Monday, 27 October 2008

"America Between the Wars - 11/9 to 9/11", by Derek Chollet & James Goldgeier

An insightful look at American foreign policy between the demise of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the War on Terror.


The 12 years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the September 11th attacks in New York saw the United States searching for a guiding principle to shape its foreign policy in the newly unipolar world, struggling to adjust after 40 years of relatively consistent strategy (specifically, one form or other of containment).

Some see the period as a “lost decade” as Bush and Clinton floundered, attempting to find an overarching framework in which to conduct the US’s international relations. For Bush it involved realism, while Clinton sought comfort in globalisation and economics, tripping due to his obsession with how his policies would play in the media and polls.

While some in America pushed the Bush and Clinton administrations to make the most of the “peace dividend”, others tried to pull American forces back home, believing that it was not in America’s interest to get involved in the myriad conflicts and mini-wars around the globe. Neither party had a united view on foreign policy, making it only that much harder for the presidents’ teams to recreate the traditional bipartisan consensus. The authors detail all of this in an engaging manner.

The book discusses foreign policy in the context of America’s domestic politics, too. During the national elections, as well as the general domestic environment of the time (which was rife with international apathy), and what it meant for possible policies a president could pursue.

The authors appear to have no specific political agenda, detailing successes and failures of each of the three administrations, as equally at ease in criticising Bush and Clinton for inaction in humanitarian crises around the world (Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Rwanda, etc.). Internal conflicts are honestly explained and described (e.g. between President George H.W. Bush and then-Secretary of Defence Dick Cheney). They offer analysis of how certain decisions have affected American foreign policy ever since, and frequently place events and policies in their historical context, providing insight into trends and traditions in the foreign policy establishment.

The book, written in a narrative-history style, is as much about the government appointees and characters who were involved in foreign policy as it is about the presidents, as well as the various forces (domestic and foreign) that exerted pressure on each administration. In this respect, it is a welcome change, as often American foreign policy is approached as a facet of presidential biography. Of course, ultimately the buck stops with the president (as Truman famously believed), but Chollet and Goldgeier’s attention to the presidential advisers, Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Council, and so on, adds so much more to the discussion and overall picture.

Drawing on extensive interviews – from the time, and also recent – adds even more depth, as well as honest appraisals of various members’ conduct and actions.

Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier have achieved something truly special with American Between The Wars. A cross between narrative history and an analysis of America’s confused search for a grand strategy following the end of the Cold War, America Between The Wars is an indispensible book for anyone wanting to make sense of this strangely difficult period. The authors have definitely achieved their goal of explaining how America got to where it is now. It’s rare for a book such as this to grab one’s attention so firmly, but America Between The Wars is the most readable account of American foreign policy since Stephen E. Ambrose’s Rise To Globalism (1997).

I could write at great length about all the strengths of this book, but I will limit myself. Highly informative, illuminating and in an accessible style that is a joy to read, America Between The Wars is an indispensible history and analysis of the decade between the Cold War and the War on Terror. I urge everyone to read this book.

An exceptional read.

Also try: Stephen E. Ambrose & Douglas Brinkley, Rise To Globalism (1997); Matthew Yglesias, Heads In The Sand (2007); Colin Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders (2006); Fraser Cameron, US Foreign Policy After The Cold War (2002); David Halberstam, War In A Time Of Peace (2002)


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