A nation becalmed becomes a nation adrift in this provocative study from the Council on Foreign Relations.
When the Berlin Wall fell, triumphalist commentators declared that the United States and its lesser allies were suddenly free of history: Capitalism had won, peace was ubiquitous and America was the world’s sole superpower. Lately, it seems as if the dozen years between the fall of communism and the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11 mark a mere recess. The first Bush administration was not exactly inclined to that triumphalism, write analysts Chollet (The Road to the Dayton Accords: A Study of American Statecraft, 2005, etc.) and Goldgeier (Not Whether But When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO, 1999, etc.), though with the first Gulf War it would “try to turn [the Kuwait] crisis into the conceptual foundation of its post–Cold War foreign policy,” the vaunted and now ethereal “new world order.” This occasioned a sharp division between paleoconservatives such as Pat Buchanan and neoconservatives such as Dick Cheney, the former believing that America was a republic and not an empire, the latter that America’s powerful military privileged the nation to tell the rest of the world how to behave. The Clinton administration was less inclined to commit forces abroad until its second term, when the president seems to have decided that he needed more medals on his legacy, while “his critics complained that the president was trying too hard and getting too involved and, as a result, frittering away the leverage that comes with more selective presidential engagement.” Meanwhile, of course, other enemies were gathering, unleashing their fury on Bush II, who had campaigned sounding like an isolationist but, come 2001, was ready to try on an empire for size—to, it is increasingly clear, tragic ends.
A careful explication of why things are as they are, with all those old arguments continuing to sizzle and pop—suggestive and highly useful for those seeking to reshape policy in the near term.