Road Hogs, Review of Joshua Muravchik's The Imperative of American Leadership

Road Hogs, Review of Joshua Muravchik's The Imperative of American Leadership

Mini Teaser: Two of the books reviewed here describe how Joshua Muravchik and the late Eric Nordlinger read the post-Soviet map and would have us travel upon it. Both recommend sharp turns at high speeds. The third contains the counsel of Peter Rodman, a man l

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

Road Hogs, Review of Joshua Muravchik's The Imperative of American Leadership (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1996); Eric A. Nordlinger's Isolationism Reconfigured: American Foreign Policy for a New Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); and Peter W. Rodman's America Adrift: A Strategic Assessment (Washington, DC: Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, 1996).

"If you don't know where you're going," said the Cheshire Cat to Alice, "almost any road will take you there." Undoubtedly, U.S. foreign policy is "on the road" after the Cold War, but there is, at best, imperfect agreement on which road it is or where it leads. Those sure of the way are suddenly encountering a lot of people named Alice, and the rest of us are checking our nametags.

A main purpose of The National Interest is to describe the map on which all such roads as we might traverse are laid out. Two of the books reviewed here describe how Joshua Muravchik and the late Eric Nordlinger read the map and would have us travel upon it. Both recommend sharp turns at high speeds. The third contains the counsel of Peter Rodman, a man less interested in deciphering maps than in plotting out fuel efficiencies and honing the fine points of safe highway travel.

Muravchik's The Imperative of American Leadership is muscular advocacy with a straightforward pitch: The world is a dangerous place, and if it is not to descend again into the sheol of chaos and war it needs a leader to keep the peace. Only the United States qualifies for that role, for we are grandly powerful, fundamentally benign, beset by few serious domestic problems, and endowed with virtually limitless resources, if only we will unbind them for proper use. So lead we must, even if it means spending and doing as much as we did during half a century of Cold War. More than that, the world wants U.S. leadership, particularly in light of the recent object lesson of its abdication--Bosnia. And still more, U.S. leadership would deepen the global appeal and rewards of democracy and free trade, the spread of which will structurally alter the international environment away from tyranny, war, and poverty.

Along the way to unfurling this argument, Muravchik makes many telling points, savaging European and U.S. policy in the Balkans, skillfully showing how the United Nations cannot successfully undertake peacemaking (as opposed to peacekeeping) operations, and brilliantly skewering West European pretensions to foreign policy coherence. He surgically distinguishes between America's exaggerated economic woes and its real, but self-inflicted, budgetary problems; there's a temperate argument for free trade, and a reasonable plea for higher levels of defense spending.

For those already aligned with Muravchik's general view, The Imperative of American Leadership will serve as an elixir. But not everyone shares it and that, as Muravchik sees it, is the problem: the near dominant power of American neo-isolationism, with its small-mindedness, budgetary pretexts, neo-mercantilist devilments, and false humilities. In his view, convince Americans that the United States must lead, and all will be well; reject that imperative and it will return to haunt us as it did in the late 1930s.

As might be deduced from this Manichaean formulation, Muravchik's typology is simple. Indeed, it bears but one axis: Wilsonians against Washingtonians. Wilsonians are far-sighted internationalists who know that working tirelessly to assure "milieu goals", and not just short-range "possession goals" (Arnold Wolfers' terms), is the best guarantee of peace; while Washingtonians define the national interest so narrowly, and with such truncated time horizons, that they invariably invite crisis. Thus, Muravchik argues, "the very dramatic contrast between the catastrophe that resulted from the Washingtonian approach after the First World War and the spectacular success of the Wilsonian approach after the second constitute [sic] a prima facie case for staying with the Wilsonian path as we search for a post-Cold War policy."

We expect a polemic to be sleek and simple, but excessive simplicity bears more vice than virtue. Like any vehicle with a single axis--or axle--Muravchik's is unstable, leading to wobbly definitions of Wilsonianism and Washingtonianism. Thus, gone from Wilsonianism is its focus on international organization, collective security, and disarmament--all "woolly headed notions"--which allows Muravchik to claim that victory in the Cold War was not a realists' victory but a Wilsonian one. Extraneous appellations are also added to Washingtonianism, whose realists are accused of believing according to a "contorted logic" that America is weaker after the end of the Cold War, and that "preventing wars is hopeless, so our goal must be to stay out of them." But true realists are not properly described by such broad brushings, and this gets to the main problem: Muravchik's formulation obscures key differences between realists and true isolationists.

Classic realists choose their diplomatic investments selectively, not out of a sense of weakness but from a calculation of interest and propitiousness. Muravchik leaves aside these distinctions not because he is disingenuous, but because he is such an unabashed American primacy maximalist--with the extra octane of pro-democracy idealism tossed in to boot--that such distinctions seem insignificant. "The Wilsonian alternative", he writes, "is not to wait for 'clear and present dangers' but to make every effort to defend the peace. Sometimes such a defense will entail political exertions to influence developments between or within nations. Sometimes it will entail military action to deter aggression or to stop its development" (emphases added). A more inclusive general rationale for using force against others is hard to imagine, and those who disagree are deemed not to be thinking differently but to have lost their nerve. To employ our map metaphor, Muravchik is a bit of a road hog.

It seems never to occur to Muravchik that problems can be created by doing too much as well as not enough, or that not everything that can go wrong in the world will go wrong. It never occurs that there are alternatives between doing everything and doing nothing. Witness this polar remark: "America carries so much weight that if we disengage, turmoil is certain, and that turmoil will eventually catch up with us"--as if actual disengagement were really an option, and as if there were no middle ground between Muravchik's souped-up maximalism and isolationism.

It follows that Muravchik marks the accumulating disasters of the 1930s as the best model for assaying how dangerous our world really is. But the problem in the interwar period was not the absence of American leadership, but the absence of America as any significant factor at all in the European or Asian balance of power. Virtually no serious analyst suggests the possibility, let alone the desirability, of an American disengagement approaching that of the 1930s. There is, after all, a great difference between the absence of American leadership and the absence of American participation in world politics.

Missing this distinction echoes the failure to distinguish between classical realism and isolationism. The few true isolationists among us would indeed return us to the moral and strategic shipwreck of the 1930s, but no realist of any stripe would. The main difference within realism, in turn, revolves around the argument of whether hegemony or the equilibrium of the balance of power is most conducive to peace. Again Muravchik ignores all this, leading him to such logically impossible statements as: "[I]f the mightiest nation fails to lead, world politics will lack equilibrium." Just the reverse is the case, at least if plain English is the right measure of meaning: The existence of a hegemon obviates equilibrium--which Webster calls "a state of balance between opposing forces or actions"--and equilibrium obviates the existence of a hegemon.

Muravchik's neo-Wilsonianism leads to other distortions as well, as with his full-throated projection of American exceptionalism. Robust American leadership "might [encourage] more accommodating behavior from other states who know that they have little to fear or distrust from a righteous state", he says, and, "Aside perhaps from the French, the only people averse to American leadership are the Americans." This, to put it mildly, may be doubted. Muravchik also misreads Bosnia. "World politics could easily degenerate into a series of Bosnias" unless we prevent it, and, asserting the indivisibility of world peace, he adds that "Russia's vicious attack on Chechnya was likely encouraged by the flaccid Western response to Bosnia." Muravchik's Bosnia story reads like a passion play with always obvious principles at issue--it is what happens when America doesn't lead and Europe or the United Nations tries to do so in its stead. Suffice it to say, not everyone sees the Balkans this way; rather than work up inductively from the evidence, Muravchik's Bosnia is power planed, sanded, and shimmed to conform to his interpretive architecture of post-Cold War U.S. policy.

In this way of reasoning, Muravchik is one of a diverse group of craftsmen--including, it could be, certain editors familiar to the devoted reader of these pages. The reference to editors is not random; a core piece of synecdochic evidence marshaled by Muravchik as evidence for the isolationist tendency is that "never have the three major journals of foreign affairs been so at one in their appeals since the end of the Cold War for reducing America's role abroad." (These he identifies as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The National Interest.) Muravchik is correct about the journals, but not about what their attitudes mean. Left unmentioned is the fact that the Bush and Clinton administrations both, and the foreign policy elites in the Republican and Democratic parties, remain faithfully wedded to American internationalism. True, both parties nowadays believe that they can do everything necessary in foreign affairs with substantially fewer resources--the absent-minded, de facto isolationism of the "cheap hawks"--but neither party favors ending America's global alliance structure. Indeed, majorities on either side of the Senate aisle favor expanding NATO, recent Chinese behavior has put to rest most doubts about the future of the U.S.-Japanese security treaty, and both parties support the expansion of U.S. security obligations in the Persian Gulf exemplified by the creation of the Central Command and the Fifth Fleet. Isolationism is not stalking the halls of power.

Why the three journals have disagreed with both administrations is not hard to fathom. Politicians and bureaucrats tend to be present-oriented, practical people, while the scholars and intellectuals who write for foreign policy journals indulge more readily in far-flung prognostications and theoretics. The typical sin of the former is habit, of the latter failure to appreciate the inertia of the governmental process and the heavy overhang of history. It is one thing to say, as Eric Nordlinger does, that it would be best for the United States if its Cold War obligations to Western Europe, Japan, and Korea did not exist (and had never existed); it is another to specify how we might offload them without catalyzing general insecurity and several major regional wars in the process.

While Muravchik blends a profound pessimism about the world with an ebullient optimism about the power and wisdom of the United States, Nordlinger manifests the reverse instincts: The world is a homeostat with a natural knack for righting itself but America is a Don Quixote with way too many weapons surrounded by a bevy of Sancho Panzas, each sounding like Joshua Muravchik. His long and ponderously written defense of neo-isolationism comes with a twist, however; while he opposes U.S. military and political engagement abroad, he advocates an active liberal project to spread American values and free trade to spark American prosperity. The basis of his argument is that detaching politico-military activism from what he calls "concurrent" foreign policy goals "creates room for an autonomously defined liberal project. It allows for the moderated, unilateral, and multilateral pursuit of a principled, focused, well-leveraged, and thus reasonably beneficial liberal idealism." This is isolationism reconfigured, sounding more than a little like a variety of Quaker neo-pacifism.

Nordlinger argues that not only is detachment best for the future, but that it would also have been better for the past. Soviet failure, he believes, had little to do with American efforts; indeed, the mechanics of containment drove many neutrals into Soviet arms and helped Moscow in ways otherwise unavailable. Worse, the Soviet threat to Western Europe after 1945 was much exaggerated; it was instead the formation of NATO and the encircling of the Soviet Union that really started the Cold War. Moreover, going abroad also involved the United States in "morally unacceptable" actions and, more fundamentally, its activism is best "depicted as weakness, conceptualized as the loss of autonomy." True American independence and autonomy are served by vigilant non-engagement; hence Nordlinger, with palpable self-satisfaction, depicts himself as neither hawk nor dove nor owl but eagle, a "keen sighted, high-flying, remotely perched, and thus eminently well-protected" bird.

There is more. Nordlinger argues that isolationism reconfigured, as he defines it, better fits American culture and character than any form of internationalism, and--really the key contention--isolationism isn't dangerous because the "United States is strategically immune in being insulated, invulnerable, impermeable, and impervious and thus has few security reasons to become engaged politically and militarily." Consequently, aside from protecting the international sea- and airlanes to and from the water's edge, "the strategy demands a true minimum of security-centered involvements beyond North America."

The first response to such claims is, typically, how, in an age of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, can America be invulnerable, and its energy and trade security assured? One response to the latter issue is that America should use less fossil fuel energy, stop trading its natural resources for Asian electronic junk, and restore economic autarky through "appropriate technology" and proper ecological husbandry--what we might call the Theodore Kacynzski approach to foreign policy. But Nordlinger will have none of this. The United States is not in decline; it is rich and could be richer still if it reduced its defense burden, and if it were not self-deterred from asserting its national economic interests because of security concerns with allies. Virtually all of America's trading partners are more dependent on us than we are on them, so junk those concerns, says Nordlinger, and use the leverage. If other countries still manage their trade for political purposes, and do so to amass state military power, it does not matter, because an isolated United States is invulnerable behind its oceans, non-threatening demeanor, and minimalist arsenal of nuclear weapons.

In effect, the heart of Nordlinger's view is that if the United States drastically truncates the scope of its politico-military interests, it can safely tolerate a wide range of others' politico-military predations. This is tantamount to achieving security by vastly diminishing its requirements, much as a homeless person is led to vastly redefine what is meant by shelter. Or, in the context of international politics, following William Saroyan, "If you give to a thief, he can no longer steal from you, and he is then no longer a thief."

Not that Nordlinger's proposals are unserious just because they flaunt a broad consensus. Even those unconvinced of his logic will find the exercise a healthy challenge to habitual thinking. In the end, though, it is Nordlinger's rigidity that does his provocation the most harm. Like Muravchik, he avoids distinctions among those with whom he does not agree. There are internationalists and nationalists (isolationists), and while some internationalists are "adversarial" and others "conciliatory", they are all maximalists to him. And like Muravchik he brooks no exceptions: Isolationism is always right, changing circumstances be damned. He may be headed down the road in the opposite direction from Muravchik, but he, too, is a road hog.

Peter Rodman's America Adrift, an 89-page extended essay, lacks the emotional angst that animates Muravchik and Nordlinger. While, like Muravchik, Rodman bemoans a growing consensus on "strategic escapism", one gets the feeling that neither this charge, nor the book's title, nor the effort Rodman takes to parry and thrust straight through the foibles of the Clinton administration's foreign policy, would be quite the same if this were not an election year.

More important and to the point, Rodman's approach is that of classical realist pessimism, and his focus is an "unromantic view of strategic interest" based on the analysis of "structural"--which is to say, geopolitical--realities. In short, Rodman is Kissingerian and, for the most part, he's good at it. Not coincidentally, the volume bears a slim foreword by the eminent Doctor himself.

Perhaps the best way to sum up Rodman's counsel is that the United States should do neither more nor less than it did during the Cold War, but about the same. Why? Because despite the end of the Cold War, less has changed than many think; most important among continuities is that neither Russia nor China is about to turn into a liberal free-market democracy anytime soon. Hence we must stay in Europe and Asia to reassure and stabilize those regions--not because there are communists there, but because stable international structures do not just happen by themselves, but must be nurtured and managed. And we have little choice but to carry the burden in the Middle East as well. Only with respect to the expansion of NATO, which Rodman favors, might we do appreciably more--again, not for new reasons but for old geopolitical ones: to build a canopy of peace over an area not historically well-endowed with it in the interwoven shadows of German-Russian relations.

Agree with it or not, Rodman's advice flows neither from triumphalism nor habit, but from looking at the world the way those who have to deal with it tomorrow morning must see it. It would be fine if an Asian balance could come to pass without extensive U.S. involvement, but history judges the prospect unlikely. It would be grand if Europe could cohere without an American role but, says Rodman more in sorrow than in anger, "Weaning the West away from dependence on American leadership looks like an impossibility." Rodman is no maximalist wedded to a theory of hegemonic stability; indeed, he inclines more to thinking in terms of balances. The problem, however, is that the raw materials for a global balance that does not require an extensive U.S. role are wanting, and wishing it were otherwise cannot of itself change the fact.

In this regard, Rodman is a conservative in the true temperamental sense; he fits the test as Owen Harries defines it:
"For conservatives, temperament should always trump doctrine. And the single best test of temperament is a person's attitude toward change. Conservatism is wary of change in general--always conscious that it involves loss as well as gain and is fraught with the danger of unintended consequences--and positively hostile to sudden, disruptive, radical change."

Taking his bearings from the imposing overhang of history, Rodman recognizes that the U.S. global presence was built up from more than half a century of exertion, and that such exertion created new international political realities not bound solely to the problem of the Soviet Union, and that have not been washed away with it. One does not abruptly deconstruct such a reality without expecting a more than average quotient of global insecurity, instability, and war. Theoretical questions of primacy aside, status quo powers such as the United States are not wont to do such things, and a foreign policy tradition rightly criticized for its abrupt swings ought not to be encouraged to go swinging again.

That said, Rodman is open to criticism on two points. First, in the one area where he would have us do more--in Eastern/Central Europe--the discussion might have benefited from a more substantive assessment of risks and costs, and an acknowledgment that this issue today divides former Cold War companions above all others. Second, while it is easy to sympathize with the "what to do tomorrow morning" approach--and thanks to it there is more specific and practical advice in Rodman than in Muravchik and Nordlinger combined--it somehow does not satisfy. Even the most practically-minded of analysts must ask how, for example, Asians or Europeans are ever to evolve a means of ordering their own affairs if American "leadership" perpetually smothers the attempt? Can we forever reconcile Jeffersonian principles at home with a permanent global role so large as to threaten to do to America what a similarly conceived burden did to the Roman republic?

Rodman is entitled to his pessimism, for the world abounds with corroboration for it, but his close-in focus begs the most central structural question of all: If it took half a century to build up to the inevitability of American post-Cold War leadership, might it not take a careful decade or two to build it down again to a more moderate level of American participation in world politics--and is that, indeed, the right thing to do? Rodman doesn't say, but the answer, probably, is yes.

Essay Types: Book Review