Editor's Choice: The New, the Old, the Borrowed and the Blue

How, if at all, does this cliché  help us survey the perennially crowded landscape of new books on American foreign policy? How to sort out the fleeting analyses from the more significant? Essentially by reminding ourselves of the cyclical nature of major themes in the history and politics of our subject. As noted in several of my previous Argentia columns, in an age of quantification and Big Data, itself the outgrowth of new technology, it is refreshing to find that the study of leadership is once again back in fashion, for example, in George Packer's lengthy profile of Angela Merkel in The New Yorker or Karen Dawisha's book Putin's Kleptocracy.

Without succumbing to "great man" theories of leadership, authors of the three books reviewed take the study of leaders and leadership seriously.  They all state explicitly or implicitly that judgment and political will shape how the elusive balance between international and domestic imperatives works out in time or space. Each relies on what is "new", for example, the expanded agendas including public health and the rise of non-state actors, as well as what is "old", for example,  geopolitical struggles in Asia and elsewhere. Also evident is respect for what is "borrowed", perhaps insights from economics or biology or mathematics, as well as what is "blue", perhaps references to climate disruptions, epidemics or financial meltdowns across borders.

Without extending this metaphor too far, it is clear that the most impressive new works must themselves cross older disciplinary boundaries to be convincing. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., in Is the American Century Over? writes clearly about the stresses and strains U.S. political leaders have confronted over territory and state challengers from the early days of the Republic to the present, while at the same time including references to cyber politics and information wars as current challenges he regards as consequential to American predominance as China. Nye's experience as a policy maker helps him distinguish which analogies to other "empires" like Rome or Britain are exaggerated. Although his earlier coinage of "soft  power" and "smart power" helped make his own reputation, he is admirably restrained in quoting himself as he and his research assistants traverse multiple sources from daily journalism to weeklies like the Economist to more theoretically informed studies.

Whether deconstructing the origins of the term "American century"  or the probability of its explanatory value now, Nye is thorough and fair to the numerous social scientists he quotes. He has written a useful primer for those steeped in the subject or those who need a coherent introduction. His conclusion that even if U.S preponderance continues it will not resemble Henry Luce's formulation is well documented. He is especially generous to those who posit maximalist versus retrenchment positions as a touchstone of current thinking about U.S. foreign policy. (See my previous Editor's Choice column reviewing Stephen Sestanovich's  Maximalist, posted October 14, 2014.)

In The End of Greatness, Aaron David Miller, best known for his work on the Middle East during several presidencies, argues why America cannot have and should not want "another Great President". Like Nye, Miller looks backwards and forwards to see what is possible and what is fantastical in both theory and practice from the viewpoints of both observer and participant. Also like Nye, Miller has honed his message so that there is little excess verbiage as he, too, traces the history and the myth making that guide or mislead contemporary debates.

Miller is contemptuous of the wishful thinking he sees driving U.S. political campaigns as if "greatness" was still the appropriate standard. His own unsurprising, ecumenical selection of great presidents includes Washington, Lincoln and FDR.  These men satisfy Miller's criteria of coping with national "crises", exhibiting "character" and exploiting "capacity". Chapters with these titles carry readers along swiftly as other presidents are put into lesser categories. Like Nye, Miller introduces numbers judiciously. He  notes that in 2014, "we will have gone the longest stretch in our history in our history without a great president."  (p. 98) More to the point, his practical experience (p. 99) emphasizes "that policy, politics  and diplomacy are driven more by probabilities that possibilities". Nye would concur.

Miller dutifully praises some American universities and some museums and scorns the distortions of media-driven pseudo-events. He also faults think tanks, including his own Woodrow Wilson Center, for their tendency to hype current events rather than illuminate longer term trends that may turn out to be more important.

In citing  and italicizing ambition, physical courage, balance, and self-confidence as comparable hallmarks of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, before adding the capacity to get things done, Miller makes his central argument easily accessible to readers who wonder why paralysis and polarization are the most frequently cited descriptions of the United States at home and abroad in polls. He also clarifies how and why leaving office boosts the subsequent ratings of presidents like Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter. When Nye talks about "smart power", Miller speaks of  previous "smart" relationships that once enabled U. S. leaders like Senator Tip O'Neill and President Ronald Reagan to compromise privately and effectively in order to get things done legislatively. He considers recent U.S. demographic shifts that often exaggerate presidential authority and then lead to public disillusionment with government institutions overall in a celebrity culture of overexposure.

There is a certain breathless quality to Miller's text in the chapters leading up to Barack Obama's election, re-election and beyond. Equally adept at recalling fairly obscure historical and popular culture factoids, Miller is acutely sensitive to the institutional setting that shapes the daily grind of governing. No amount of manipulation of symbols can mask dysfunction for too long. Exposing this persistent gap between the ideal and the real is the main contribution he makes.

Nye and Miller offer carefully wrought distillations of the "where we are and how we got here" variety. Both emphasize that times have changed, but expectations of performance have not kept pace as more diffuse threats have emerged, threats that are often elevated to the level of paranoia. Their collective advice: to read, to think, and not let the pursuit of perfection blind us to the good rests on their respective decades of experience in and out of government and academe, itself a pattern that is harder to replicate today than when both Nye and Miller began their own notable careers.

In contrast to the summary overviews of Nye and Miller that range broadly over the 200 years of the U.S., the detailed history Mary Elise Sarotte offers in The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall requires deeper immersion in a period of recent history we think we know well. By using archival research in some newly opened repositories, she weaves together a complex tale of missed opportunities and mixed messages that somehow led to the end of an era, a series of events few observers and participants thought would happen in their lifetimes. Sarotte enhances her story by using interviews and reminds us that what we read in headlines is always approximate and incomplete.

When she published a short version of her book's findings as an Op Ed column in the New York Times on November 8, 2014,  underscoring the "accidental" nature of what unfolded in 1989, she aroused critics with their own vested interests in highlighting their own steadfast interpretations, whether the roles of Reagan, Gorbachev, the Pope, or the "people" of East Germany in bringing about the welcome changes. (See "Letters to the Editor" of the New York TImes, November 11, 2014.) Sarotte insists that "playing the long game" was a Western strength, one that proved to be more pertinent than the role of any individual political leader acting alone or in concert with others. She reminds us that this virtue is itself worthy of celebration 25 years later.

She writes that "shared suffering" on  the ground proved to be a reliable indicator when political leaders made mistakes. Trust among those whose lives had been run and often ruined by the Stasi was established sub rosa, whereas such an elusive trait never took hold among the political elite that presumably "ran" the regimes in East Germany and the Soviet Union. Her main conclusions thus echo those of Nye and Miller, who also excoriate short term thinking as a major obstacle to change. Her granular examination of the stumbles and bumbles of lower level officials in East Germany should give pause to pundits who assume reflexively that messages are received in the way the senders intend.

Some telling vignettes in the full length book describe how seemingly unrelated miscalculations derived from other events in other parts of the world provided background to November 9, 1989. In June of that year, Tiananmen Square, with its eventual violence, haunted top level policy makers in Europe, the then Soviet Union and the U.S. (Chapters 3 and 5 are relevant here.) Like both Nye and Miller, Sarotte writes of television's role (pre-Facebook and Twitter) in mobilizing support for opening the Berlin Wall among journalists who, at the same time, were pursuing their own simultaneous quest for exclusive interviews from East German mid-level officials who themselves were uncertain of what was happening. "Unplanned collaboration" ensued as crowds surged  toward and eventually over the Wall and around the Brandenburg Gate.

In an Epilogue, Sarotte returns to the more familiar level of high politics with an account of meetings between George H.W. Bush and Helmut Kohl, with the extension of West German Basic Law Article 23 to permit an embrace of the former GDR in order to take advantage of the unexpected events before what was expected to be chaos in the Soviet Union and East Germany could play out. Now, as Sarotte explains, we know that "the opening of the Wall was the point of no return in the collapse of the Cold War." (p. 177)

It could have turned differently, as she insists. The "what if" questions persist. As she asserts, leaders who were able after the events they had not anticipated to sort out what the longer term demanded eventually prevailed. Leaders succeeded when they could bring together the domestic and international implications and determine both the probabilities and possibilities of non-violence and violence. Leaders who grasped the relative "agency" of local actors as well as outsiders, would achieve more of their goals  after the necessary refinement of those aims in tandem with their redefined range of means.

Sarotte, by drilling down into the details of who said what to whom when, confirms Nye's and Miller's warnings about impatience and standard operating procedures in political life. She shows in the German case that possibilities could and did grow out of Miller's type of probabilities, depending on circumstances and perceptions. If there is a lesson, it is that both scholars and policy makers must be willing to revisit idée fixes about local, regional and global politics as well as particular leaders.

Collectively, these three volumes emphasize that the non-quantifiable questions of international relations, particularly the need to confront unintended consequences is the essence of what we should expect even as we strive to find patterns in human behavior. The very questions many theorists now label "puzzles" and policy makers  label "problems" are rarely unprecedented, let alone unique. For a more complete picture, the authors demonstrate that it is to history and literature we must turn for even "contingent" answers in social science. Additional disciplinary borrowing is required and we should welcome it.

 Linda B. Miller, Wellesley College, Brown University and Argentia Editorial Team

Matthew Hill