Moving beyond the Cold War

February 2, 2016 Joy Rohde
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This series of Issue 2 response posts are written by former Miller Center fellows who offer their perspective on the topic of national security and how to best prepare the next president for the challenges of the first year.

As Melvyn P. Leffler astutely informs us, when it comes to foreign policy the only thing a president can expect is that “the unexpected always happens.” In the Issue 2 essays, we meet five presidents who enter office in various states of readiness to confront a threat-filled world. In these accounts, whether a president is a foreign policy success or failure depends on whether and how he has prepared for inevitable crises. Success in these essays turns on two main questions: 1. Does the president have a coherent overall strategy? 2. Does the president have an administrative structure that can implement that strategy? As Hal Brands writes, “success in times of crisis often depends upon having a few clear, guiding ideas that can help presidents set their administration’s course, and navigate through the inevitable trouble.”

This is very sound advice, and indeed, each of these essays is packed with the wisdom born of deep knowledge of the archival records of past presidents. But approached from a different analytical perspective, these essays raise two problems that the next president would be wise to also consider. First, our historians define success and failure almost exclusively in instrumental terms. They focus, in other words, on whether or not presidents effectively enacted a policy or carried out a plan, using means as a measure of success. But this risks overlooking the values- and morals-based questions that inevitably underlie foreign policy decisionmaking. Indeed, successful foreign policy should also be grounded in sound and consistent answers to the question: what values and goals ought to guide American foreign policy actions?

A number of events labeled successes in these essays are laudable on moral grounds, for example a nuclear crisis averted and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But quite problematic events are scored as successes too. Brands, for instance, writes that the Reagan doctrine was a success because it turned the president’s strategy “into a comprehensive program of action.” However, the doctrine also sanctioned the deaths of tens of thousands of Central Americans.

The shortcomings of a definition of success that hinges on instrumental concerns are perhaps most evident in Jeffrey A. Engel’s laudatory portrait of George H.W. Bush’s strategic principle “do no harm.” This begs the question: harm to whom? In some of this advice, the authors take for granted that the national interest will trump other considerations when attention to them may, in fact, also serve the national interest, for example respecting human rights or the right of self-determination. Without giving explicit attention to questions about moral values, presidents risk pursing actions that may unintentionally conflict with other long-term national goals and values.

Perhaps in the Cold War, when nations lacking the status of great powers were pawns in a battle for global dominance, a calculus of harm that placed American interests far above those of other nations was appropriate, although among historians and policy analysts this is far from self-evident. In any event, as Michèle A. Flourney writes, the institutional and strategic approaches to foreign policy that we inherited from the Cold War may now be outdated. It is not insignificant that the two presidents who score as most successful in these essays—Reagan and George H.W. Bush—were also the last to operate in anything resembling a Cold War context.

Yet, and this is the second problem raised by these essays, the Cold War frame continues to powerfully shape the lessons that many historians draw from the past. Since the end of World War II, scholars and analysts have frequently invoked a narrative trope that implies that the United States is, paradoxically, a weak hegemon—simultaneously terribly vulnerable and yet the world’s dominant power. This trope is so common and can be so subtle that it is almost unnoticeable. But it has problematic implications for threat assessment and response. If the United States is seen as always vulnerable to external enemies, then vigilance must trump every other national consideration. Indeed, our authors write of the disastrous consequences, from the Bay of Pigs debacle to the deaths of 18 American soldiers in Somalia to the September 11 terror attacks, that ensued when presidents entered office without a disciplined strategic blueprint with which to respond to the various threats looming on the horizon.

At the same time, in these accounts the United States is also immensely powerful, capable of bending international events to its will. Indeed, our authors’ advice hinges on this capability. So long as the president has a coherent foreign policy strategy and an ability to allocate resources appropriately, events will likely, though not always, turn out in the United States’ favor. Jeremi Suri’s critique of Bill Clinton’s undisciplined, ad hoc approach to national security policy implies that, had the president been better prepared, the United States could have responded effectively to events in Somalia, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. Likewise, Brands offers a portrait of Reagan as a president who came to power facing a credible, if weakening, Soviet military and political threat. Prepared with carefully honed strategic goals, and in spite of a few ineffective staffers, he departed the presidency as the Soviet bloc was on the verge of crumbling. 

Of course, the United States faces grave external threats, and leaders would be wise to enter office with coherent strategic principles for addressing them. But as students of policy know, framing matters a great deal in politics. A frame that implies that the nation must be perpetually vigilant against potentially overwhelming external threats may draw critical attention away from the problems that misplaced or overhyped vigilance can create. Marc Selverstone’s incisive assessment of Kennedy who, in spite of his own impatience with some of the dogmas of the early Cold War, fell prey to fears of falling dominos in Southeast Asia, is telling. And as other historians have shown, the expansion of American international power driven by Cold War vigilance has yet to secure anything resembling global peace or national invulnerability, and in fact can increase Americans’ fears of vulnerability beyond what is reasonable.

None of this critique is intended to discount the fact that there is plenty of wisdom packed into these brief essays. The experiences of five presidents leave little room for doubt. U.S. national security is well served by a president who enters office with a coherent strategy that provides guidelines for establishing priorities among the many policy problems the nation will inevitably face. The president should also have a vision for how policy means and ends can be harmonized and a pool of smart, assertive, yet collaborative advisers and staff. The problems of our age also require a grand strategy that attends thoughtfully to moral issues. Indeed, any definition of national interest is fundamentally based in values—in a vision of what role the United States ought to play in the world, and to what ends American power should be put.

A president who has clear answers to those questions will be better equipped to prioritize, balancing crisis response against long-term goals. The next president would also be well-served to carry out threat assessment without being bound to the outdated Cold War notion that the nation is both incredibly vulnerable and also the foremost global power. What might an effective national security strategy freed from the remnants of this Cold War lens look like? Here, we cannot look exclusively to the past for answers, but we can hope that the next president is eager to ferret them out in the present.

Joy Rohde is Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan. She also holds appointments in the Department of History and the Science, Technology, and Society Program. She is the author of Armed with Expertise: The Militarization of American Social Research during the Cold War (2013).