American Maximalism

American Maximalism

Mini Teaser: President Bush's reputation as a radical is exaggerated.  He is following in the footsteps of bold predecessors.  So why is he making such a mess of it?

by Author(s): Stephen Sestanovich

As long as you act daringly, you will be able to succeed very quickly . . . . You need to . . . feel superior to everyone, as if there was no one beside you. . . . [J]ust act recklessly and it will be all right.-Mao Zedong

American foreign policy of the past four years, both defenders and detractors agree, has been based on radical views about how the United States should conduct itself in the world. Some scholars call the diplomatic operating principles of the Bush presidency a "revolution." And those few who see continuities with past practice reach back to the 19th century for their antecedents.

Yet the case that George W. Bush's foreign policy marks a dramatic departure from that of his predecessors has been greatly exaggerated. Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton all repeatedly ignored the dissents (and domestic political difficulties) of allies, rejected compromise with adversaries, negotiated insincerely, changed the rules, rocked the boat, moved the goal posts and even planned inadequately to deal with the consequences if their policies went wrong. The three of them, moreover, had the same reason for doing these things: They had chosen more far-reaching, destabilizing goals than their allies were happy with (or than their adversaries generally understood). And they believed that the only way to achieve these goals was to keep others from having too much influence over American policy. To look at how the Bush Administration's immediate predecessors dealt with the most important international challenges of their time is to see the true maximalist tradition of our diplomacy. The current administration has put its own stamp on this tradition; it did not originate it.

Just because other presidents pursued strategies like those for which George W. Bush is criticized hardly means that his policies are sound. The more continuity we find with earlier administrations, the greater the burden on the current one to explain why it has paid such a high price for doing much the same thing. President Bush and his advisors clearly believe the opposition they have stirred up is the inevitable result of doing things differently. If, however, their policies are less revolutionary than they claim, their record has to be judged by traditional standards of success and failure.

Critics too may find it difficult to adjust to the idea that the current administration's policies fit squarely within the norms of the last quarter century. They argue that the United States has needlessly abandoned a record of international achievement based on building consensus and playing by the rules. If this were true, it would be clear enough what would have to be done to put current policy back on a more successful footing. But what if past presidents produced good results by doing the very things that have gotten President Bush into trouble-reaching further than allies wanted, defining struggles with adversaries in all-or-nothing terms, accepting instability and tension as the price of boldness-and by making the preservation of American power and influence the ultimate policy goal? What if the administration's critics ignore essential ingredients of the most successful quarter century of foreign policy in American history?

The continuity of U.S. policy over the past several decades is all the more striking because the problems that each administration of this period had to solve were so different. The early Reagan years were marked by a revival of Cold War confrontation and public fear of nuclear war. In the first Bush presidency, East-West tension was replaced by uncertainty about new dangers-and new powers-that were emerging in its place. The Clinton Administration focused on how to deal with seemingly endless conflicts in the Balkans. Yet each president responded to the prime security problems of his day in a broadly similar manner: pursuing policies designed to achieve a strategic breakthrough, to transform a worsening situation into one more likely to sustain American influence over the long term.

No episode illustrates this pattern more clearly than the great East-West confrontation of the early 1980s over whether the United States should deploy intermediate-range missiles in Europe. The controversy arose from the fear of Western governments that the new Soviet SS-20 missile force would undermine America's nuclear commitment to its allies. Believing that credible Western defenses had to include weapons of comparable range and capacity, NATO made its famous "dual-track decision" of 1979-which combined a (relatively slow) schedule for deploying an American intermediate-range nuclear force (INF) with an invitation to the Soviets to negotiate limits on each side's missiles.

If the INF decision displeased Moscow, it nevertheless reflected an attempt to sustain the détente of the 1970s. (Zbigniew Brzezinski has written that the Carter Administration considered the "Euromissiles" militarily superfluous but necessary to win allied support for the salt ii treaty.) Reagan embraced the missiles, but with a new rationale: Restoring the nuclear balance in Europe became part of a policy of scrapping détente, which the new president saw as a misguided failure. Secretary of State George Shultz argued that cooperating with the Soviets had not produced restraint. The time had come to push back. Arms control was to be matched by a faster American military build-up. The goal of negotiation was no longer to assure "stability", but to force the Soviets to abandon their most threatening weapons. Under Reagan, the Carter Administration's aid to the Afghan resistance became a program of global support for insurgencies opposing Soviet client regimes. And human rights rhetoric challenged the legitimacy of the entire Soviet system.

The Reagan Administration's turn-up-the-pressure strategy did not keep the United States and its allies from agreeing in 1981 on an INF negotiating position-the so-called "zero option"-that called for eliminating all Soviet intermediate-range missiles worldwide in exchange for canceling American deployments. But they supported the formula for quite different reasons. President Reagan and his hard-line advisors liked the idea that the Soviets would have to forfeit every one of their brand-new missiles. For many allied governments, by contrast, the appeal of "zero" was that it made American deployments unnecessary. They supported "zero" as a goal because they expected it to neutralize political opposition. When it failed to do so, they fell back on less ambitious alternatives. Most European leaders believed that political support for deploying the new missiles would unravel unless the United States proved that it was negotiating in good faith. When the zero option was first proposed at the end of 1981, German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt considered the deployments "doomed" unless rapid progress could be made toward an agreement. U.S. negotiators would therefore have to compromise.

Schmidt himself turned out to be the Euromissiles' first casualty. Before the first year of talks was over, his coalition partners, the Free Democrats (led by Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher), brought down the West German government, having concluded that Schmidt would not be able to overcome opposition to deployment within his own party. But pressure for compromise was not limited to the anti-nuclear Left. When Schmidt's successor Helmut Kohl made his first visit to Washington, his message to Reagan was that he too needed serious negotiations-"not a show." Margaret Thatcher gave much the same advice.

The American national security elite was also divided. William Hyland (soon to become editor of Foreign Affairs) predicted that the zero option would "end in disaster." At the State Department, many believed that the United States could not hold to a transparently non-negotiable position. Paul Nitze, the chief INF negotiator, was convinced that the German government would not go ahead with deployments without the political cover of an agreement with Moscow. Unless, therefore, the United States quickly struck a deal, Moscow would simply watch the alliance collapse.

Nitze's worry led him to explore the so-called "walk in the woods" formula, a compromise that abandoned zero in favor of equal levels for both sides. But he failed to persuade the president. Reagan would not accept a formula that obliged the United States to give up the most potent missiles in the proposed INF force. In a famous face-to-face Situation Room exchange, he told Nitze to inform Soviet negotiators that he worked for "one tough son of a bitch." As for the allies, the United States did not even inform them that a compromise plan had been broached, and they learned of it only later, from leaks reported in the American media. (By then out of office, Schmidt was indignant, believing that Nitze had proposed a "good deal.")

The Reagan Administration's view was that success depended on inflexibility. Another split-the-difference arms control agreement, leaving the Soviets with most of what they had, would not put East-West relations on a new footing. As Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger sniffed, "The alliance needs leadership, not compromise." Adjustments in the U.S. bargaining position were therefore cosmetic at best-the bare minimum needed to deflect opposition within Western electorates. In the run-up to deployments, with European opinion worrying over the seeming breakdown in communication between Moscow and Washington, Vice President Bush was sent to Europe to advertise a constructive-sounding invitation from Reagan to General Secretary Yuri Andropov to meet to resolve the INF dispute-but only by agreeing to the zero option. After the Soviets walked out of the talks, Reagan claimed the U.S. position was no "take-it-or-leave-it" proposal; he favored a real dialogue on nuclear issues. Yet he repeatedly refused to offer a specific compromise proposal for anything other than zero. And his Strategic Defense Initiative underscored how much more radical U.S. strategy had become since NATO made its original INF decision.

Such inflexibility led many allied governments to question U.S. policy. Although the Soviet buildup had begun the confrontation, and Soviet rhetoric was more blood-curdling than Washington's, American deployments were the focus of European protests. Opposition to the Euromissiles produced the largest political demonstrations of the postwar period, and allied unity began to fray. The Dutch parliament's vote on deployment was cancelled when the government realized it lacked a majority. Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi also broke ranks, saying that deployments should be postponed and diplomacy given more time. George Shultz's memoirs record "deep desperation" among European leaders, who believed, as late as 1986, that U.S. positions were too unrelenting.

Despite all this, the policy held. Britain and Germany were the critical INF battlegrounds, and Thatcher and Kohl were politically strong enough to keep deployments on schedule. From that moment on, Soviet leaders had little choice but to climb down from confrontation. They returned to the table after Reagan was re-elected in 1984, and at his first meeting with Reagan in November 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev downplayed the INF issue. Two years later, he signed a treaty based on the "non-negotiable" zero option.

After losing power, Gorbachev always rejected the idea that American pressure had led to perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet he was more flexible in acknowledging what produced new directions in Soviet foreign policy. The turning point, he told Genscher, was the lost battle with NATO over nuclear missiles in Europe.

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