Wednesday, 24 March 2010

“American Foreign Policy”, by Paul Viotti (Polity)


War & Conflict in the Modern World – How the US approaches Foreign Policy

As the world’s only superpower, America’s foreign policy inevitably has a major impact – be it positive or negative – on contemporary international affairs. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, George W. Bush’s decision to move away from multilateral decision-making toward a more aggressive, pre-emptive style of foreign policy attracted widespread debate, and criticism, throughout the world. Reversing direction, the Obama presidency is placing greater emphasis on constructive or peaceful engagement within multilateral frameworks, relying on special envoys to deal with some of the thorniest problems.

This book explores American foreign policy from the founding of the Republic in the late 18th Century to the present day. Part 1 examines the broad policy options available to the US government. Part 2 looks at the American experience in foreign policy. Part 3 concludes with an analysis of the politics of interest on the Potomac with analysis of the interplay of contending policy elites, factions and parties influencing foreign policy making today.

Assessing alternatives, the author concludes that even though containment and armed intervention will remain part of the way the United States conducts its foreign policy, diplomatic engagement options are the most promising course of action for the coming decades.

Paul Viotti has written a very interesting, accessible, and well-structured book. He hopes to provide the “long view” of American foreign policy, “seeking in an historical search for explanation at least some ground for practical expectations.” He does this by identifying key policy elites and the ideaas that inform them. The blend of international relations theory and history is well-balanced and detailed. After first setting the scene, with a little discussion of President Obama and the foreign policy agenda and approach he will likely pursue:

“Those who understood the liberal-internationalist orientation of Senator Barack Obama and the policy elite that surrounded him were not surprised when the Obama administration… immediately exhibited a decided preference for constructive or peaceful engagement pursued both bilaterally and multilaterally as the main focus of US foreign policy”

He proceeds to offer chapters explaining – with detailed examples – the key foreign policy approaches available to the US government. First, peaceful engagement – which can be applied to relations with both adversarial states and also indifferent states. Viotti uses Nixon’s engagement with China as a good example of this approach. Next, the author explains containment (and all the “essentially negative measures short of going to war”) through deterrence or coercive diplomacy; and also armed-intervention or warfare. He also explains (coherently and convincingly) how these three approaches can often be combined to create a grander, less-narrow foreign policy.

The second part of the book, “Foreign Policy in the American Experience”, attempts to outline key trends and traditions throughout American history, starting with the late-18th Century foreign policy (the importance and enduring legacy of George Washington’s precedent-setting administration). By exploring these early precedents and elite practices, the moralism of American exceptionalism, as well as the roots of an expansionist American foreign policy, the discussion draws out the continuities running from the 18th century to the present. All these ideas and themes are explained clearly, if not exactly succinctly (Viotti is not averse to over-writing, at times reiterating things that might not need it, or elaborating on some obvious terminology or idea). Viotti then moves on to 19th and 20th Century foreign policy, with territorial-/continental-expansion and the rise of interventionist foreign policies (the World Wars and others).

Part three of the book is especially interesting. In this part, the author locates American foreign policy within international relations theory, looking at both contemporary issues and historical trends and traditions. This makes American Foreign Policy, in my mind, an essential introduction for all IR students who want to learn more about US foreign policy and how it might fit in with theoretical studies of international relations. There will be some who might still get lost by his sudden, increased, use of IR jargon and terminology, but for the main this is a very clear explanantion. (I actually wish this book had been published sooner, so I could have benefited from his explanations when I was first learning about US foreign policy.)

Viott’s approach is predominantly realist (as are, he suggests, most US policymakers), though he acknowledges that much of the content is applicable regardless of your chosen or preferred theory:

“Whether or not consciously realists, liberals, constructivists, or something else, policymakers nevertheless tend to have internalized the set or sets of assumptions. material and ideational understandings, and theories offered by one or other of these camps.”

Throughout American Foreign Policy, Viotti writes about the importance of the individual policymakers’ beliefs, and how they can help shape policy-preferences and decision-making.

“Patterns and relations we observe in the making and implementation of American foreign policy are highly dependent on the subjective and intersubjective exchanges and relationships decision-makers establish within their own policy elites and with those abroad as well.”

Also, in a break from realist theory, Viotti says,

“The ideas human beings formulate, the social constructions that inform our view of the world, and the shared meanings within and across policy elites define the domain of actions and interactions in world politics.”

This quotation is interesting, as it is contentious. While Viotti does recognise that “specifying the relation and causal order between the material and ideational” understandings of IR, “as well as how much allowance is made for human action remain core questions in theory development”, there is little doubt that he believes actors are important to the formulation of foreign policy, and that the structure of international relations must still be taken into account. In other words, he appears to be taking a structural realist macro-perspective and adding a constructivist caveat or addendum at the micro- or individual-level.

The structural framework that must be operated within and taken account of exists on the domestic scene as well. There is only so much an individual can do to affect policy outcomes and decisions, because

“established modalities usually hold sway and, as with other issues, changes in foreign policy tend to be incremental, not sweeping”

And also:

“The status quo is not easily moved, even by presidents, much less those in positions of lesser authority”

In the final two chapters, Viotti takes a look at “Politics on the Potomac” and Presidential Power. For the former, Viotti makes the argument that,

“Interests drive politics. Foreign policy is no exception. But interests do no exist separately as some abstract, purely objective factor external to policymakers. It is their understandings of whose interests and what interests are at stake that matters.”

Viotti walks us through the place of ‘factions’ in US politics and foreign policy, from Madison’s Federalist Paper No.10 and Hamilton’s Federalist Paper No.51 to modern day examples and the workings of ‘K Street’. This book probably won’t satisfy PhD students or professors, but MA and undergrad students should find this invaluable. On Presidential Power, Viotti draws on the formulation and research of Richard Neustadt’s classic work, Presidential Power (1991), and the importance of the president’s powers of persuasion, professional reputation and popular prestige. Specifically:

“Although the general public may not focus on the details or understand the complexity of issues on domestic-, much less foreign-policy agendas as well as policy elites and attentive publics do, the esteem (or lack of it) people hold for a particular president can enhance or diminish the persuasive power of the incumbent and the administration as a whole.”

To which Viotti adds another factor:

“we add that popular prestige also affects professional reputation among policy elites as they take account of the presidents legitimacy or standing with the people as a whole.”

The author then provides a long section discussing the presidencies from Nixon to George W. Bush and their respective usage of presidential power, as well as discussing their ups and downs. This was an interesting section, although I can’t help wishing the author had written this differently, as it has become a most common approach to look at the foreign policies of administrations from Nixon to Bush II, chronologically (Peter Rodman and Neustadt are just two examples). In fairness to Viotti, there aren’t manny other approaches that could be taken – especially as each administration, for the main, builds on the policies of its predecessors.

It would be easy to include far greater detail and more quotations from American Foreign Policy, though the only way you will properly appreciate the contents is by picking up a copy for yourself. If I had one main criticism, it would be that sometimes Viotti remains too much in the abstract – there were plenty of instances, when discussing interests, actors, and so forth when specifics would have added to the discussion. For some reason, however, the author seemed almost allergic to providing names (referring just to, for example, George W. Bush’s vice-president or secretary of defence by job description only).

Filled with interesting analysis and commentary, grounded in solid theory, this is overall a very good book.

Further reading: Ted Widmer, Ark of the Liberties (2008); Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty (2009); George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower (2009); David Reynolds, America: Empire of Liberty (2009); Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (2007 - Domestic as well as Foreign policy); Stephen Ambrose, Rise to Globalism (1998); Simon Schama, The American Future (2008)

Thursday, 18 March 2010

“The Beijing Consensus”, by Stefan Halper (Basic Books)


How China’s authoritarian model will dominate the 21st Century

The story of how China's non-confrontational strategy is reshaping the rules of the new world order. Stefan Halper, a senior fellow at Cambridge University, presents a coherent integration of both the economic and strategic sides of China-US relations.

In its efforts to influence the rest of the world – to create a new liberal and democratic order – the US has used its military and economic might to force developing countries to aim toward democratic reform and transparency. A fine strategy, when you're the only game in town. The Chinese, Halper argues, have chosen to confront the United States only indirectly.

Instead of playing by America's rules, as did the Soviet Union, China has redefined the rules of the game. China doles out money to dictators – with no strings attached. They buy resources from Africa and South America – without forcing transparency or reform down oligarchs’ throats. In doing so, it’s presenting the world’s despots with a viable alternative to the so-called Washington Consensus. China is showing the world how to have economic growth with an illiberal government. At the same time its rapid economic growth has created massive fissures in Chinese society between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. In order to maintain political control, the Chinese Communist Party has to sustain double-digit economic growth, which means that it must exploit and co-opt the rest of the world’s resources. Necessity lies at the heart of China’s expansionist policies. Without them, the Communist Party risks its own demise.

The Beijing Consensus is a pretty good little book. It discusses China’s place in the international order today, and how the US and China are “locked in a relationship of liabilities”. To quote the author, it

“confronts and rejects the conventional wisdom that the U.S.-China relationship is on track. It is not. The book also explodes the myth that a market economy leads to democratic government”

I would mostly agree with this, but the book is also more contemporary history than international relations or political analysis (though there is some very good analysis in here). Halper has a gift for presenting the facts in a clear, concise way – there’s a lot of detail and plenty of statistics contained within. While the analysis isn’t as deep as one might like, there is plenty in the book that would be of value to anyone studying or interested in China, the US and their relationship.

In Halper’s view, the ‘threat’ that China offers is not necessarily a military threat, but rather the more insidious and subtle threat that their brand of market-capitalism could eventually supercede the Western model in popularity and adoption:

“As growing numbers of countries in Africa and Latin America embrace relationships with China, one can see how Beijing’s example illuminates a path around the West. It is making the West irrelevant in world affairs. In effect, China is shrinking the West.”

“while [China’s] leaders follow a path of progressive engagement with the liberal international order, Beijing’s leaders are also leading a formidable assault on this order”

Of particular interest are the chapters about China’s policies and actions in and toward Africa, and also the chapter covering the Washington perspectives of China. This review will, therefore, favour comments about these two chapters. In the case of Africa and the developing world, Halper offers a long list of international pariahs and the extent (and form) of China’s support for them. The author tells us, China fulfils a role that Washington and many Western nations refuse to play – namely, that of ally, offering support (financial, political, and otherwise).

“Beijing plays the iniquitous partner – the Mr Hyde – to the malcontents of international society, while it simultaneously plays Dr Jekyll, an honest stakeholder in global civic culture. Nowhere is this duality clearer than in Africa.”

Times have changed for China, “it no longer seeks to export communism or actively undermines the liberal international order” as it did in the 1960s. Now, “it can and does offer autocrats and governments somewhere to run when they fall out of favour with the West.” China has become a

“critical source of financial autonomy… as well as a beacon of ideas and management expertise about capitalism in a less Western, less liberal format. Taken together, these trends suggest that China is set to have a greater impact on the world in the next two decades than any other country.”

It is this, Halper says, that will “have vastly greater impact” on the world than “the tactical military and economic ‘China threats’ concerning Washington today.”

There is a good description of the different forces pulling US China-policy one or another – from the “panda huggers” who promote increased economic engagement over all else (US presidents have, invariably, been drawn into this group, even if not immediately); or the “panda bashers”, who are wary of China and prefer bellicose language and the use of China as a reason for increased defence spending. This is a good chapter, with plenty of useful quotations from government officials and others to create a pretty paranoid picture.

The synopsis for this book suggests that Halper’s approach to US-China relations is hawkish, critical of Beijing’s policies. This is not entirely the case – frequently, it is not clear in which tone this book should be read. At times, Halper is more critical of the US and the West in their inability to present a viable alternative to what is clearly and increasingly successful Chinese approach.

The author maintains a degree of scholarly detachment from his subject throughout, and he should be applauded for this – too often books about China and the US are polemical, agenda-driven and ideologically overloaded. While Halper is clear with his positions, he presents well-researched data and evidence to support his ideas, as well as a selection of interesting and (in one instance, amusing) anecdotes. He cautions against certain knee-jerk and populist positions that paint the bilateral relationship in an overly negative or misleading manner – for example, the China’s position as one of America’s greatest creditors, a position that is “not simple and is better assessed in less apocalyptic terms”.

Looking at all the elements of the US-China relationship (economic, political and military; myth and reality), The Beijing Consensus will prove to be a very useful book to students of international relations, China, and the US. I would therefore recommend it, with the caveat that it is more a work of contemporary history than in-depth IR analysis.

Also try: Zachary Karabell, Superfusion (2010); Joshua Kurlantzick, Charm Offensive (200); James Mann, The China Fantasy (2007); David Lampton, Same Bed, Different Dreams (2001); Patrick Tyler, A Great Wall (2000); James Kynge, China Shakes The World (2005); Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World (2010); Serge Michel, Michel Beuret, and Paolo Woods, China Safari (2009); Will Hutton, The Writing on the Wall (2008); Susan Stirk, China: Fragile Superpower (2008)

Monday, 15 March 2010

“Presidential Command”, by Peter W. Rodman (Vintage)

Rodman-PresidentialCommandPower, Leadership, & the Making of Foreign Policy

An account from a Washington insider of how modern presidents have succeeded — and failed — in making foreign policy. An in-depth look at what actually happens in the Oval Office from a respected expert who has held high-level positions in several governments.

Illuminating the qualities of personal leadership that determine a president’s ability to guide his staff (character, determination, persuasiveness, and consistency), Rodman shows how these qualities shape policy and determine how policy is implemented.

Rodman’s tour through the past forty years recounts both high points and dismal lows, looking at each president since (and including) Richard Nixon, the first Chief Executive the author would serve. Rodman offers an original and telling survey of modern presidential policy-making, challenging many conventional accounts of events as well as many standard remedies.

A vivid story of larger-than-life Washington personalities in action, an invaluable guide for our new president, and a deeply insightful primer on executive leadership.

This is a very good book. Rodman’s prose are very accessible, yet detailed, offering plenty of insightful analysis to complement his fair historical treatment – all of which helps to remind us of the importance of a president’s vision for the world, his ability to make this vision a reality, as well as the forces within government that he must contend with.

After providing a short history of the Natonal Security Council and pre-Nixonian foreign policy-making, the author writes a long, largely sympathetic chapter about Nixon (who he worked for). Rodman shows how Nixon’s deep knowledge of the world combined with his personal paranoia to produce great victories (China) and deep failures (the demoralization of State and other departments).

Rodman then proceeds to work his way through the following administrations, up to George W. Bush, offering some advice for the next administration and an outline of what these seven administrations can teach us about US foreign policy. Gerald Ford is portrayed as someone who was far more in control than many people believed at the time.

He demonstrates how Carter suffered from his own indecisiveness, and how Reagan’s determined focus in dealing with the Soviets contrasted with his lack of attention to the Middle East, which helped lead to the disastrous events in Beirut. And, finally, he illustrates how George W. Bush put too much stock in bureaucratic consensus and, until the surge, failed to push hard enough for new strategies in Iraq.

The running theme throughout the book is the importance of presidential engagement in foreign policy and international relations. Regardless of the issues that confronted the seven chief executives covered, it was presidential engagement (or lack thereof) which led to success or failure in foreign policy. For Nixon, Reagan’s second term and Soviet policy, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton’s second term, especially, this was evident. Rodman does a magnificent job of detailing the decisions and players involved in each administration – how they broke with previous administrations, the continuities that existed, and the internal forces that helped make or break policies.

If I had one criticism (and I know I’m being rather presumptuous to offer criticism to someone as versed in foreign policy as Rodman), it would be the relative lack of China coverage in the book. Yes, the Nixon chapter covers the president and Kissinger’s overtures to Beijing and the subsequent opening of China (though not, I must say, in the depth that could have provided some great content). Later, there is no mention of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in George H.W. Bush’s chapter (it’s mentioned in Clinton’s chapter, for a little over a page). This I feel is a real shortcoming – given the importance of China to US relations today, this was unfortunate and surprising: Rodman must have acquired some interest in China, not to mention expertise, through the simple fact/act of working with Kissinger, not to mention having him as his PhD supervisor.

Despite this omission, however, Presidential Command is easily one of the best written, most incisive and accessible books on American foreign policy-making and the President’s place within it, as well as the forces he must battle against (the immovable bureaucracy frequently being a huge issue; but also himself), Presidential Command is essential reading for everyone with an interest (professional or personal, deep or passing) in the presidency and American foreign policy.

Very highly recommended.

Further Reading: Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power & The Modern Presidents (1991) ; Arthur Schlesinger, The Imperial Presidency (2004); Julian Zelizer, Arsenal of Democracy (2010); Ivo Daalder & I.M. Destler, In The Shadow of the Oval Office (2009); Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (1995); Karl Inderfurth & Loch Johnson, Fateful Decisions (2004); David Rothkopf, Running the World (2006)

Thursday, 11 March 2010

“Power Rules”, by Leslie H. Gelb (Harper)


How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy

Inspired by Niccolo Machiavelli's classic treatise on power and its use, The Prince, Leslie H. Gelb offers his guidelines on how American power actually works and should be wielded in today's tumultuous world.

Writing with the perspective of four decades of experience in various government, think tank, and journalism positions, Gelb provides an incisive look at the major U.S. foreign-policy triumphs and tragedies of the past half century, and offers practical rules on how to effectively exercise power today.

Power Rules is an impassioned challenge to both liberals and conservatives and a plea to reclaim the true meaning of power and the essential role of common sense in solving global problems.

When it comes to books on US foreign policy, it is difficult to write anything particularly new or revelatory. Gelb, I think, recognises this, and Power Rules is “more about reminders than revelations”, drawing on 500 years of history and the evolution of power and its usage. Gelb hopes to illuminate the issues surrounding foreign policy, and explain how and why the system is broken or comes across problems.

“Intuitively, most Americans sense that there must be a better way – and they are right. This book shows them why they are right.”

Having worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations, Gelb is clear to state that he is not attempting to produce a partisan attack on one party or another.

“In recent years… I have become much more a critic than an admirer of both parties. That applies especially to George W. Bush, but also to [Bill] Clinton. Both men and their parties have made me not partisan, but just a bit surly.”

Power Rules is well structured. The book is split into three parts. “Power in the New World” begins Gelb’s treatise, first providing his impression of the world now and how “from the birth of the nation-state until after World War II, international power was much simpler”, with the more powerful able to boss around the lesser powers, but in the current international climate this is no longer the case. Gelb then defines power as he sees it; how American politicians have attempted to wield it, from the Founding Fathers to Bush II (this chapter was particularly interesting for me); and “the New Pyramid of World Power”, that is how “power is… dispersed below to unprecedented and complicating degrees”.

Part II of the book describes and explains the Rules of Exercising Power; these include the importance of strategy and indispensability, intelligence, military power, economic power, and the importance of being able to set the stage in a way that benefits America’s national and security interests.

Part II also shows us Gelb’s feisty disdain for some of the actors involved in the American foreign policy-making process, particularly in chapter 7, “U.S. Domestic Politics and Power”. In this chapter, the author takes a look at the influence of the media, special interests, Congress, and think tanks. Ultimately, he argues that the majority of foreign policy power remains in the office of the president, and for a president to lose a foreign policy “battle” with Congress, “everything has to go wrong – all at the same time and over a long period of time.” As this was the chapter that held the most immediate interest for me, I thought I’d share just a couple of incited Gelb offers, to showcase his writing style. More than most other forces at work in the policy-making process, Congress has the most chance of stopping the president in his tracks and forcing major changes in foreign policy. That is,

“on those unusual occasions when it is roused from its slumber-inducing rhetoric. Until those rare moments, members of Congress do little more than aim a few darts of criticism followed by quiet acquiescence. Congress is an odd place that sometimes rises up like a giant, but mainly tries to avoid responsibility”

Part III brings all these things together – first discussing foreign policy and the necessity of outlining clear and proper policies. Gelb takes this opportunity to take a look at US policy in the Middle East, and then draw everything together to offer his guidelines on how best to create a commonsense foreign policy in today’s complicated and unpredictable world.

Another book review of a text by one of Kissinger’s former PhD students (the other is the late Peter W. Rodman’s Presidential Command, which will be reviewed very shortly), Gelb’s Power Rules is an exceptionally well-written and enjoyable read. His analysis is incisive and well-informed, drawing on his many years of access and experience working in or around the US government.

Bringing Machiavelli’s Prince into the 21st Century, reinforcing the realist school’s approach to international relations, Gelb argues that,

“Power rules, still, and there still are rules on how best to exercise it. The rules differ from those penned by Niccolo Machiavelli…, but share the same roots in a mixed view of human nature and a constant sense of the uncertainties of a semi-anarchic world”

Mentioning realism, Gelb’s approach to his subject is refreshingly accessible – while the occasional phrase or jargon of international relations crops up, for the main he has managed to write in a way that portrays the complexity of the problems facing any president in a way that is easily understood and digested. For this he should be applauded, as all too often scholars and authors find comfort in dense and indecipherable blocks of jargon and academic phraseology – not only is this off-putting and difficult to read, but self defeating. More books on international relations should be written in Gelb’s style. The author’s use of the historical material included here is also deft and eloquent, clear and concise.

For once, the encomiums that grace the cover of the book and also a couple of pages on the inside are wholly justified. Power Rules is certainly one of the best, if not the best, book on American foreign policy I’ve ever read.

An essential book for anyone interested in this subject, I can’t recommend it enough.

Monday, 8 March 2010

“Vanity Fair’s Presidential Profiles” (Abrams)


Defining Portraits, Deeds, and Misdeeds of 43 Notable Americans, & what each one really thought about his Predecessor

Forty-three men have held the highest office in the United States, making up an exclusive club of statesmen and sinners, grinds and slackers, winners and losers, Boy Scouts and rogues. They are profiled in incisive and entertaining commentaries written by Vanity Fair contributors Judy Bachrach, David Friend, David Kamp, Todd S. Purdum, and Jim Windolf that tell of their deeds, plumb their characters, and dispense the essential dish about their personal lives.

Portraits newly drawn by the acclaimed artist Mark Summers illuminate each of them as vivid individuals. Also included in the text are revealing remarks (in the presidents’ own words) showing what each really thought about the man who had preceded him in the Oval Office. Graydon Carter, the editor of the volume, writes a short introduction, followed by a foreword by Washington insider and frequent Vanity Fair contributor Todd S. Purdum

From George Washington to Barack Obama, here is a memorable chronicle of America’s, and the world’s, most powerful men, combining history, biography, art, politics, and gossip – covering international affairs, domestic affairs, and affairs of the heart – in one small, indispensable volume.

This is a really nicely-put-together book. Each of Summers’s profile- portraits of the Chief Executives is beautifully done, showing each president in a state of repose, “a luxury, it must be said, seldom afforded flesh-and-blood presidents”.

“From Gilbert Stuart’s grand and definitive portrait of the standing George Washington to Shepard Fairley’s mixed-media, collage style, red-white-and-blue poster of Barack Obama, there have been majestic images, and humble ones, in every medium imaginable.”

There are a couple of things that disappointed me about this book. First is the length – each president only gets one page of text, which limits considerably how much new information or insights that can really be included, and this is especially the case for the better-known presidents. The second problem I have is the price – this is one of the books I bought, so I had been hoping for something a little more substantial for my money (it’s not a cheap volume, nice as it is).

Anyway, the book is interesting, and is certainly a nice collectors’ piece, but ultimately I wouldn’t recommend it for someone wanting to gain any deep insight into the presidents. So much has been written about many of these men, and distilling it into a single page is ultimately useless – if they’d re-printed articles from the magazine, from different times (contemporary and retrospective), then this might have been a more worthwhile and satisfying read (not to mention a more satisfying purchase).

A fine looking book, sadly lacking in written content.