Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11
Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier
The end of the Cold War – the dissolution of the
Soviet Union, crash of the Eastern European Soviet satellites, collapse of the
Warsaw Pact, and fall of the Berlin Wall – was an extraordinary moment in human
history. Hundreds of millions of people were liberated from tyranny. The threat
of conventional war in Europe and especially a global nuclear exchange disappeared.
Yet good news for humankind was bad news for foreign policy practitioners.
The Cold War was ugly but simple: contain the Soviets. Even minor geopolitical
events mattered if Moscow was involved, forcing the US to range about the
globe, micro-managing international events. But now, with no hegemonic peer
competitor, no evil grand puppeteer to contain, what should America do in the
world? Write Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, "Remarkably, even after
the West's triumph took shape, Americans' sense of unease deepened. They worried
that Germany and Japan would be formidable economic competitors. And many elites
feared that absent the Soviet threat, Americans would be unwilling to endure
the costs of global leadership."
with the Center for New American Security, and Goldgeier, a professor at George
Washington University, review American foreign policy in the new, unsettled
security environment post-11/9 in America Between the Wars. They prove
a bit too ready to credit the Clinton administration with diplomatic successes
– for instance, both the war against Serbia and denuclearization of Ukraine
look more dubious in light of Russia's war against Georgia and more aggressive
stance against its neighbors. Nevertheless, the book offers a wealth of information
about foreign policy developments which affect us still.
Perhaps their most interesting claim is that 9/11 settled nothing in terms
of America's role in the world. Rather than inaugurating a new foreign policy
era, the terrorist assaults reinforced the uncertainty of the post-Cold War
They argue: "Although 9/11 created the illusion that America's purpose
was once again clear – this time combating Islamic extremism rather than fascism
or Soviet communism – the questions America grappled with in the first decade
after the Cold War remain unanswered. When should the United States use force
to solve problems? When does it need to work through the United Nations to ensure
legitimacy for its actions? Should it care that others perceive American goals
as selfish? Will it promote free trade as more jobs go overseas? Should it make
democracy promotion a central part of its foreign policy? How much should it
care about what happens inside other states? Debates over these issues continue
Which means these controversies and more will roll over to the next administration.
Despite the notable difference between Barack Obama and John McCain over invading
Iraq, both are committed to an activist internationalist role. Sen. McCain seems
more likely to initiate war against countries big and small, but Sen. Obama
has talked tough towards Iran, mimicked the McCain position on Russia vs. Georgia,
and is surrounded by former Clinton administration officials who famously took
America into a war against Serbia over issues that did not rise to an important
let alone vital US interest. The presumption that America should, even must,
act is going to dominate US policy irrespective of who wins.
As Chollet and Goldmeier detail, the first crisis of the post-Cold War era
was Iraq. Evidence that the world had changed came from the solidarity of the
Bush and reformist Gorbachev governments. Change also was evident in the US,
where the Republican Party found itself torn by an unusual foreign policy debate.
Explain the authors: "For GOP politicians and policy intellectuals, the
end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire brought to the surface
tensions about the nature of the global order, the purpose and use of American
power, and what, if anything, was required to ensure its legitimacy. These debates
had been largely suppressed within the party by the forty-year struggle against
This debate has continued in succeeding years. Early on John McCain clearly
associated himself with the neoconservative faction, attacking the supposed
"isolationism" of those who did not share his fervor for war.
At least three broad factions developed – realists, associated with Brent Scowcroft,
President George H.W. Bush's National Security Adviser, neoconservatives, represented
by Irving and Bill Kristol, and nationalists like Patrick Buchanan, who believed
in returning to a more traditional foreign policy with the end of the Cold War.
It turns out that the public had little interest in foreign policy even after
the first victory over Iraq. Bill Clinton won the presidency running on the
slogan, "It's the Economy Stupid." Yet he embraced an expansive agenda,
one that generated substantial neoconservative support in the election. Write
Chollet and Goldmeier: "At the time, the differences between the neoconservatives
and the Clinton team appeared slight, particularly compared to the ideas of
Bush, Buchanan, and Perot."
Clinton did not begin well. The debacle in Mogadishu, in which 18 Army Rangers
were killed while attempting to seize the most important local warlord, wrecked
President Clinton's expansive internationalist plans. National Security Adviser
Anthony Lake had laid out a new policy: "The successor to a doctrine of
containment must be a strategy of enlargement – enlargement of the world's free
community of market democracies." But as a successor to containment the
Lake doctrine fizzled.
Part of the problem was Clinton. Disinterested in foreign policy and unfocused
in personal temperament, he was ill-equipped to lead an effort to revolutionize
the world. But Clinton was never one to accept responsibility: he complained
that "Americans are basically isolationist," thereby resorting to
the usual smear launched against anyone who doubts the efficacy of global social
engineering. Chollet and Goldmeier repeat the insult without comment, but isolationism
has lost any real meaning. It now is used to attack anyone, no matter how interventionist,
who doesn't want to intervene as far and wide as the person denouncing isolationism.
(After all, Al Gore attacked George W. Bush during the 2000 election as an "isolationist.")
In early 1995 the Republicans took control of Congress, crippling President
Clinton's ability to dominate the domestic agenda. Clinton had become a more
self-assured military commander-in-chief, even if his judgment never improved.
Chollet and Goldmeier nicely detail how the Clinton administration conducted
its foreign policy, but they are far too inclined to see action as the equivalent
For instance, they write of the 1994 Haiti operation that put Jean-Bertrand
Aristide back into power: "by upholding democracy without resorting to
military force, the administration's Haiti policy proved a success." Yet
the administration succeeded only by threatening to use military force, which
would have violated the Constitution's warpowers clause requiring a declaration
of war, and by reinstalling a demagogue who advocated use of violence against
his political opponents. This is a dubious example of promoting democracy. Especially
since the US intervened a decade later to remove the same man from power.
The Clinton administration's policy towards NATO was differently flawed. The
alliance had been created to prevent Soviet domination of Eurasia. Why the US
should continue to protect Western Europe, let alone the former Warsaw Pact
countries, when the Soviet threat had disappeared was never obvious. Nor was
the "North Atlantic" Treaty Organization a good vehicle to promote
European integration – that role was best fulfilled by the European Union.
Moreover, now, years after Clinton left office, we clearly see the impact of
NATO expansion on US-Russian relations. Moscow views Washington as having
welshed on the post-Cold War deal and promoted a policy of encirclement. The
attack on Georgia is one consequence, along with a general collapse in bilateral
relations which is hampering US policy towards Iran, in particular.
Then there is the Balkans, which receives substantial attention in America
Between the Wars. The authors contend: "Ending the Bosnian War was
a turning point for US foreign policy." By fall 1995, they contend, Clinton
had earned his foreign policy spurs: "In less than six months, he took
charge of the US-European relationship, spurred NATO to use overwhelming military
force, risked America's prestige on a bold diplomatic gamble, and put his political
life on the line."
Yet what is the outcome a decade plus later?
The artificial state of Bosnia staggers on; many, if not most, of its residents
would prefer to be part of different countries. The US exhibited blatant hypocrisy
during the Balkan wars, backing every minority group seeking to escape Serb
rule, while rebuffing every Serb minority seeking to escape rule by another
group – in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.
The US lowered the bar for war. Any nation state or coalition of nation states
can claim to be following the American precedent by invading or bombing another
nation in the name of preventing human rights abuses. More than four centuries
ago the settlement of Westphalia established the inviolability of borders. It's
a flawed concept, but it does set a clear standard for aggression and may help
reduce conflict in that way. Now anyone anywhere can claim to be engaging in
Indeed, by dismembering Serbia and creating the independent state of Kosovo – in
which America's allies then engaged in systematic ethnic cleansing of the Serbs
and other minorities – the US grandly set the legal precedent for Russian recognition
of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Cynical Moscow's move might be, but
there is no juridical difference between the cases. Alas, Washington's bleating
about the outrage of violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of
other nations is correctly seen as hypocritical special pleading.
In short, the Clinton administration demonstrated competence in making things
happen, but what it made happen was unprincipled and counterproductive. Thus,
when Chollet and Goldmeier contend that "The most important lesson learned
was that failure to lead during the early 1990s contributed to the international
community's inability to solve the Bosnia crisis," they fail to consider
whether Washington's "solution" was a good one.
The Clinton years involved much more – NAFTA, the Mexico bail-out, eight years
of quasi-war against Iraq, terrorism. Another problem which lives on is perception
of US arrogance. Write Chollet and Goldmeier, "Still, Clinton and his top
advisers wondered about how to defend against the backlash that bold US leadership
could provoke." Bombing and invading countries constitutes something more
than "bold leadership." And the responses can be deadly: North Korea,
Iran, and even India likely have developed nuclear programs in part to deter
the US from attempting to coerce them, as Washington has the Bosnian Serbs,
Serbia, and Iraq.
But Clinton's response to increased international wariness and even resistance
to US dominance was to try to sharpen the sales job, as if he could persuade
other governments to accept Washington's right to decide everything for everyone
else. Explain the authors, "Clinton wanted to do more than solve problems;
he also sought to develop a convincing framework for America's global leadership
that could be embraced by those both abroad and at home. He set out to use his
remaining days in the bully pulpit to articulate his case."
But it proved to be a hard sell. After all, the American people understandably
don't want to pay to try to engineer the globe. And people around the globe
don't want America to remake them and their societies. "Washington knows
best" is a hard enough sell in America, let alone in foreign lands.
America is affected by events overseas, as Clinton rightly pointed out, but
that is not the same as being able to control those events, or at least to do
so at an acceptable cost.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush seemed to have learned that lesson. In running for
president he promised a more "humble" foreign policy and chose what
appeared to be a foreign policy team of heavyweights. The new administration
rejected some international entanglements in setting a more unilateral course.
And then came 9/11.
The disastrous aftermath is well-known and is not the subject of America
Between the Wars. The authors focus more on the impact on American foreign
policy: "Bush initially led with a huge reservoir of support. Yet 9/11
created a false sense of unity, and the public became as polarized as ever."
The terrorist attacks affected policy, certainly, but have not provided the
same unifying character as did the Cold War. Write Chollet and Goldmeier: "Despite
Bush's strident assertions, 9/11 has not provided the same clarity of purpose
for US foreign policy that defined the Cold War."
Indeed, the administration's toxic mixture of partisanship, arrogance, ignorance,
and incompetence made unity well-nigh impossible. Just as history has not ended,
debate over foreign policy continues. But given the positions of the top two
presidential contenders, this debate will occur only within very limited parameters.
Washington must police the globe, routinely intervene in other nation's controversies
and affairs, and almost as routinely invade or bomb countries which refuse to
kowtow when informed of America's demands. There will be exceptions, at least
for Obama – he did, after all, oppose war in Iraq, in contrast to McCain, who
today cannot imagine a war anywhere anytime anyplace without US involvement.
Still, even a President McCain would not unify his own party on this issue.
Chollet and Goldmeier see the conservative problem as a decreasing ability to
use "a sense of threat" to win the policy debate. Thankfully, as they
point out, "The 1990s fault lines on the right are reemerging. More conservatives
find themselves questioning the wisdom of Bush's aspiration to promote democracy
and his pursuit of nation-building and are urging a return to a policy based
more on interests than values." If McCain is defeated, this reevaluation
will gain speed, since nothing would more effectively focus the minds of Republican
party apparatchiks on foreign policy than the realization that war-crazy neocon
ideologues cost them both the White House and Congress.
America Between the Wars nicely explains how US foreign policy has
ended up where it is at today. The authors provide no prescription for the future,
though one senses that they identify with the Clinton prescription of multilateral
meddling around the globe. Nevertheless, the book is an easy read and valuable
resource. And its conclusion – that President George Bush and his neoconservative
Greek Chorus have failed to permanently reorient American foreign policy – gives
at least some hope for the future.