Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama

Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama

Stephen Sestanovich

Language: English

Pages: 416

ISBN: 0307388301

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

From a writer with long and high-level experience in the U.S. government, a startling and provocative assessment of America’s global dominance. Maximalist puts the history of our foreign policy in an unexpected new light, while drawing fresh, compelling lessons for the present and future.

When the United States has succeeded in the world, Stephen Sestanovich argues, it has done so not by staying the course but by having to change it—usually amid deep controversy and uncertainty. For decades, the United States has been a power like no other. Yet presidents and policy makers worry that they—and, even more, their predecessors—haven’t gotten things right. Other nations, they say to themselves, contribute little to meeting common challenges. International institutions work badly. An effective foreign policy costs too much. Public support is shaky. Even the greatest successes often didn’t feel that way at the time.      
Sestanovich explores the dramatic results of American global primacy built on these anxious foundations, recounting cycles of overcommitment and underperformance, highs of achievement and confidence followed by lows of doubt. We may think there was a time when America’s international role reflected bipartisan unity, policy continuity, and a unique ability to work with others, but Maximalist tells a different story—one of divided administrations and divisive decision making, of clashes with friends and allies, of regular attempts to set a new direction. Doing too much has always been followed by doing too little, and vice versa.

Maximalist unearths the backroom stories and personalities that bring American foreign policy to life. Who knew how hard Lyndon Johnson fought to stay out of the war in Vietnam—or how often Henry Kissinger ridiculed the idea of visiting China? Who remembers that George Bush Sr. found Ronald Reagan’s diplomacy too passive—or that Bush Jr. considered Bill Clinton’s too active? Leaders and scoundrels alike emerge from this retelling in sharper focus than ever before. Sestanovich finds lessons in the past that anticipate and clarify our chaotic present.















would have favored anyway. Even the pledge—adopted at NATO’s London summit in June 1990—that the alliance would begin a process of (unspecified) change, was rammed through without the time-consuming consultative courtesies that are NATO’s hallmark. The president’s deadpan explanation: the issue was “too important … to review with the allies in the usual way.”17 George Bush’s view of reunification had a personal dimension. He said he had “a comfort level” about letting Germany regain its old

compelling case for what they were doing. The Bush administration handled all these matters badly. The president embraced maximalism without finding a way to make it work. He failed to unite overconfidence and lack of confidence in an effective policy. Again and again he provoked opposition when he sought support. If Washington wanted UN approval, it had to be willing either to act very quickly once it had the Security Council’s initial endorsement, or to let the process play out much longer. If

principles of the most recent Democratic administration were an obvious model for them. Even so, not everyone agreed. What gave the first year of the Obama administration its unexpected drama was the emergence of one especially influential dissenter—the president himself. THE NEW ADMINISTRATION’S early decisions showed the strength of its initial consensus. Iraq, once the most divisive of political issues, no longer stirred much controversy. The Bush administration’s plan had been to withdraw

389; Feith, War and Decision, p. 301; Baker, Days of Fire, p. 211. 30. “Blair Arrives for Bush Talks,” BBC News, April 5, 2002, http://​news.​bbc.​co.​uk/​2/​hi/​uk_​news/​politics/​1912050.​stm; Gordon and Trainor, Cobra II, p. 95. 31. Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), p. 315; Francis Fukuyama, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 100; Baker, Days of Fire, p. 246. 32.

EISENHOWER’S HANDLERS thought his election victory was sealed by the speech he gave at the Masonic Temple in Detroit on October 24, little more than a week before the vote. “All of us,” recalled Sherman Adams (soon to be White House chief of staff), “agreed that an extra-spectacular message would be needed that night to bring the campaign to an exciting climax.” Their solution was a one-sentence pledge. “I shall go to Korea,” Eisenhower declared. He also proposed to speed up the training of South

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