Principled Pragmatism: Fredrik Logevall on Obama's Legacy

The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian on strategy in the Obama era.

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Fredrik Logevall says foreign policy realists who are critics of President Obama should take heart.

According to Logevall, Obama exercises a flexible “principled pragmatism” that gives American diplomacy and soft power a chance to reduce international tensions without resorting to questionable military solutions.

That approach might not please the critics who say Obama lacks a post-9/11 grand strategy comparable to containment during the Cold War. But the president’s ability to frame foreign policy concerns on a case-by-case basis “has much to recommend it,” Logevall said.

He is the author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, which won the Pulitzer for history in 2013. The book meticulously examines the rise and fall of French military and political fortunes in Indochina during the 1950s and the origins of America’s deepening involvement in what becomes Vietnam after the devastating Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Logevall, who is the Laurence D. Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, was the keynote speaker on May 13 during the Rethinking Grand Strategy Conference held at Oregon State University. The conference brought together an international panel of scholars to examine how the United States developed its grand strategy, how it operates and what grand strategy might become in the future, said Christopher McKnight Nichols, assistant professor of history at Oregon State University and director of the OSU Citizenship and Crisis Initiative.

In an interview with the National Interest, Logevall discussed why Obama really does have a grand strategy, why the United States faces fewer national security threats than many believe, how U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan mimics events during both the American and French phases of the Indochina Wars, and why American values are the nation’s best guardians of U.S. national security instead of global dominance.

 

What is grand strategy?

As you can imagine, it has been given a huge number of different definitions. For me, as good a definition as any would be this: A clear articulation of broad and long-range objectives connected to the means for reaching those objectives. Last night in my talk, I specified national security. But of course, you can have grand strategy outside of a national security context. Most of the time, you are talking about it within a national security context.

Does the United States currently have a grand strategy?

I think that it does. As I suggested in my talk, I think Barack Obama is skeptical of the utility of grand strategy. Nevertheless, he has continued to adhere to what seems to be the underlying grand strategy that the United States has followed internationally since the end of the Cold War. He is not that much different from his predecessors from endorsing what he has called a kind of “deep engagement” strategy. I think it is based on a foundational belief that the United States needs to project its power globally. It needs to continue to adhere to the principle that really drove things through the Cold War. But again, I think it’s one that he does not attach much importance to, as other incumbents might.

You seem to believe that U.S. national security is more the result of the accidents of geography and the results of demography. You even used the historian C. Vann Woodward’s term “free security” to describe the reasons behind U.S. national security success. Could you elaborate on that?

It has tremendous power for me. Not all historians agree. But this idea that because of geography and the advantages of that, and secondly, [because of] the protections provided by the Royal Navy during the nineteenth century—maybe not formally but perhaps indirectly—the United States existed in a condition of “free security” for a very important time in its history.

Where I differ with Woodward is I don’t think it actually came to an end with Pearl Harbor or during the 1930s, when military technologies had the habit of shrinking the world. On the contrary, for much its post–Pearl Harbor history, including down to this day, the United States has been objectively free of an existential threat. Its physical security has been largely a reality, and that has very real implications for foreign policy.

Let me challenge that idea. In my lifetime, I lived through the height of the Cold War. I’ve seen 9/11. I’ve seen America’s enemies. They seem a dangerous lot—they have everything from the ability to turn an airplane into a guided missile to ICBMs. It seems to be a dangerous world with dedicated enemies. What’s your response?

I think you make a fair point. In saying that the “free security” concept has power in my judgment—still applies in my judgment—I’m by no means suggesting it’s a world free of or devoid of external enemies. 9/11 proved, as you mentioned, in the most dramatic fashion that there are people out there that wish to do the United States harm. I think that is still true today. I think it was true during the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s through the Cold War, and of course during certain moments such as the Cuban Missile Crisis that stands supreme in this regard. We came very close to something unfathomably terrible and that doesn’t seem to be consistent with “free security.”

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