Commentary Magazine

Trench and Retrench

Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama
By Stephen Sestanovich
Knopf, 416 pages

Among the many virtues of Maximalist is the mathematical elegance of its thesis, which is insightful and simple—so simple, in fact, that it is almost self-evident. It is the kind of idea that prompts you to say, I knew that, when, in truth, you didn’t. Like the Pythagorean theorem, it is obvious and elementary, but only after somebody introduces you to it.

In this case, that somebody is Stephen Sestanovich. An expert on Russia as well as on American foreign policy, Sestanovich now divides his time between teaching at Columbia and working at the Council on Foreign Relations.  But he has spent a good portion of his career in senior government service, in the Reagan and Clinton administrations, and his book is all the better for this practical experience.

Maximalist surveys American foreign policy from Truman to Obama, taking aim at what Sestanovich calls “the sepia-toned versions” of history—those accounts that describe a bipartisan Cold War consensus that never actually existed. In those halcyon days, so the fantasy goes, the American elite and its primary foreign allies marched in lockstep, working together to contain the Soviet Union.

Such harmony, Sestanovich demonstrates, is a gross revision of history. Discord was the norm. “Containment” was a word that meant something different to everyone who used it. Every new president attacked the legacy of his predecessor, while presidents from both political parties ran roughshod over even the closest allies of the United States.

In fact, American foreign policy lurched forward in convulsive cycles, which began with bursts of what Sestanovich dubs “maximalism”—periods of aggressive, unilateral muscularity. When maximalism faltered, “retrenchment” kicked in. Since World War II, the country has experienced at least three such cycles—initiated, respectively, by Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan. It is an open question as to whether the Reagan cycle ever really came to an end. Neither of his two immediate successors devoted themselves consistently to retrenchment, and George W. Bush oversaw a further expansion of America’s global role. While Barack Obama is on track to preside over a massive retrenchment, it is still too early to issue a final judgment.

Sestanovich’s survey of historical cycles is compelling, but the book’s major contribution is the simple observation that the United States, by its very nature, has been a maximalist power. For the past 70 years, Americans have, time after time, shown themselves dissatisfied with retrenchment. “They become persuaded,” Sestanovich writes, “that American power is the crucial stabilizing factor of global politics; that international challenges require a large, unhesitating, and uncompromising American response; and that relying too much on others will produce unsatisfactory results.”

Thus even presidents dedicated to reducing American’s part on the world stage have been forced, in a phrase that Sestanovich borrows from Barack Obama, to “do big things.” Harry Truman’s experience is indicative. When World War II ended, Truman was ready to return the United States to a peacetime footing. The world beyond America’s shores, however, refused to cooperate. The near collapse of the Western European economy in 1947 forced the president to issue the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine. Then came the Soviet decision to blockade Berlin. By the time the situation in Europe stabilized, the outbreak of war in Korea forced Truman to expand the American
role in Asia. Before that conflict erupted, the president was still entertaining dreams of economizing. But with American boys in the firing line, he broke down and called for an enormous budget increase. The conversion to maximalism was complete. 

The effect of Truman’s experience was profound. Sestanovich quotes the memoirs of Charles Bohlen, the former ambassador to the Soviet Union, approvingly: “It was the Korean war and not World War II that made us a world military-political power.” 

After the roller coaster of the Truman presidency, the American people longed for stability. Dwight Eisenhower answered the call, and no leader was better suited to the needs of the day. Ike’s experience, however, proved just how conditional the path of retrenchment can be. When Eisenhower left office, Sestanovich writes, American policy “gave way to maximalism again.” 

In the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy depicted the peace and prosperity of the Eisenhower era as “eight years of drugged and fitful sleep.” After two terms, the steadiness of Eisenhower’s hand began to look like weakness and lethargy. History would judge Eisenhower’s tenure as “the days when the tide began to run out for the United States,” Kennedy claimed. “These were the times when the Communist tide began to pour in.” America, Kennedy argued, had allowed the Soviet Union to topple it from its rightful position as the head of “worldwide revolution.”

The new president launched the largest peacetime military buildup in history. Kennedy’s maximalism, unlike Truman’s, was internally generated. His repudiation of Eisenhower’s retrenchment is a healthy antidote to many of the prevailing assumptions of our current foreign-policy debate. In the age of Obama, maximalism is almost exclusively a Republican preference. Over the last seven decades, however, it has in fact migrated back and forth between the parties.  In this era of political polarization, Sestanovich’s book is therefore refreshingly non-partisan. Indeed, a Republican can easily draw from it to place George W. Bush in a bipartisan tradition stretching back to Truman and Kennedy. By the same token, a Democrat can find solid Republican precedents for Obama’s muted foreign policy.

Sestanovich also reminds us that Obama’s retrenchment is the product of more than just his personal aversion to America’s maximalist predilections.  The political, cultural, and strategic factors that gave rise to those predilections during the Cold War, he writes, “have come under pressure in the past decade.” Indeed, the domestic political forces in favor of retrenchment are stronger than at any time in living memory. Sestanovich wonders, therefore, whether “caution rather than boldness” will become the new norm. If so, he will have great material for a sequel.

About the Author

Michael Doran, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration, is the Roger Hertog Senior Fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He tweets @Doranimated.

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