The scholarly study of American foreign policy and international relations hasne (at least one?) important peculiarity that distinguishes it from many other forms of scholarly inquiry: a fairly high degree of intellectual exchange between social scientist and subject. Of course, zoologists interact with the animals they study, but the animals are not reading what the zoologists say about them and reacting accordingly. Nor do children tend to read child psychology texts, or the indigent subjects of socio-economic inequality keep up with political economy treatises.
When Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election on 7 May 2017, many in Europe and North America breathed a collective sigh of relief. Macron’s victory seemed to confirm an incipient anti-populist trend that had been set earlier that year in the Netherlands and Austria. In the aftermath of the Brexit-vote and Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the United States, Macron seemed to have stopped the populist bonfire in its tracks, turning France—rather surprisingly—into a paragon of democratic wisdom, political moderation, and optimism.
The fog of war plays a prominent role in Carl von Clausewitz’s reflections on armed struggle. In Ann Hironaka’s rethinking of war, that fog becomes all consuming, obscuring the information needed to understand and prepare for battle. Victory in war is unpredictable and tantamount to random in clashes between competitors with roughly comparable power (41). Power being hard to measure, strategists can rarely know how costly a war will be. Predictions of casualties in the 1991 Gulf War, for example, were too low by an order of magnitude (10). Strategists commonly miscalculate the best strategy in a given context, for example, seeing the offense as having the advantage on the eve of World War I while expecting the defense to dominate in World War II. With profound uncertainty encumbering military analysis, defining the national security interest of the state becomes arbitrary, Hironaka argues.
On 13 July 2017, religious and political representatives met at the Farnesina in Rome for the International Conference on Protecting Religious Communities. Knox Thames, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia, represented the U.S. State Department. Religious freedom, Thames told those in attendance, represented not only a fundamental human right of individuals, but was also “one of the essential conditions for permanent peace, security, and stability.” As attacks by terrorists as well as repression by authoritarian regimes threatened the existence of religious minorities across the Middle East, Thames assured the other conference attendees that protecting and promoting religious freedom remained a policy priority of the Donald Trump administration.
Edward C. Keefer provides us with the “authorized, but not official” history of Harold Brown’s tenure as the 14th Secretary of Defense as part of the Department of Defense series on its secretaries. It is authorized in that Keefer had access to the official records, but not official in that Keefer’s assessment of Brown’s time in office, the Jimmy Carter years, is his own. Keefer sees Brown as a loyal and effective Secretary whose reputation needs some rehabilitation because Carter was an unsuccessful Commander-in-Chief, naive and smug in his handling of security issues thorough out his presidency, overly concerned with cutting back on defense in his first two years, and then totally knocked off his horse by the Iranian Revolution with its seizure of U.S. embassy staff and the failed American rescue mission, and the Soviet Union’s unexpected and alarming invasion of Afghanistan in his last two years.
The debate about American foreign policy has always divided along two dimensions. How close in or far out should America protect its security? And for what moral or political purpose does America exist and participate in world affairs?
‘Nationalists’ adopt the close-in approach to American security, generally confined to America’s borders and the western hemisphere. They dominated American foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s. ‘Realists’ venture further out to anticipate and counter threats in distant regions–Europe, Asia and the Middle East–before they reach America’s shores. They formulated the containment doctrine during the Cold War, permanently stationing for the first time American forces in Europe and Asia. Both nationalists and realists focus on security, not the spread of human rights and democratic regimes. They accept the world as it is, not as they might wish it to be.
The Donald Trump administration seems to value change for its own sake. The new President appears intent on rethinking all foreign-policy rules and norms, from diplomatic protocols to staffing to relationships with traditional allies. The next four-to-eight years may prove to be a watershed for U.S. grand strategy, a challenge to fundamental assumptions that forces security experts to re-examine their most deeply held beliefs. Or, perhaps little will change. At the very least, the Trump administration will test the notion that U.S. foreign affairs are marked far more by consistency than by change.
The impact of American culture abroad has become obvious to travelers, and not only a source of income for shrewd marketers of the nation’s consumer goods, but also, of course, a subject that has generated lively scholarly interest and a formidable bibliography. Whether in movies or in music, whether on television or on the internet, no nation in history has bestridden the planet as the United States has; and the political ideas emanating from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights have enjoyed an even longer (and more salutary) influence. For close to a century, the appeal of such a culture has been a force to be reckoned with; in recent decades, in much of the world, American programs and American products—enhanced by American power—have been close to inescapable. By now they are so often entwined with local habits and values that the foreignness of the New World has become internalized. During a recent visit to France, I noticed a teenager wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the following slogan: Liberté, Egalité, Beyoncé. But how might the most striking qualities of American society be identified and understood? What are its laws of historical motion?
More than ten years ago Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press forged a productive co-authorship and in “The End of MAD? The Nuclear Dimension of U.S. Primacy” questioned entrenched beliefs about the strategic nuclear balance supposedly existing between the United States and Russia. They then warned that “for the first time in decades, it [United States] could conceivably disarm the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a nuclear first strike.” In “The New Era of Counterforce: Technological Challenge and the Future of Nuclear Deterrence,” Lieber and Press return to the topic of the survivability of modern nuclear forces. To Lieber and Press, nuclear deterrence no longer appears. Their sobering analysis of the impacts of ongoing technological changes on the survivability of nuclear forces demonstrates an increased possibility of counterforce attacks.
Over the past decade, the dominant view of counterinsurgency in academic and policy circles has fluctuated. In particular, the debate has touched upon the importance of winning the civilian population’s allegiance and the role of violence in protecting, or suppressing it. The broad consensus suggests the need to “win” the population, mostly through popular empowerment and by shielding it from violence, all the while preventing it from supporting the insurgency. Still, some saw the focus on securing the population, and the associated slogan of “winning hearts and minds,” as implying a dubious and misleading promise of counterinsurgency as a “kinder, gentler war.” Critics were quick to pounce, yet tended to eschew the necessary context or confuse their own at times reductive interpretations of counterinsurgency for its ‘conventional wisdom.’ The fact that doctrine and scholarship, to say nothing of counterinsurgency on the ground, evince a more complex picture has not deterred the continued use of strawmen to launch powerful yet poorly targeted attacks.