Editor's Choice: Of Patterns and Paradoxes

Trying to find patterns in U.S. foreign policy and instead seeming to find more paradoxes? Annoyed by incessant headlines or blog posts that stress conflict(s) from the Middle East and Ukraine, or dumb down complex topics like immigration or paralysis in Washington and again wondering whether all international relations seem more heavily symbolic than in recent historical periods? If so, two recent books help sort out the important from the more transient.

Each of the books is a useful guide to understanding how tensions in and between American domestic politics and international imperatives always shape foreign policy choices, often in unpredictable ways. Each also explains why institutions matter as much or more than political parties or electoral cycles.  Each will or should be read long after the dense, self-referential "memoirs" of recent (or future) policymakers like Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton gather dust or are forgotten on shelves, or in remainder bins or cyberspace.

Since each volume appeared in shorter form prior to book publication, one standard to apply is whether the extended versions sustain an argument by offering more examples or clearer insights. Each passes this test and also bridges the inevitable gaps between theory and practice.

In Maximalist, Stephen Sestanovich demonstrates the advantages of being both an academic and a government official at intervals in a long career. He participates and later he reflects on those roles in gripping colloquial terms. By organizing the chapters chronologically according to the differing presidential administrations, he defines what was different and what has remained the same in U.S. foreign policy for over half a century. His subtitle America's Role in the World From Truman to Obama fits his ambitious aim of adding something new to the already voluminous record. He develops portraits of key players as they carried out their duties in uncertain times and places like the Middle East and Asia for audiences at home and abroad who had their own preferences and styles of paying attention to Washington, or pretending to do so.

Because the author is so well-connected to an array of mainstream think tanks, notably the Council on Relations, and elite American universities like Columbia, his quotes from most of his interview subjects ring true, as do those from official documents. The shorter version's appearance in a widely-read journal built an appetite for even more detail which is the book's major strength. Of course, Sestanovich is the hardly the first observer to posit habitual extremes in the formulation and execution of U.S. foreign policy. The closest parallel is John Stoessinger's classic depiction of pragmatists and crusaders as the competing actors throughout the history of the Republic. What distinguishes Maximalist 's focus is the equal time given to advisers with their own priorities and desiderata, their own "agendas".

In untangling the conundrums of the goals versus means mismatches that plague every administration, Sestanovich includes caveats that assume there is more continuity than change. He writes that: "Almost every new occupant (of the White House) thought the world had changed in some fundamental way that his predecessor either totally misunderstood or failed to manage effectively." (p. 7) Throughout the subsequent 300 plus pages, he warns that such efforts to push "change" invariably led to push back from either Congress or public opinion at home or "blowback" from allies abroad who had developed stakes in the status quo. This verdict neatly links President Obama's repeated frustrations with these same constraints to Truman's experience or Eisenhower's, perhaps too neatly for some readers.

In an Epilogue, the author urges us to recall and agree that confrontation and rigidity  were often better American postures for goal attainment  than compromise and conciliation. This counter-intuitive judgement prepares us for understanding the Reagan administration. Where has "retrenchment", the opposite of maximalism,  actually led? It also illustrates how subsequent historical  recreations will distort the records of numerous administrations`.  The quoted utterances of so many current politicians who claim Ronald Reagan as their inspiration, regardless of political party or the factual record of his accomplishments, show vividly how achieving subsequent iconic status after the presidency is the first step toward image production designed for the American public to remember "accentuate the positive" and "downgrade the negative", in the memorable words of a still popular song.

The current revisionism of the  George W. Bush record and the Bill Clinton "era" are also cottage industries as the 2014 and 2016 U.S. election cycles proceed.  What Sesanovitch repeatedly emphasizes is that at the time few participants or observers thought they had transcended the ad hoc nature of political events, whatever their longer term aspirations were. Only later could the rough edges be smoothed over to create a picture of control that eluded the top political leaders in their day to day activities, as they tried to "send messages" that were often misunderstood at home and abroad.

To argue that "rigidity" ties Kennedy, George H.W. Bush and Clinton together requires linking the Cuban missile crisis, the end of the cold war and Kosovo together as a pattern. This is controversial, to say the least, since individual scholars steeped in the detailed analysis of each crisis may well object to this broad-brush approach.  Yet even narrower academic specialists could agree that:  "All is a  very big word in  American foreign policy."(p. 331) This tendency toward rhetorical excess does deserve the label "pattern", as well as paradox, if we note the usual mixed achievements. We might even introduce the term "paranoia" when  U.S. administrations attempt to control the story for legacy purposes long after the individual crises have passed, as President Nixon warned and others presidents and advisers have echoed once out of power.

Scattered throughout the text are welcome admonitions that for most incumbents and their personnel, say after 9/11,  the search for patterns could mislead as often as enlighten.  "To avoid new disaster, disparate data had to be assembled into a coherent whole". (p. 281). Thus could Saddam Hussein's previous behavior be presented as "evidence" of involvement in that catastrophe "with little pressure for a searching and skeptical examination of the case." (p. 282) Routinely, Americans and their leaders try to make sense of a messy world  by imposing verbal order on it, only to lament actually engaging  with the structural chaos of it  and then retreating again from it, or trying to do so. Indeed, it is retrenchment with its false promises and premises that is Sestanovich's principal concern, due to the likelihood of unintended consequences.

Retrenchment is regularly tied to the ups and downs of the military budget throughout the book. So, too, is the character of American responses to "threats", with advisers regularly quarreling among themselves about the necessity of going to the U.N. or to Congress before embarking on overt or covert interventions. These accounts make for a colorful retelling of the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war and to the belated decisions on Bosnia and Rwanda.

What readers glean is what went on behind the scenes as the public case for one course of action over another took shape. These revelations are much more than gossip. They demonstrate the perpetual gap between theory and practice, with the latter crucial for shaping the former, as usual.

For news junkies who follow the minute by minute unfolding of "crises", more than a few well -written sentences are particularly useful. For example, "conditions on Iraq did not become any less horrifying because the administration wanted to change the subject" (p. 293). This rendition from 2005 could be written into the next decade.  Where this study concludes is clear from the beginning: that "order" in world politics demands that America "calls the shots", precisely  the stance that many critics assert has aggravated allies and weakened multilateral institutions in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

For Sestanovich, retrenchment, often described as a way to avoid "decline" could well advance this status for the U.S. if, paradoxically, it becomes yet another Big Idea, one over-hyped by either policymakers or scholars. Since any phase of retrenchment or maximalism always takes the time of several administrations to play out, we need patience to see if the pleas President Obama is making in urging others to join an American-led "coalition" against the remnants of Al Qaeda and its more murderous off-shoots like ISIS/ISIL differs in significant ways from previous cycles of under- and over-reaction in U.S. foreign policy.

Generational perspectives also help illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of our second selection, The Fourth Revolution, which is conveniently subtitled The Global Race to Reinvent the State. The two authors, John Mickelthwaite and Adrian Wooldridge, are journalists with The Economist.  They provide a briskly written account of the past, present and future of the state in its varied forms over a span of three centuries, a much longer period than Sestanovich analyzes. As an expansion of  their earlier Economist essay entitled "What's Gone Wrong with Democracy" , the authors focus on a conventional staple of Westphalian IR theorizing and practice. The "state" is as a big a subject as war, or as big a subject as the American role in the world.     

To be writing on the state, on sovereignty, on territory at a time when even realist theorists are anxious about the declining utility of these tried and true concepts is paradoxical. Major events on the ground reveal that they are alive and well. Those groups or movements denied statehood de jure struggle to obtain it de facto as the attempts of  Kurds and Palestinians  and numerous "separatists" in Ukraine and elsewhere attest. Even more paradoxically, it was the ISIS/ISIL capture of swaths of territory with oil reserves, not just desert lands and villages that crossed the recognized borders of Syria, Iraq and Turkey, that propelled a clearly reluctant President Obama to embark  on air strikes against this suddenly concrete challenge rather than the mounting catalogue of diffuse threats in the post-Arab spring Middle East. The Obama administration's much advertised  Asian pivot would once again drop down on the list of announced foreign policy goals, along with tax and immigration reform domestically.

The authors divide their sprawling subject into three major parts, the advent of the nation-state, associated with Thomas Hobbes, the emergence of the liberal state identified with John Stuart Mill and the promotion of the welfare state linked to Beatrice and Sidney Webb. What saves  their account from "potted history" is their inclusion of influential players like Milton Friedman, plus their suitably muted advocacy of the "Eastern" alternatives to the bloat of Western democratic institutions. That Chinese-style "Asian" forms  of government have drawbacks, that state run capitalism and authoritarian economic models have political limits is acknowledged, if not perused in depth, with the exception of Singapore.

Often their enthusiasm for slimmed down bureaucracies in public health world wide and their endorsement of better business practices derived from the actual experience  of countries from Norway to India is conveyed primarily in anecdotal style. The book's lasting value will rest on whether the lengthy renovation they call for in state construction and resulting behaviors transcends East-West, North-South boundaries, older formulations  that still may have evocative power for both theorists and policymakers.  They worry that their proposals for a "narrower" state will enrage crony capitalists and inspire status quo adherents to redouble their attempts to resist change. Probably so.

In a section helpfully titled The Leviathan Paradox they insist that Western citizenry's contempt for government has grown from its expanding  size,  that corruption has flowed from too much money chasing too many participants.  The best hope could be additional decentralization with more bottom up activities rather than top down directives.  In the U.S. and Britain, this means more initiatives at the local and state levels rather than at the federal one. Perhaps a change in terminology could assuage some problems? The authors use "entitlements" as a way to describe what governments need to cut as a way of avoiding insolvency given the rising age patterns of many societies like the U.S. and Britain. If the term "earned benefits"  is used the recommended cuts might be better taken in the national security realm instead.

Finally, the authors lament that citizens are more attuned to lapses in practice as they fail to "question the theory" (p. 251.) Why would they? Daily life is the realm of politics and choices as all U.S. presidents before and after Reagan have grasped. Grappling with the more theoretical question:"what is the state for?" (Chapter 9) is a task for observers like the authors of these volumes under review who understand that "whose ox is being gored" is the beginning of wisdom in overcoming the seemingly widening chasm between theory and practice in the 21st century, possibly wider than in the 20th, as the pace of topic specialization and data quantification quickens.

By insisting that discontinuity rather than continuity deserves more attention in terms of goal attainment, East and West, Micklethwait  and Wooldridge join Sestanovich. The three authors succeed in writing for an intelligent lay audience which demands memorable stories rather than abstract analysis. Scholars have told us that ours is a world of porous borders. Events like those mentioned at this beginning of this essay have confirmed this finding, and, in fact, led to this observation in the first place.

Linda B. Miller, Brown University and Wellesley College

Argentia Editorial Team

Matthew Hill