Thursday, 29 January 2009

“The Crisis of American Foreign Policy”, by Ikenberry, Knock, Slaughter, Smith (Princeton University Press)


A discussion on Wilson’s legacy in US Foreign Policy

It has often been argued that the president who has had the greatest impact on American foreign policy is the 28th, Woodrow Wilson. President George W. Bush’s foreign policy was often described as Wilsonian, though equally as often without knowing what that actually meant.

In The Crisis of American Foreign Policy, guided by G. John Ikenberry, Thomas Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Tony Smith attempt to explain what Wilsonianism actually is, as well as addressing whether or not they believe George W. Bush’s foreign policy can be located within this tradition. Ikenberry first offers up an appraisal of Wilsonianism over the past eight years, giving an account of how foreign policy and the international structure in which the American president must conduct his policies has changed since the end of the Cold War, and also his opinions on how the Bush Doctrine might fit within American traditions of foreign policy.

Thomas Knock provides a long (though interesting and well-written) explanation of the evolution of Wilson’s foreign policy ideology, placing the president’s thinking into the context of his time. Knock manages to pack in a lot of detail into his chapter, but rather than overwhelming the reader, he keeps things moving, offering a very illuminating historical context.

Tony Smith, the only non-liberal writing in this book, provides perhaps the best chapter, not including Ikenberry’s introduction. Smith argues that the Bush Doctrine and neoconservatives are the natural heirs to the Wilsonian tradition. His chapter is not so much an outright defense of neo-conservatism, but he does point out some important similarities between the two. In fact, according to Smith, there is only one major difference between the two ideologies, and that is their approach to multilateralism and international organisations.

The final chapter, by Anne-Marie Slaughter, is another defense of Wilsonianism and an attempt to point out every inconsistency between the Bush Doctrine and the Wilsonian tradition. While all of her points are valid and well argued, the chapter, coming after Smith’s, comes across as highly defensive in tone. Slaughter readily accepts that there are certain points with which she and Smith agree, but it appears that the main disagreements involve the importance of democracy promotion (Slaughter says Wilson wasn’t interested in promoting it) and the potential for American power to be used for good in the world. Slaughter thinks the potential is considerable, even though she concedes there are times when the US has failed to live to this potential. Smith is more dubious.

This is not a j’accuse account of the Bush presidency. Rather, it’s focus is a discussion of the tradition of Wilsonianism in American foreign policy, and whether or not George W. Bush’s presidency ought to be described as being part of this tradition. While the authors come to different conclusions, using different criteria, the debate is interesting and intelligent, offering plenty for both students, historians and enthusiasts alike. The Crisis of American Foreign Policy is the most readable, balanced and lucid theory-based publication I’ve read in quite some time.

Very highly recommended.

Also try: Ivo Daalder & James M. Lindsay, America Unbound (2005); Fred Kaplan, Daydream Believers (2008); Zbigniew Brzezinski, Second Chance (2007)

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