President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA (also known as the Iran Deal) last Tuesday has set off a furious round of speculation among pundits and experts alike as to what the impact of the move would be. There are many variables in play. Our European allies are united in dismay, while Israel, the UAE and the Saudis greeted the announcement with glee. The Iranians are furious, but their economy is in terrible shape, in no small part due to their being stretched thin in Syria. Russia stood to benefit from the opening Transatlantic rift and the spike in oil prices on the one hand; on the other, it faced the prospect of being caught in an open conflict between Iran and Israel in Syria, with the fate of its precious proxy Assad, in whom it has invested much blood and treasure, dangling in the balance. On the sidelines of all this sits President Trump himself, by some accounts reveling in his own unpredictability.
I’ll leave specific prognostication as to how this will all pan out to hardier, more expert souls. Still, it’s interesting to observe the decision to abandon the JCPOA in a wider historical context. I would argue that it represents the solidification of a new role for the United States on the world stage—that of an erratic actor. This is not simply the result of the ascendancy of President Trump to the highest office, or the product of any kind of Trumpist ideology, however defined. President Trump is himself merely the fullest embodiment of trends and sentiments that have been brewing in the United States for quite some time. America is becoming more of a “normal” country, shedding its sense of exceptionalism and mission—a tendency that had reached its apex in the long decade following the end of the Cold War (roughly 1989-2003).
But a “normal” country—especially a rambunctious democracy—that is still the world’s predominant power is perhaps not something to celebrate. Over the next few years, America’s role in the world will have less to do with any discernible set of overarching values or ideology. Its behavior will be the product of an increasingly (small-d) democratized and hotly contested domestic politics. This is not to say that its behavior will be impossible to predict for outsiders. On the contrary, Walter Russell Mead’s “schools” of foreign policy thinking—the so-called “Jacksonian,” “Jeffersonian,” “Wilsonian,” “Hamiltonian” factions—are mostly alive and well. What has changed inside America is the possibility of meaningfully reconciling these visions and shaping a longer-term approach to the world. Foreign policy is becoming partisan bloodsport. The result is a lack of coherent purpose, and the growing perception, among allies and antagonists both, that America is inherently unreliable.
It is of course true that the United States has never had a completely stable approach to the world. Stephen Sestanovich’s book-length observation, that America has ping-ponged between “maximalism” and “retrenchment” since at least 1945, is one of the more elegant distillations of a phenomenon that many Cold War historians have written about through the years. The ultimate goals of the United States in the Cold War, however, were easily discernible and comprehensible, even if American foreign policy elites bitterly squabbled over how best to pursue them. At the commanding heights of academia and government, people like George Kennan understood the Cold War as a continuation and adaptation of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s turn-of-the-century maritime grand strategy of hegemony-suppression.
It may have muddled and staggered its way to victory, but throughout the Cold War the United States was broadly pulling in one direction. Its strategic choices were framed by a consensus that broadly articulated both positive values (“democracy,” “freedom”), and an enemy that embodied their opposite (the Soviet Union). The overnight disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991 was seen as a triumph, but it also kicked off a process which is best described as a kind of somnambulant drift in foreign policy. Planners and strategists strained to apply the principles that had guided the United States for almost a century to a world that had lost a key organizing narrative.1
The year 1992 saw the first such effort: Paul Wolfowitz, working for Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, oversaw the drafting of a strategy document meant to chart a course for the country in the coming decade. It quickly leaked to the New York Times and kicked up an unholy fuss in the media. Seen in the broader context of the history of American grand strategy, the document was just a sharply worded restatement of Mahan’s basic principles: No competing hegemonic power should be allowed to emerge anywhere in the world. But since it leaked in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, which was at the time taken as a model for how problems like Saddam Hussein could be dealt with, Wolfowitz’s document was seen as a breathtaking display of American arrogance—a rude attempt to disrupt a rousing rendition of “Kumbaya” just as it was gaining momentum.
Amid public outcry, the draft was quietly buried and rewritten into something more anodyne by Cheney’s staff. But even at its most fiery, the Wolfowitz document didn’t resolve the crisis at the heart of American foreign policy in the shadow of the Cold War. In 1992, bien pensant opinion was horrified by the idea that some among America’s foreign policy elites harbored what appeared to be secret imperialist ambitions. In retrospect, the real problem was that even at its most ambitious, the United States felt the absence of the Soviet Union like a phantom limb.2
In Sestanovich’s telling, both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were “hybrid” Presidents: Bush showed “maximalist” verve in his handling of German unification and in prosecuting intervention in Panama and Kuwait, but settled into a retrenchment mindset by the end of his term; Clinton started out as an inward-looking “domestic” leader who by his second term was almost frenetically engaged abroad. And while this was a departure of sorts from Cold War precedent (wherein presidencies tended to stick to one disposition), Sestanovich’s observed oscillations belie a deeper consistency: Bill Clinton’s foreign policy team spent its eight years operationalizing a softer, more idealistic articulation of America’s role in the world that, stripped of its particulars, only represented a shift in tone.
The old project of hegemony-suppression—first articulated by Mahan, then Kennan, and then Wolfowitz—was now being legitimized through multilateralism and globalization, with America’s preeminence and leadership in global institutions always assured. Clinton’s trade negotiator, Charlene Barshefsky, quipped that economic globalization was making military alliances obsolete. Nevertheless (or as a result?), NATO was expanded eastward, subtly transformed from a collective security alliance into a vehicle for the consolidation of Western values, influence, and way of doing things. Continuing strikes and the imposition of no-fly zones in Iraq were justified by pointing to existing UN resolutions. For the Kosovo intervention, Clinton didn’t even bother with such niceties. On his way out of office, he was echoing his Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s memorable phrase at every turn: America was the “indispensable nation.”
And yet, still, this palpable lack of overarching mission hung over everything. Albright’s argument to Colin Powell for intervention in Bosnia—“What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”—captured the decade perfectly. Clinton’s time in office was characterized by a quest for meaning and direction. With the Soviet Union gone, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic would have to do.
By the time Saudi hijackers smashed passenger jets into the Twin Towers in 2001, both Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz were back in government. And with the National Security Strategy that quickly followed in 2002, the “Global War on Terror” was born. The document was yet another effort to set a firm course for a spiritually rudderless American foreign policy, channeling both the democratic triumphalism of the Clinton years, and the Mahanian spirit of the 1992 draft. The role previously left vacant by the Soviet Union, however, was at last filled—by “shadowy networks of individuals [that could] bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank.”
Less than a year later, scores of American tanks were rolling into Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, a month after Bush’s National Security Strategy was published and a day after a resolution authorizing the use of military force in Iraq was introduced in Congress, a young state senator spoke at an antiwar rally. Conceding that Saddam Hussein was a vile, degenerate dictator, and that “the world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him,” he went on to eloquently—and as it turned out presciently—outline the horrific consequences that intervention would bring. “I am not opposed to all wars,” he intoned. “I’m opposed to dumb wars.”
And in New York City, an even younger MFA student who had watched the Twin Towers go down decided he was in the wrong line of work. He became former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Lee Hamilton’s right-hand man, first at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, then serving as his staffer on the 9/11 Commission. Finally, at the Iraq Study Group, he worked on finding a way to extricate the United States from its ugly, unnecessary war “with dignity.”
President Barack Obama and his Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes represented a rising generation shaped by the trauma of Iraq. We won’t have a fuller picture of the dynamics inside the Obama presidency until more memoirs come out, but what we have already from journalistic accounts and interviews suggests an important break with the past. Obama spent three months in 2009 fighting his entire team of senior national security advisors who were advocating an expansion of America’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan. He ended up agreeing to send more troops, but put a hard timeframe for eventual withdrawal: All the extra troops would be home before 2012. A similar scene unfolded over calls for intervention in Libya, with Obama ultimately—grudgingly—agreeing to “lead from behind” as a Western coalition toppled Muammar Qaddafi. Finally, in Syria, Obama triumphed over his team of advisors and foreign policy elite opinion more generally—“the blob,” as Rhodes contemptuously called it—and managed to keep America’s involvement in the conflict at a strict minimum.
The rejection of “dumb” wars is not the full story of the Obama presidency. He assiduously pursued the Iran Deal as a thinly veiled strategy for disengaging America more fully from the Greater Middle East in the medium term. He sought to hand over responsibility to the Europeans for Russia (a “regional power” acting out of weakness) and gave lip service to a “pivot to Asia” which he ended up not properly funding. Sestanovich is not wrong to identify Obama as a classic full-throated “retrenchment” President in the mold of Eisenhower and Nixon. But thinking of Obama in only these terms misses an important sea change that occurred on his watch.
Throughout the Cold War, all administrations were constrained as to how they repudiated the legacies of their predecessors. The restraining factor was the existence of the Soviet Union. Between the Soviets’ unexpected disappearance and 9/11, there had not been any need for repudiation; George H. W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s foreign interventions were on the whole successful, cheap, and as a result popular. Voters were happy, and they gave their blessing to whatever it was the elites said they were up to. George W. Bush may have come into office complaining about Clinton’s hyperactivity on the world stage, but he was mostly on board with the broad premises of American indispensability and the universality of American values that ten years of sleepwalking had coughed up as a purpose. The fact that 9/11 prompted such a hard pivot on the part of Bush, from a domestic-focused “compassionate conservative” to a man deeply animated by America’s missionary spirit, illustrates how little he differed from his predecessors.
Iraq was the first great post-Cold War catastrophe, and it prompted a retrenchment—just like Korea and Vietnam did before. But without the strictures of the Cold War, it also meant that there was no inherent legitimacy in the alternative policies proposed by the retrenching President. One can agree or disagree with the choices Obama made, but one can no longer point with the same certainty to the rationale for one’s judgment. There is still no larger framework against which we can try to measure the merit of this or that policy, since America still has no defined foreign policy goal in the world that is seen as obviously legitimate by all its citizens.
Appeals to humanitarianism, prestige, regional influence, and broader credibility all confronted Obama on Syria. Charges that he was selling out valuable allies in the Middle East and making existing messes more acute hounded him on the Iran Deal. But Obama shrugged, soldiered on, and notably neither profited nor paid a price for his policies. With a foot out the door, his national support on foreign policy was about even, splitting neatly along partisan lines. Politics, at the end of the day, is all that matters in today’s America.
When I saw Donald Trump give a stump speech in October 2016, I remember noting the venom with which he attacked the stupidity with which foreign policy had been handled by America’s elites. Of course he directly attacked Hillary Clinton and her proposals, but he linked her record to the longer, sad history of America’s involvement in the Middle East. And more than with the attack itself, I was impressed at how well it played with the crowd, many of whom were veterans or families of veterans of the failed wars he was denouncing. The tone was harsher, the rhetoric rougher. But the substance reminded me of Obama. Since then, there have been more parallels. Trump, too, was in the end grudgingly bullied into a troop increase in Afghanistan by his advisors. And like Obama, he has continued to insist that America’s involvement in Syria remain marginal at most.
But the differences are more instructive, with the Iran Deal a case in point. Partisans of each President accuse the other of abandoning allies. Which allies, though: European or Middle Eastern? Both Presidents promised to “not do stupid shit.” But what’s more stupid: risking a preemptive war with Iran today that could easily spiral into a regional conflagration, or gambling on forcing a regional realignment, which may eventually include a nuclear-armed Iran, in hopes of disengaging the United States from the Middle East?
These are admittedly oversimplifications, but they are meant to illustrate a point: Without a larger narrative binding the United States in a single mission, foreign policy disagreements have degenerated into partisan squabbles which are impossible to adjudicate. Experts, after all, can be found arguing both sides of any of these issues. And anyway, experts are unlikely to be of any help, as they are correctly blamed for engineering and abetting the status quo, which both Obama and Trump got elected by publicly repudiating each in their own way.
Much of this broader Obama/Trump dynamic was eloquently elaborated by Adam Garfinkle a few weeks ago. “The fact that these two Presidents have come from two different places along the American political spectrum,” he wrote, “suggests that they may well represent a new normal.” I think that’s very probably true. But at the same time, that “new normal” does not necessarily portend the emergence of a new consensus for isolationism. Rather we may be headed for an exceptionally cacophonous, democratic period, where matters of national security are debated in increasingly partisan terms.
And by partisan, I mean arbitrary. Consider the domestic parallel: Even though the ineluctably growing budget deficit represents a threat to the country’s long-term future, the fact that it’s possible to put off a reckoning beyond the time horizon of a single election means that both parties cavalierly make use of it as a cudgel against their opponent but then pursue their priorities while in power. Experts are called in for backup in either circumstance, but it doesn’t really matter. Overall, the political stakes are too low for consistency, and the costs for being unserious, if they exist at all, are outweighed by short-term political benefits.
To state the obvious, this all could come to an end if and when a suitable external challenge arises, creating both a unifying narrative for voters to coalesce around, and disciplining politicians and policymakers into a more hard-headed analysis of what constitutes the national interest. Many these days look at China and imagine, hope, something like that happening, maybe sooner rather than later.
At the same time, perhaps it’s best not to get too optimistic about “definitional” struggles solving our problems for us. History doesn’t usually work quite so tidily, for one—it rhymes, not repeats. And let’s not forget that it was enthusiasm for a “definitional” struggle that gave us the Iraq War, which is no small part of why our foreign policy debate is the way it is. Perhaps we should try harder, hoping against hope, to forge a consensus on our own terms.
1 Adam Garfinkle, Walter Russell Mead, Walter McDougall, and Jim Kurth have been the some of the most prominent writers to analyze the Protestant roots of America’s deeply felt need for a moral opposite. See Garfinkle, “Can Americans Count to Three?,” The American Interest, March 9, 2018, and Kurth, “The Protestant Deformation,” The American Interest, Winter 2005 for shorter treatments. Mead’s God and Gold (2008) and McDougall’s The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy (2016) are vital book-length investigations.
2 I’m far from the first person to remark on this tendency. Hal Brands’ From Berlin to Baghdad (2008) and Michael Mandelbaum’s Mission Failure (2016) are but two standouts.