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

Maximalism, then, is the modern American norm. Advancing national interests by overturning a deteriorating status quo is not "revolutionary." It has been the repeated practice of American diplomacy for decades. It has always made allies nervous, but one administration after another has expected them to defer, grumbling or not, to big American goals, even to big American risk-taking. The pattern is so consistent that it can help us piece together the half-spoken assumptions of current strategy as well. When Paul Wolfowitz observed that September 11 made it unacceptable to "just sit and live with the Middle Eastern status quo", he was not simply boiling down into one the many rationales of policy toward Iraq. He was expressing the thinking that also guided past policy. The historical record offers at least as much clarity about the transformational aims of recent American policy as its spokesmen have given us.

It is a peculiar feature of the maximalist tradition that every administration takes pride in rescuing it from a predecessor's neglect. The current administration is no exception. Its strategic outlook represents a particularly hard-edged culmination of past practices, but a culmination all the same. The fact that the president and his senior advisors do not present their policies in this light-that they would probably be indignant at the very suggestion-cannot obscure the deep continuities between them and previous administrations.

Sometimes, of course, a policy tradition achieves a radical culmination only at the moment when it has ceased to be viable. Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policy is the outstanding example-a failure not because it embraced a new strategy but because it pushed old assumptions too far. Some make the same case about American maximalism today. The decades during which it dominated represent an era that is now over, and its lessons are seen as an inadequate guide for future policy. Disagreements between the United States and its European critics have allegedly become harder to control or resolve than in the past, when discord was limited by Europe's reliance on American protection against Soviet military might. In this setting, the very idea of maximalism-to say nothing of any hope that American allies might again defer to it-seems out of date.

The historical record we have examined provides many reasons to be skeptical of this argument. It has already been a long time since the Soviet threat was Europe's prime worry. Certainly under Bill Clinton, the Cold War was a rapidly receding memory; violence in the Balkans held center stage. When George H. W. Bush was president, our European allies were preoccupied with the rise of Germany. They believed that the United States, far from guaranteeing their security, was jeopardizing it; they were relaxed enough about Soviet power to seek Moscow's help in turning American policy around. And even in the early 1980s, with the Cold War still going strong, what many Europeans wanted from the United States was not just protection but policies less likely to drag them into a nuclear war. They had begun to doubt that Washington saw the world the way they did. Twenty years before the United States invaded Iraq on a wave of Manichean rhetoric, Egon Bahr, Helmut Schmidt's national security advisor, complained that American neoconservatives had put world peace at risk by seeking "victory over evil."

American maximalism, in other words, could easily have splintered the Atlantic Alliance far sooner than it did. There are many reasons why it did not, ranging from habit and inertia to the diplomatic skill with which leaders on both sides of the Atlantic kept disagreements from going too far. And yet the most important reason that maximalism never completely lost allied support was the fact that it was so consistently successful. Reagan's confrontational strategy was validated first by Gorbachev's perestroika and then by the Soviet collapse. Fears of a united Germany dissipated as it became clear that George H. W. Bush had not pushed Europe back into the past, but propelled it into the future. And Bill Clinton carried NATO's "little dogs" with him through two wars by showing that military action alone could stop ethnic conflict in the Balkans.

Maximalism's success was no accident. The policymakers of previous administrations believed that they had reversed negative trends, even changed history's direction, precisely by demanding ambitious results. They had seized control of policy and made it work. Reagan had a far deeper impact on Soviet actions, and prevented a more dangerous unraveling of Western unity, by rejecting compromise in the INF talks. Bush was clearly right to ignore the go-slow strategy toward German reunification that all other European powers favored. Their approach would have kept Germany in a geopolitical limbo and weakened American influence. As for the Clinton Administration, had it not abandoned "containment" in the Balkans, the region would still be draining American resources, credibility and presidential attention.

Understanding our maximalist tradition clarifies much about the current predicament of American policy that might otherwise remain mysterious. It suggests that the virulent European response to the diplomacy of the Bush Administration may be the result not only of its shocking novelty, but also of its familiarity. President Bush and his colleagues would have been better prepared to deal with our allies had they understood that the latter have faced many previous American efforts to overturn the status quo. The United States was not in uncharted territory: Europeans have been on the verge of wandering off the reservation for a long time.

Re-examining the record of previous administrations also suggests how difficult it will be for the current one to act differently. The maximalism that has been described here--and that characterizes current policy as well-is our tradition. It represents the way the United States reacts to big international problems. In a crisis, it's what American policymakers-not just the current ones-fall back on. It's how they expect to succeed. History does not support the idea that the Bush Administration has only to drop its revolution and come home to a tradition of international consensus and compromise.

Finally, the record of previous presidencies must caution all who believe that consensus and compromise are the key to successful problem-solving. Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton remind us of what maximalism can achieve. That the United States has been in a position over many decades to take periodic responsibility for overseeing a shake-up of the international status quo has produced consistently positive results. Had the most controversial American policies of this period been more thoroughly compromised-had they, to be blunt, been diluted by the counsels of allies-they might easily have failed.

George W. Bush's predecessors left him fewer problems to deal with because they aimed high and acted decisively. Seeing this, he may well derive renewed confidence that he is doing the right thing. But he might also reflect on his responsibility as custodian of this tradition. It will not be much of a legacy to be the president who, after decades of success, gave maximalism a bad name.

Essay Types: Essay