The Best Defense

The fate of Charlie Dingleman, the protagonist of Jeffrey Frank’s novel Bad Publicity , brings to mind contemporary American foreign policy debates. Charlie, a former congressman now shilling for a K Street law firm, arrives at a law of diminishing returns for ex-congressmen like himself. He realizes that “each time another group of former officeholders entered the job market, he became slightly less employable.”

So, too, do the returns on foreign policy books seem to diminish with each new contribution. Lately, just about every éminence grise has been scrambling to publish deep thoughts on What Bush Has Wrought, perhaps to justify cushy sinecures at Brookings or CSIS or to dazzle us with their hard-earned erudition. The results have been mostly unedifying, with one shapeless harangue on the Bush administration’s brand of “muscular internationalism” following another. The principal interlocutors are talking past each other.

And yet exceptions to this state of affairs exist. Two of them are on offer from John Lewis Gaddis and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the authors of, respectively, Surprise, Security and the American Experience and The Choice . The first is a history of America’s strategic self-perception and its reactions to surprise attack; the second is Brzezinski’s latest blueprint for American grand strategy.

Gaddis, best known for his historical writings on the origins of the Cold War, offers in Surprise, Security and the American Experiencesomething of a departure: a broad meditation on America’s strategic self-perception from the early 19th century to the present. Specifically, Gaddis argues that American views of the wider world, and of the nation’s security needs, have been punctuated and defined by three surprise attacks.

The first occurred on August 24, 1814, when the British burned down the White House. A humiliating blow, it led Americans to seek security through expansion. It set the key pattern in American strategic thinking, encapsulated for Gaddis in the notion that “for the United States, safety comes from enlarging, rather than from contracting, its sphere of responsibilities.” A new grand strategy would emerge from this experience, devised by John Quincy Adams. Its pillars – says Gaddis, indulging in an anachronistic flourish – were “preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony.” For preemption read preventive military action against threats emanating from derelict, lawless territories like Spanish Florida and from the Indian nations along the frontier – an obvious parallel to failed states of the present. For unilateralism, read jealous guardianship of American independence. Rather than depend on a stronger power, the United States would steer its own course. And hegemony translates as the refusal to allow peer competitors to emerge in America’s backyard. It was the logic behind westward expansion and, later on, interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean that gave teeth to the Monroe Doctrine. The Adams strategy, broadly conceived, guided the United States from weakness and vulnerability as a small agrarian republic to peerless strength as a continental great power.

Then came Pearl Harbor. Gaddis explores its effects in his second chapter, reminding us that the same transportation revolution that fueled American growth in the 20th century reduced the geographical separation from potentially hostile great powers. Hegemony remained relevant, but it was to be global in scope. More importantly, American leadership was to arise by consent. Unilateralism as a matter of principle was abandoned in favor of entangling alliances. As Walter McDougall argued in Promised Land, Crusader States , the United States, as the strongest state, was never truly bound by its obligations. Instead the weaker parties were. That said, as Gaddis points out, the United States hardly ever acted alone during the Cold War. The form and rhetoric of multilateral cooperation were crucial. The United States was ill-positioned to dictate to an alliance of democracies. Postwar presidents chose restraint. Preemption was out. “Firing the first shot,” as Gaddis puts it, had costs, and in an ideological contest, with the world watching, the costs were too high.

September 11, the third of Gaddis’s surprise attacks, represented a break. What we’ve seen is a return to an Adamsian grand strategy, “a nineteenth-century vision that plays badly at the beginning of the twenty-first. Consent, as a consequence, has proved difficult to sustain.” With its failed states and terrorist bands, the world now resembles the menacing frontier far more than it does the orderly days of bipolar rivalry. Armed with this insight, Gaddis goes on to provide a measured defense of Bush’s grand strategy, at the heart of which is an effort to complete the Wilsonian project of making the world safe for democracy.

In the end, Gaddis’s reading is sober and persuasive. With delicate prose, he demolishes the oft-heard argument that Bush’s strategy departs radically from time-honored American traditions. It is, instead, a return to the logic of a different world in which the United State was vulnerable to piracy and other unpredictable threats, a logic that demands the stabilization of violent, anarchic peripheries. By showing this, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience makes something of a negative contribution: It fatally undermines one commonly-heard apocalyptic view of the current administration’s approach to foreign policy. At the same time, however, it does little to advance a constructive vision of what ought to come. The book shows that going abroad in search of monsters to destroy was what John Quincy Adams wanted the United States to do, rhetoric notwithstanding, and clearly it is what the United States must now do. But it says little about the possibility that an aggressive, forward-leaning posture may well do more harm than good. As the book draws to a close, Gaddis offers a mash note to magnanimity in a measured defense of multilateralism. But this is only an afterthought. For a historian who says historians should chronicle the present, Gaddis offers precious little guidance.

Fortunately, Zbigniew Brzezinski does. Best known as a hawkish national security adviser under a dovish Jimmy Carter, Brzezinski has long been wrestling with the implications of the Soviet collapse. Early on he anticipated that the poisonous brew of ethnic conflict, religious militancy, and great power rivalry would make Central Asia the global flashpoint in the years to come. His prediction has proven correct. Moreover Brzezinski realized, as few others did, that American hegemony wasn’t going anywhere in the near term, and that the United States ought to use its strengths to shape a world order favorable to its interests. For this reason, and also for his Mackinderian geostrategic fixations, many to his left accused him of imperialist impulses. Thus there was something satisfying in the left’s belated embrace of Brzezinski in their rush to oppose President Bush. It showed that the goal posts have shifted – almost certainly for the better (but don’t expect anyone to acknowledge it).

As The Choice makes clear, there is a difference between Brzezinski’s Pax Americana and that envisioned by most on the right. Rather than sing the praises of America’s unipolar status, Brzezinski dwells on its inevitable end, and how the country ought to prepare. Unlike Charles Kupchan, in The End of the American Era , who at times seems to relish the prospect of transatlantic drift, Brzezinski calls for a policy of transformative engagement that will eventually lead to the creation of a “Trans-Eurasian Security System.” His goal is a “global community of shared interest.” In lieu of coalitions of the willing cajoled into service to face discrete threats, such an order would be self-sustaining. The states within its purview would radiate stability outwards. To get to this point, Brzezinski calls for an acceptance of the world as it is. We mustn’t antagonize China or the Arab world. Instead, we ought to accommodate them.

This stance leads Brzezinski to call for the abandonment of President Bush’s bold, oppositional Greater Middle East Initiative. Where Bush wants to apply pressure to authoritarian Arab regimes in an effort to change their internal character, Brzezinski wishes for cooperation with these governments, and for forceful American intervention on behalf of the Arafat-led Palestinian Authority. It seems that for Brzezinski, the surest route to a more consensual global order is, in these cases at least, American acquiescence to the demands of America’s antagonists. Not exactly a stirring call to action.

Even so, there’s a great deal to be said for this vision. Brzezinski carefully describes the ways in which emerging threats and technological shifts are affecting statecraft. Most importantly, he offers a “global community of shared interest” that makes for a realizable utopia. Though Brzezinski’s understanding of how we’re to get from here to there is flawed, the fact that he has an end point in mind lends precision to his polemic. For all its strengths, the same can’t be said of the Bush foreign policy, dominated as it is by ad hoc responses to near-term threats.

At the risk of oversimplifying, Brzezinski’s critique is an exemplar of an overarching, relatively straightforward critique from the center-left: Bush has needlessly alienated our allies and other nations. Because the threat of terrorism requires a wide-ranging and well-coordinated global response, multilateral cooperation is more important than ever. Some go beyond this to call for deeper American integration into various international regimes. They argue that multilateralism should be considered the determinant of national interests, not just a tactic that serves them. As often as not, these sensible if not always persuasive arguments are accompanied by hilariously overheated rhetoric. George Soros harps on Bush’s rhetorical resemblance to Lenin, and Brzezinski is not immune to the same. The subtitle of The Choice is “Global Domination or Global Leadership,” as if the neoconservatives who have hijacked the presidency were cackling gaily as they squabbled over who gets St. Tropez once they’ve carved up the planet.

Suffice to say, Brzezinski’s approach tends to magnify differences to a perhaps unproductive degree. Late last year, he gave a celebrated talk at the Center for American Progress on exactly this subject, and he opened with a historical parallel: During the Cuban crisis, the American ambassador to France came to President De Gaulle with evidence of Soviet missiles. But the French president said that he had no need for evidence; the word of the American president was enough for him. Can we imagine such an exchange happening today? Brzezinski asked his (sympathetic) audience. Of course not! came the implicit reply. And yet it’s difficult to imagine the same bonhomie when the United States called upon the French to oppose the construction of a Soviet natural gas pipeline to Western Europe in solidarity with their American allies in the 1980s, or when the United States intervened during the Suez crisis in 1956. This is not to single out the French, nor to deny that the end of the Soviet challenge has deepened America’s differences with its allies. It’s just that alliance politicking has always been challenging, particularly among democratic states in fundamentally consensual, interest-driven relationships. “Global Domination” – which Brzezinski believes is the ultimate aim of the Bush Doctrine – might make things easier, but it isn’t, and never has been, in the cards.

What’s peculiar about all this, what Brzezinski and confreres seem to miss, is that “domination” isn’t really the problem at all. The real concern, as Robert Kagan has argued, is that the United States will pick up its marbles and throw its weight around alone, and European allies will no longer exercise power vicariously through their American protector. Coalitions of the willing will be collected as necessary, and transatlantic institutions will be allowed to wither on the vine. This leads us to the second problem in the broader debate: the inadequate treatment of NATO, the U.N., and other international organizations by the right.

A handful of authors – David Frum and Richard Perle come to mind – have done what they can to live up to the neoconservative bogeyman painted by critics of the Bush administration. By calling for the dissolution of old alliances and by demonizing liberals and Democrats, they’ve managed to write themselves out of serious discussion. But, for the most part, neoconservative foreign policy thinkers, deep disagreements among them notwithstanding, have offered criticisms of American foreign policy quite similar to those of the multilateralists.

Take “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” the now-infamous September 2000 report from the conservative Project for the New American Century, which has been described as Bush’s strategic blueprint (and which Brzezinski says is a reckless call for, you guessed it, “Global Domination”). On closer examination, the report turns out to be a quite moderate call for increased defense budgets and a serious, long-term commitment to nation-building, with the establishment of constabulary forces for post-conflict stabilization as one of the top priorities. It could, with little difficulty, and more hemming and hawing, be turned into a report published by the Council on Foreign Relations. Jeffrey Gedmin and Gary Schmitt, both neoconservatives par excellence , took the president to task before 9/11 for neglecting the needs and concerns of America’s allies. Freed from the need to score partisan political points, this inchoate critique – more moderate and restrained than talk of “global domination,” but sharp and serious nonetheless – might have made a difference.

The problem is, the Bush administration got some things very right. Perhaps most importantly, it recognized that extending America’s unipolar moment and maintaining American strength beyond challenge is the surest way to secure the United States and its allies. Because so many leading policy intellectuals saw the world as incipiently multipolar – or simply wished it were so – this represented a serious and constructive break. Bush also recognized that “democratic transformation” in the Middle East and elsewhere was the surest and perhaps the only way to consolidate a just peace. Previous administrations had paid lip service to this idea, but Bush promised to go beyond rhetorical paeans to freedom. Lastly – and this has proved most controversial – Bush embraced a doctrine of preemption, or prevention, against outlaw states that sought weapons of mass destruction and aligned themselves with terrorist movements. Though Paul Wolfowitz later corrected himself, his impolitic pledge that the United States would “end states who sponsor terrorism” struck the right tone.

Many advocates of American strength have taken it upon themselves to defend the administration, despite its shortcomings. Conservatives have muted their criticism to avoid alienating the famously thin-skinned leadership. But as blunders and reversals in Iraq and elsewhere continue to exact a very real toll, bolder conservatives, committed to American leadership and a “global community of shared interest,” are now positioned to influence the administration’s course.

Reihan Salam is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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