An international affairs expert charts America’s largely unsuccessful foreign interventions over the past 20 years.
Following the end of the Gulf War, with no external challenges to its security or interests and with no threats to the global order and institutions it had fostered since World War II, the United States embarked on a series of costly and ultimately futile missions not so much to defend the West as to extend it politically and ideologically. Because the U.S. had the money and power, because the project seemed viable, and because of the can-do spirit deeply embedded in the country’s traditions, America attempted to protect human rights in China, to encourage Western-style free markets and political institutions in Russia, to intervene for humanitarian reasons and then undertake nation-building in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, to attempt similar transformations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to promote democracy in the Middle East. Mandelbaum (Foreign Policy/Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; The Road to Global Prosperity, 2014, etc.) takes up each of these initiatives in detail and explains why all these attempts to affect the internal affairs of other nations—historically, emphatically not the business of great powers—miscarried. Whether sponsored by the idealists of the Bill Clinton administration, the so-called realists under George W. Bush, or the personality-driven diplomacy of Barack Obama, all these voluntary undertakings slammed up against hard cultural and political realities that made them impossible. Meanwhile, challenges posed by the likes of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, states that could gravely affect America’s vital interests, only grew. In part because of America’s misadventures, global conditions have changed vastly since 1991, and Mandelbaum sees America’s diplomatic agenda returning to the traditional preoccupations of great powers. Specialists and general readers alike will appreciate his sure historical grasp, evenhanded assignment of fault, careful assessment of shifting domestic political considerations, and understanding of the foreign cultural barriers that so frustrated American intentions.
A skilled, persuasive appraisal of a unique moment in our foreign policy history.