Michael Mandelbaum, Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post–Cold War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 504 pp., $29.95.
IN 1996, Michael Mandelbaum, who teaches international relations at Johns Hopkins University, published an essay entitled “ Foreign Policy As Social Work ” in Foreign Affairs . In it, he decried the Clinton administration’s interventions in Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti. “These failed interventions,” he wrote, “expressed the view of the worldwide role of the United States that the members of the Clinton foreign policy team brought to office.” A decade later, he published The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the Twenty-First Century . It formed an eloquent statement of “liberal hegemony theory,” the contention that the role of the post–Cold War United States as the sole hegemon has enabled both great-power peace and the benefits of economic globalization.
In Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post–Cold War Era , Mandelbaum blends these themes in a sweeping narrative history from the end of the Cold War until the present that seeks to diagnose where America has gone astray. Mandelbaum advances four major arguments. The first one essentially restates the thesis of The Case for Goliath that America’s overwhelming military superiority following the Cold War suppressed traditional great-power rivalries. The second is that the absence of great-power conflict made possible an era of economic globalization from which all sides benefited. The third argument holds that the relaxation of traditional great-power rivalries enabled the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations to seek to effect the liberalization and democratization of foreign societies out of idealism, rather than on the basis of traditional strategic calculations—in other words, as “social work.” And the fourth thesis maintains that most of these projects of democratic transformation abroad were doomed from the outset because of the inherent difficulties in implanting Western values in backward, authoritarian societies.
Mandelbaum is an accomplished scholar and a skillful writer, two qualities that don’t always go hand in hand. But just how persuasive are his principal contentions? In examining the past few decades of U.S. foreign policy, Mandelbaum seeks to upend conventional wisdom about America’s role abroad. Ultimately, however, he affirms it.
THE PROBLEMS begin with Mandelbaum’s contention that post–Cold War U.S. military supremacy so effectively suppressed great-power rivalries that the very nature of world politics changed for several decades, with every other great power, including China and Russia for a time, embracing or at least acquiescing in a benign Pax Americana. “American power defined what President George H. W. Bush called ‘the new world order,’ along with three other features of international relations after the Cold War”—economic globalization, the limitation of nuclear weapons to “countries that could be relied upon not to use them” and
“the lack of interest on the part of China and Russia, each with the capacity to act as a traditional great power, in pursuing the assertive policies that in the past had put rivalry, security, and military competition at the center of international relations.”
According to Mandelbaum, the post–Cold War order’s defining trait was “the absence of the military and political competition between and among the strongest states around which international politics had traditionally revolved.”
For reasons rooted in the cultures and domestic politics of China and Russia, security competition among the great powers has returned:
“By 2014 both [China and Russia] had abandoned their reticence and restraint in favor of the classic great-power quest to control more territory. . . . Chinese and Russian foreign policies reversed the revolution in international politics that had taken place at the end of the Cold War. They restored the old international regime of power politics, thereby presenting the United States with challenges that differed from the ones with which it had been preoccupied for two decades.”
At first glance, this may seem like a compelling description of the last generation, with a holiday from great-power politics attributable to American global hegemony that ended with Russian and Chinese aggression in 2014. But neither the United States nor China nor Russia ceased practicing traditional great-power politics between 1989 and 2014.
In 1995–96—during what Mandelbaum describes as the absence of great-power rivalry—America mustered its greatest show of naval force since the Vietnam War during the Taiwan Strait crisis with China. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the major anti-American military alliance in the post–Cold War world, first took the form of the Shanghai Five (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) as early as 1996, assuming its present name in 2001.
In 1998, violating informal promises to the Russian government, the Clinton administration and its European allies expanded the NATO alliance into Eastern Europe. Mandelbaum describes this as “the most consequential American foreign policy of the post–Cold War years.” Beginning in 2005 under SCO auspices, China and Russia have repeatedly engaged in large-scale war games which are widely interpreted as sending a signal to the United States and its allies. In 2007, China shot down one of its own satellites in a show of force directed toward Washington and other potential adversaries, creating the greatest amount of space debris in history; the United States responded in 2008 by shooting down a U.S. satellite, something it had not done since 1985 during the late Cold War. Six years before 2014, in 2008, Russia invaded Georgia to forestall possible NATO expansion. Combine this with Chinese and Russian military modernization and their low-level cyber attacks on the United States and its allies and it seems hard to describe the period of 1989–2014 as one from which “the old international regime of power politics” was temporarily absent. If this does not quite rise to the level of a second Cold War, it surely merits Boris Yeltsin’s “cold peace.”