While campaigning for President in 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump never missed an opportunity to attack the major foreign policy achievement of President Barack Obama: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement reached between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States, European Union, China, and Russia in June 2015 that halted Iran’s development of nuclear weapons in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. Criticizing the deal had been popular among Obama’s detractors, but Trump’s denunciations were particularly vociferous. “My number one priority,” he declared, “is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” He called it a “terrible” deal, one negotiated “in desperation,” which he vowed to rip up as soon as he took office. Iran came up, again and again, as yet another area where the Obama Administration had surrendered U.S. interests and initiative.
The U.S. government’s across-the-board hardening in pushing back against a range of Chinese challenges to American interests emerged erratically after the start of the Trump administration in 2017 but it has demonstrated remarkable momentum over the past year.
This roundtable debates ideas and evidence in Diane Pfundstein Chamberlain’s recent book, Cheap Threats; Why the United States Struggles to Coerce Weak States. Pfundstein Chamberlain’s book considers the important puzzle described in the title, and in doing so puts forth a surprising new theory of coercive diplomacy. The reviewers praise some aspects of the book, but they raise concerns about both theory and evidence. Pfundstein Chamberlain responds comprehensively to the critiques. The debate is particularly interesting because the reviewers, though all experts in coercion and/or deterrence, approach the book from quite different angles.
What explains why some armed organizations engage in high levels of rape during civil war, while others engage in little? Why is gang rape such a high fraction of rape by organizations that do engage in widespread rape during civil war? What accounts for the participation in the rape of girls and women by female combatants in those organizations?
Dara Kay Cohen addresses these questions in her book.
In a favorable review of The Kremlinologist, the fine recent biography of the great American diplomat and Soviet expert Llewellyn “Tommy” Thompson that was written by his daughters, David Foglesong added this curious cavil. “The Thompsons argue that the Cuban missile crisis stemmed from [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev’s seeing ‘an irresistible opportunity to use missiles to solve all his problems’—including Chinese criticism, Soviet military complaints, and East German instability, as well as Cuban vulnerability—even though they acknowledge that there is very little documentary evidence to support that thesis.”
The theory of diversionary war posits that domestic turmoil creates incentives for leaders to distract their publics by initiating conflict abroad. The canonical example of such behavior is the Falklands/Malvinas War of 1982 between Argentina and England, a conflict initiated by Argentina’s military junta while in the grip of an economic crisis, and which ultimately resulted in the junta’s demise when England defeated Argentina. The foundations of diversionary war theory rest on the conflict-cohesion hypothesis in sociology, which states that conflict with an outside group can promote cohesiveness within a group and increase support for the group’s leader. Aware of this phenomenon, insecure leaders can stir up these feelings by initiating conflict in order to preserve their reign. As the sixteenth-century political philosopher Jean Bodin put it, “[T]he best way of preserving a state and guaranteeing it against sedition, rebellion, and civil war is to keep the subjects in amity with one another, and to this end, to find an enemy against whom they can make common cause.”
In Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition, David Hendrickson, a prolific and provocative scholar, offers an eloquent root-and-branch critique of American foreign policy, focusing chiefly on the post-Cold War decades. In essence, Hendrickson contends that the precepts and practices of U.S. statecraft have corroded Americans’ liberty at home and increased the threats they face from abroad. Be it the current configuration of U.S. alliances, the worldwide military presence of the United States, American leaders’ attempts to reshape—especially by military means—the internal order of states, or the magnitude of expenditure on the national security apparatus, Hendrickson calls for a break with a status quo to which, he believes, Republicans and Democrats are both committed, though not always to the same degree.
More time has transpired between the fall of the Berlin Wall and today than the entire duration of that iconic Cold War barrier. Meanwhile, George H.W. Bush, the main subject of Jeffrey Engel’s When the World Seemed New, became the longest-living U.S. president, while there are undergraduates this semester who were born during the presidency of his son, George W. Bush. In short, this book can make a lot of readers feel old.
It should also makes us feel hopeful. “Tomorrow our children will go to school and study history and how plants grow,” President Bush said in his 1992 State of the Union address. “And they won’t have, as my children did, air raid drills in which they crawl under their desks and cover their heads in case of nuclear war.” Scholars can forever debate the causes and consequences of the end of the Cold War, yet one ought not lose sight of the fact that good and incredible things happened.
It has become accepted wisdom in Washington, D.C., and among many international relations scholars, that East Asia is a region rife with geopolitical rivalry, and that the United States and China are destined for protracted great-power competition and perhaps conflict. In his newest book, David Kang offers a sharply contrarian viewpoint. He argues that East Asia is far more peaceful and stable than it seems, that China’s rise is not particularly threatening to most East Asian states, and that the United States will only find itself in an intense competition with China if it makes unwise policy choices that turn that danger into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The United States should, therefore, refrain from the temptation to double-down on its East Asian security commitments and efforts to check China’s rise; it should adopt a more restrained posture that minimizes rather than embraces great-power competition.
I suspect that most readers of this Roundtable, like our review Nils Gilman, will be “only dimly aware of Hans Speier.” I also suspect that, like Gilman and his fellow reviewers, readers will be interested to learn more about him. As Daniel Bessner explains in his intellectual biography, Speier is one of the lesser-known European intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany, having never taught in the major university or written much of note. Our reviewers agree with Bessner that he is nevertheless very interesting for his intellectual trajectory, the choices he made, and his role in the emerging national security state.