Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama
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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.
the day-to-day business of his own administration. No one had ever accused Reagan of being a hands-on manager. Now the active phase of his presidency, such as it was, seemed over.44 With Iran-Contra at its peak, Reagan also faced increased criticism of the improvisational antinuclear ideas that had come to dominate his policy toward the Soviet Union. One line of attack on the president was led by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who now turned the tables on the man who had rallied opposition
Mark Landler, “Senate Hearing Draws Out a Rift in U.S. Policy on Syria,” The New York Times, February 7, 2013; Maggie Haberman, “Bill Clinton Splits with President Obama on Syria,” Politico, June 12, 2013; Mark Mazzetti, Michael Gordon, and Mark Landler, “U.S. Is Said to Plan to Send Weapons to Syrian Rebels,” The New York Times, June 13, 2013. 43. Obama presented his case for striking Syria to the American people even as he withdrew his request for Congressional approval, saying he wanted to
trigger for war. Kennedy intended to be bold. “I am talking about a real reconstruction of our negotiating proposals,” he told Rusk, “and not about a modest add-on.”19 ONE OF THE MOST famous lines of John Kennedy’s inaugural address—suggested to him by John Kenneth Galbraith—was the exhortation that the United States “never fear to negotiate.” About Berlin, however, the president knew that America’s friends completely disagreed with him. De Gaulle thought it a mistake to talk just because “Mr.
even found in the result a positive model for future policy. Ambassador Lodge felt the coup showed that the defects of Third-World partners need not handicap the United States. Those who did not measure up could be replaced. This had long been Galbraith’s argument. Now that it had prevailed, he wrote to Harriman to commend him for “another great feather in your cap.”79 Washington had seen South Vietnam’s dysfunctional political system as the prime obstacle to military success against the
as wrong-headed?21 One argument that the president began to hear at this time from those urging action against North Vietnam was that nothing else could boost South Vietnamese confidence. Lodge said that General Khanh needed “a shot in the arm.” Mike Forrestal of the NSC staff, back from a trip to the field in May, insisted that the only way for the United States to galvanize Saigon’s “bickering” leadership was by taking the military offensive. “A bit of a shock is needed,” he reported. Bundy,