggest recasting additional research. By that standard, in their separate ways, both Peter Andreas and Vali Nasr with their coherent renderings of the inner and outer worlds of American foreign policy deserve our thanks.