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Stephen Sestanovich

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“We Do Big Things”

In 2003, forty years after [President Kennedy’s] death, when America’s reputation abroad was in tatters, I was in Rome for a speaking engagement, and invited by a local foreign policy group to give an address. “On what subject?” I asked the chairman. “Tell us about the good America, when Kennedy was president,” he said. I did. I talked about an America admired for its values, respected for its principles, not feared for its might or resented for its success; an America that led by listening, worked with the rest of the world, and respected international law; an America that stood for peace, not one that started wars.

—Ted Sorensen1

it is hard to think of any country that has ever put a larger stamp on its time than the United States of America in the second half of the twentieth century. In the wake of two world wars, which left other major powers severely crippled, America made the decisive contributions to global recovery. During the Cold War and long afterward, it was an anchor of security, an agent of prosperity, an advocate of national independence and political modernization. The most valuable institutions of international cooperation were, directly or indirectly, inspired by the United States. Its impact, moreover, extended far beyond high politics. American ways of doing things encouraged economic, social, cultural, intellectual, and technological innovation around the world.

That, at any rate, was the twentieth century. The twenty-first has already been different. Its early years brought terrorist attacks, diplomatic isolation, a burst of global anti-Americanism, and military campaigns that the United States found easy to start, impossible to win, and extremely difficult to end. To these travails were added a global financial crisis, widely blamed on American mismanagement, and a shake-up in the international economic pecking order. The United States is now on track, some say a fast one, to lose its position as the world’s largest economy. Scholars and pundits argue that its central role in international politics is also at risk. And with Washington policy making blocked by partisan gridlock, many question the country’s ability to cope with significant new challenges.

America’s past and present, in short, have rarely seemed so different from each other. One result of this mismatch has been a surge of interest in the ingredients of our previous success. What was it that once enabled the United States to deal so effectively with so many international problems—to give the world so much while also getting so much in return? Although military power and economic growth are essential ingredients of a large global role, many find the real secret of America’s large achievements in its readiness to create equal partnerships with other nations, to take their interests and ideas into account, and to play by mutually agreed rules. For others, the key lies in policy continuity over long periods, the kind of steadfastness across decades that—to take the most glorious example—produced victory in the Cold War. Still others point to the importance of national consensus. In the past, it is said, when Americans agreed on how to handle big problems, they were able—in Barack Obama’s words—to “do big things.”2

it is the argument of this book that there is much to learn from the history of American foreign policy, but that we can’t learn it from the sepia-tinted versions of the past that have dominated public discussion in recent years. Play well with others; make sure the country is united; find a good strategy and stick to it: our history has a more interesting story to tell us than these homilies suggest. The reason that the past can help us chart the future is that it was just as confused and chaotic as the present. It reminds us how often we have clashed with our friends and misunderstood our enemies, how often policy makers have miscalculated what they could accomplish, how rarely they kept commitments in balance with available resources, and how often they acted in full knowledge that public opinion was against them.

To take even a half-serious look at the history of American alliances is to learn how ambivalent Washington policy makers have been about working with others. Yes, they always aspired to join with like-minded governments in a spirit of give and take. They sincerely believed in the value of multilateral institutions and the advantages of observing accepted rules of the road. Yet in tackling the toughest problems, our leaders have—with some justice—usually come to doubt that collaborative approaches would succeed. Consulting with allies is one thing; letting their interests, not to mention their chronic indecision and feebleness, undermine American policy is something else entirely. It is no exaggeration to say that the history of American foreign policy is the history of what presidents and their advisers do once they conclude that others, at home and abroad, are not likely to help them very much.

No president illustrates this point better, as it happens, than the hero of Ted Sorensen’s “good America” story. John Kennedy’s exceptionally difficult relations with allied governments were captured in the title of Henry Kissinger’s 1965 book on the subject, The Troubled Partnership. As we will see, the animosity between Kennedy, on the one hand, and the leaders of France and West Germany, on the other, exceeded any case of transatlantic discord until the presidency of George W. Bush. Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer complained that Kennedy, when not simply deceiving them, was pursuing policies that put the security and independence of their countries at risk. Adenauer had a special reason to resent the young U.S. president, who openly maneuvered to oust him from his job. And De Gaulle may have known that American officials thought he needed “a psychiatrist.”3

John Kennedy was, usually able to count on greater support from the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, than from the leaders of France and Germany. (So, of course, was George W. Bush.) But the Anglo-American “special relationship” had many lapses of understanding and outbursts of bad feeling. When the United States decided, in August 1962, to breach an international embargo on major arms sales to Israel, Macmillan sent Kennedy a furious protest. The prime minister expressed his personal “disgust and despair” at what he called a “disgraceful piece of trickery.” As always, when British and American priorities in the Middle East diverged, Washington insisted on taking its own approach and left London to adjust as best it could. (Macmillan had long been unhappy with Britain’s subservience to America. Early in his career, he compared relations between the two countries to the way “Greek slaves ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius.”)4

Relations between the United States and its close allies have evolved since Kennedy’s day, but the problems that frustrated him have not gone away. American policy makers still find it difficult to get others to work with them as productively as they would like. In July 2009, in her first major speech as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton explained why. Multilateral cooperation, she said, often fails because other countries are so heavily influenced by things like “history, geography, ideology and inertia.” Even when a common interest is at stake, uncooperative governments “sit on the sidelines or sow discord and division.”

Speaking for a new administration committed to treating other countries with greater respect, Clinton expressed a dilemma that has vexed American policy makers for decades. She set forth principles of liberal internationalism with verve and conviction, but she was also clear-eyed about how much stood in the way of making these principles a reality. Obstacles to cooperation (which she gave their correct academic name, “collective action problems”) could only be overcome, she insisted, by American leadership. “No challenge,” she said, “can be met without America.”5

Hillary Clinton’s predecessors, and presidential advisers of both parties, shared her view, and they were often far less polite about it. John Connally, Nixon’s treasury secretary, said of the economic disputes he handled, “The foreigners are trying to screw us, but I intend to screw them first.” John Foster Dulles, who served Eisenhower as secretary of state, dismissed Europe’s leaders as a group of “shattered ‘old people.’ ” Allied governments, complained Dean Rusk, who served Kennedy in the same job, had grown too accustomed to having all problems addressed by “an American plan put together as a complete plan from A to Z.” (Rusk’s exasperation showed when he snapped at a British journalist: “When the Russians invade Sussex, don’t expect us to come and help you.”) With other countries able to contribute so little, Walt Rostow, Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser, thought the United States had to act on “a relatively lonely stage.” It had to play this solitary role for years, “without throwing our sheriff’s badge in the dust.”6

Because working with others has been so maddeningly hard for the United States, we cannot look to the past for ready-made solutions to “collective action problems.” For those who have convinced themselves that the troubles of the past decade were caused by simple neglect of some well-established collaborative tradition, this will be a disappointment. We don’t really have such a tradition. Yet the difficulties faced by past presidents and policy makers also mean that their experiences were closer to ours than we think. They too dealt with allies who couldn’t ag...

Revue de presse

"[An] analytic tour de force . . . a useful and often original look at the strategies of the last 12 American presidents . . . a strong case . . . Anyone interested in the past or the future of American foriegn policy and power would benefit from its insights."
—Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs 

"In his engaging and richly anecdotal new book, Maximalist, Stephen Sestanovich applies that understanding as a framework for reexamining post-World War II U.S. history to find the persistent truths and lessons that he believes can inform our understanding of the present. . . A scholar of the Soviet Union and a former U.S. diplomat who now teaches at Columbia University, Sestanovich shows that the ambitions of policymakers and the cycles of public opinion that drive them are inevitable and recurrent. He is at his best in describing the Johnson and Nixon administrations, capturing the infighting among those presidents and their senior advisers as they grappled with America’s role in the world."
—Marcus Brauchli, The Washington Post

"Maximalist . . . makes clear that the U.S. has never achieved strategic continuity. American strategy has frequently shifted, sometimes over the course of a single administration, and these disruptions have often proved beneficial to our national security. . . [An] excellent book."
—Sohrab Ahmari, The Wall Street Journal

"Among the many virtues of Maximalist is the mathematical elegance of its thesis. . . Maximalist surveys American foreign policy from Truman to Obama . . . Compelling . . . Refreshingly non-partisan."
—Michael Doran, Commentary

Maximalist is a highly readable account of American engagement during the Cold War and the War on Terror. It provides a commonsense means to assess American military and diplomatic policy without the fog of political rhetoric.”
—Karl Wolff, New York Journal of Books

"A leading voice. . . Offers a provocative reasssement of America's global dominance . . . Sestanovich finds fresh lessons in the past that clarify our chaotic present."
The Record

“Incisive and provocative. Written by one of our country’s foremost scholars, Maximalist is rich with anecdotes and enlivened by little-known details about well-known events. Sestanovich has made a masterful contribution to the history of modern American diplomacy.”
—Madeleine Albright
“This is one of the most important books ever written about U.S. foreign policy. It will immediately join George F. Kennan’s classic American Diplomacy as essential reading for all students of America’s behavior in the world. In fact, it should replace it. Sestanovich is a brilliant and insightful writer. His book couldn’t be more timely.”
—Robert Kagan, author of The World America Made
Maximalist is a nicely provocative and highly readable account of how presidents have used American power since World War II. It combines carefully researched history with advice that is very relevant to the situation of the United States today.”
—Joseph S. Nye, Jr., author of Soft Power and Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era 

"Americans routinely need to be reminded that our past was not as smooth and rosy as we like to remember it; Stephen Sestanovich provides a masterful and entertaining corrective.  Maximalist is beautifully written, with engaging anecdotes woven throughout. Most important, it  will change your view of Obama's foreign policy."
—Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO, New America Foundation; Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University

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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 4.6 étoiles sur 5  17 commentaires
3 internautes sur 3 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Absolutely Wonderful!!! 23 avril 2014
Par Drew F. Schufletowski - Publié sur
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
I learned some things about the tumultuous post-World War II policy-making environment in Washington of which I was not aware despite considerable previous reading on the subject. Every current student of international relations and the U.S. role in the world really ought to read Sestanovich's new book.
9 internautes sur 12 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Good foreign policy history from Truman to Obama 2 avril 2014
Par Gderf - Publié sur
This is an excellent history of maximalist presidents who needed or desired to use American power to fix the world alternating with those who needed to follow a minimalist or retrenchment course. Sestanovich relates the poor results of multilateralism and how American success has not depended on international institutions like the UN and NATO.

Truman's legacy is the loss of China and the Korean war and the expansive Truman doctrine in Turkey and Greece. On the positive side, he instituted the Marshall plan that preserved western Europe from communism. Truman after implementing the Marshall Plan, fought the Korean War and promulgated the Truman Doctrine regarding policy towards Turkey and Greece.

Eisenhower cut back military expenditures, backed dictators and started the nuclear arms race. George Kennan originated the cold war policy of containment. Hungarians expected more help. Our allies were surprised at betrayal in the Suez crisis.

Kennedy combined an activist bent with extensive deliberation. He was forced into activist roles in the Berlin air lift and Cuban missile crisis. He expanded the Cold War into a nuclear arms race while beginning the policy of limited test ban treaties.. The book embellishes the near danger of nuclear war triggered by Cuba and the Russian submarine incident.

We still suffer from the aftermath of the well documented LBJ era of war and Great Society. Johnson is depicted as a compulsively hands on president, exhibiting totally uncertain policy, being drawn into the Vietnam War by inches by his advisors McNamara and Westmorland. Stepanovich calls him the only president who attempted to carry out the policy of his predecessor. A very arguable point of view.

Nixon never understood VN culture. His legacy is Kent State, My Lie, overthrow of elected governments and support of repressive regimes like Pinochet and Suharto. Nixon and Kissinger opened relations with China and actively sought peace in the ME. One key aspect was Sadat leaving the Soviet fold. Ford carried on for Nixon.

Jimmy Carter's legacy is abrogation of the presidency to Congress which failed to deal with domestic inflation or foreign problems. The book depicts Carter's inept handling of everything from Soviet relations to the hostage crisis.

Reagan is accused of a passive management style. He generally rebuffed the peace initiatives of Gorbachev, who knew that Star Wars could not protect the USA. Gorbachev lost his battle with NATO over nuclear balance.

GWH Bush went from an active role in Iraq to attempted retrenchment and fiscal responsibility.

The 1990s presaged a return to activism. Clinton switched from retrenchment in his first term to activism in Bosnia in his second. He watched helplessly as events unfolded in Rwanda, Somalia and Haiti. Holbrooke formulated activist policy for late intervention in Bosnia. Clinton, as president, ended ADFC and instituted energy and financial deregulation. The book overlooks the easy money policy that set the stage for the bubbles in 2000 and 2008. The Reagan foreign policy peace dividend was mostly squandered with an easy money domestic policy that set the stage for two economic bubbles.

The recent painful legacy of George Bush is well depicted. GW Bush foreign policy course after 9/11 still haunts us today, with residues of two wars. Republicans and Dems (Pelosi) thought that Saddam had WMDs. General Franks thought that we would be gone from Iraq within a year.

The Obama administration follows Bush policies, appointing a hawkish Secretary of State, and promoting continuation of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as developing drone capability and condoning resultant civilian deaths. The civil rights abuses at Guantanamo continue unabated. He tells the American people we are winding down while telling Afghans, led by his friend Hamid Karzai, that we will never leave. Obama continuously accedes to the view of his military advisors. He accelerated the war with a Bush like surge. While Obama claims the exit from Iraq as fulfilling a promise, it was negotiated by Bush. The war on drugs is as ineffectual as ever as he follows Bush domestic policy for a slow recovery.
Obama follows Bush policy in spite of retrenchment rhetoric. Obama, despite talking about need for retrenchment following the excesses of the Bush administration, follows the Bush exit schedule from Iraq and copied the Bush surge in Afghanistan with subsequent troop increases. Obama then tried for his own war legacy in Iraq. Obama's "pivot to the Pacific" appears to be China appeasement coupled with desertion of ME allies, Israel and Egypt. Sepanovich points out that we were lucky to obtain the benefit of Russian diplomacy to avoid humiliation in Syria. The book was too early to note the current impasse in the Crimea characterized by Obama's futile empty rhetoric. We can only hope there is no Obama war legacy in the offing.

Sestanovich ends with summary of maximalists Truman, JFK, LBJ, Reagan and GW Bush ;minimalists Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Obama; and two he calls hybrid who switched from one to the other, GWH Bush and Clinton.

It's difficult to ignore the effect of domestic policy on foreign policy especially in the areas of finance and trade. The decline of America, while due to primarily to social policy, can't be ignored in military and foreign policy, as Sestanovich attempts to do. The epilogue analysis shows how less is often more. I wish our current leaders would believe it.
2 internautes sur 2 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 The Cyclic Nature of Foreign Policy? 29 avril 2014
Par GraniteSapper - Publié sur
Much of the recent spate of writing decrying the decline of U.S. power and influence centers on issues of domestic decay and turmoil, with the view that the United States has somehow lost its way in the world. Some authors argue that these domestic political, economic, and social challenges have hamstrung the current administration in pursuing the kind of aggressive, engaged foreign policy needed in this volatile time. Stephan Sestanovich, the author of the recently-published Maximalist, shows that the current challenges of the Obama administration are not new, but part of cycle that can be traced back to the post-World War II Truman administration.
Sestanovich is a former U.S. diplomat, and an official under both Presidents Reagan and Clinton. He is currently a professor of international relations at Columbia, as well as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Sestanovich has written a highly-readable and very thorough history of U.S. foreign policy since 1947. The book does not introduce much in the way of new research or detail. However, the author is successful in repackaging previous works and incorporating a great many anecdotes to retell the story in a slightly new way. It is a worthy addition to U.S. foreign policy scholarship, and should be read by any serious student of diplomatic history, or for anyone in a position to advise on or craft future foreign policy.
The book expands on a thesis, that of a “maximalist” tradition in U.S. foreign policy, one Sestanovich first examined in a Spring 2005 article from The National Interest. Sestanovich, in this new book, describes a foreign policy and diplomatic continuum cycling between periods of maximalism to retrenchment. One critique of the book is that the author never defines these two terms, so central to his argument. The reader quickly intuits that maximalism equals overreach, with retrenchment the “do less” corollary that follows when America must pick up the pieces. The author then details how administrations cycle between these two extremes: the maximalist Truman followed by a retrencher Eisenhower; who is then followed by maximalist Kennedy/Johnson administrations; then by a long period of retrenchment under presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter; the maximalism of Reagan; a pause in the cycle under presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton; the maximalism of George W. Bush; and finally this current period retrenchment of President Obama.
A few unanswered questions simmer below the surface as the reader follows a story long on narrative but short on analysis. The central question and criticism is that the cycle as described is far too simplistic. Can any administration be categorized as purely maximalist or retrencher? The author concedes that most administrations made decisions and set policies that ran counter to the general direction of their foreign policy. These decisions were almost always influenced by external events, beyond the ken of the president and his team of advisors. Sestanovich was unable to cleanly categorize the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations for these very reasons, and the author notes that it was not President George W. Bush’s initial intent to be a maximalist. The second- and third-order impacts of policy decisions are often to blame for these shifts. The decisions of our partners and allies, unforeseen world events, and black swans like 9-11 are as if not more responsible for shifts in focus. Campaign rhetoric and an administration’s ‘going-in position’ rarely survive first contact with future realities. The author would have been better served to incorporate more of this dynamic in his cyclic analysis, and examine why presidents seem to so often misjudge or fail to anticipate events that shake their preferred interrelationship with the world.
Sestanovich spends most of the book examining the foreign policy realm of presidential decision making, and what drives administrations to ‘go large’ or ‘go small’ when pursuing national interests and exporting American values and exceptionalism. The interplay between President Nixon and Henry Kissinger is one of the highlights of the book, particularly in their efforts in opening relations with China. This examination is interesting but it is also incomplete. Sestanovich, like many other scholars and analysts, fails to adequately account for the domestic political dynamics and issues that impact the nation’s ability to act globally. It is as though the author believes that international credibility trumps domestic will. This Innenpolitik – Realpolitik interplay and tension, best explained in Peter Trubowitz’s book Politics and Strategy, is ground zero for grand strategic development. Just as unforeseen events abroad can derail or re-vector foreign policy, so too will domestic challenges, often causing an administration to be more inward-focused. Sestanovich’s argument would have been strengthened in recognizing this relationship and implicitly weaving more examples throughout his narrative.
The author’s lack of detailed analysis does detract from his argument that the United States must remain actively engaged in the world, and to be more maximalist than retrencher. Sestanovich never convinces the reader why a more balanced and pragmatic policy position, similar to that taken by the Obama administration, can be as effective, or at least a suitable course for the times. These criticisms aside, Maximalist remains an excellent history of U.S. foreign policy since 1947, and provides yet another lens through which to view presidential decision-making in the modern era. Future policy makers, politicians and strategists would do well to take note.
1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same 12 avril 2014
Par David J. Wallace - Publié sur
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
Excellent treatment of the administrations from Truman to Obama without any partisan rhetoric. Sestanovich is a credible and competent source who provides a well-written decryption of these various administrations.

He shows how momentum and internal politics can often have a major effect on the goals of a president--often overriding or subverting it.

Well worth reading!
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Living History 29 août 2014
Par CentreRite - Publié sur
Format:Format Kindle|Achat vérifié
I titled this review "Living History" because I have lived during this entire period and remember much of what happened. Not to say I didn't learn a lot from this book; it should be required reading in middle school. The author's writing is very clear and any middle school student should be able to read this without too much aid from the dictionary...a love of recent history would help, though. The book is divided between "maximalist" and, if I remember correctly, "retrenchment" or "minimalist" presidents...a very few were both at one time or another. I had not considered presidents in that light before, but the author makes his case convincingly. One doesn't have to be middle school to learn from and enjoy this book.
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