Tags: Sestanovich | retrenchment | maximalist | Cold War

Historian Debunks Myth of Robust Postwar Period

By    |   Thursday, 08 May 2014 07:38 AM

Columbia University historian Stephen Sestanovich discussed his book, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, before an audience at Columbia recently. Remarkably considering how many books have been written on the postwar period, Sestanovich found that the theory behind U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War began in 1947 has been largely unexamined.

He invoked the words of George Kennan to describe the surge of energy unleashed by the Cold War, as if "a stone had been thrown into a hive." The author lamented that the period has slipped into remoteness without important lessons being learned.

Sestanovich's thesis is that the period has been idealized as one in which the stature of the United States grew apace, whereas it was actually marked by considerable chaos and discord, especially in the relationships between the United States and its allies. He quoted the late Treasury Secretary John Connally's cynical characterization of the relationships with allies — that the allies are trying to screw each other, and Connally intended to do it to them first. Sestanovich characterized the public debate about policy as "chaotic, confused, full of discord and crisis," culminating in recriminations for real or perceived failures.

According to Sestanovich, policy proceeded at any given time according to one of two modes — "maximalist" or "retrenchment." Each of these policies would come to the fore when the other appeared to have failed. However, the periods of ascendancy are not symmetrical; the periods of retrenchment last longer than do those of expansion. He also suggested that the respective phases could be associated with short phrases.

For expansion: Do More, Think Big, Pedal to the Metal, Get Moving; for retrenchment: Do Less, Think Harder, Put on the Brakes, Slow Down. As examples of expansion, he offered the Cold War, the Marshall Plan, German Reunification, interventions to protect Kuwait and the Balkans and the response to 9/11. He quipped that the retrenchment phase is like the hangover after a party.

Each phase tends also to be related to specific attitudes regarding the circumstances of the day. In expansionary periods, presidents and advocates of action denigrate the abilities of other countries to contribute, and they doubt that multilateral arrangements will be adequate to the task. They argue further that halfway measures won't work, that quick results are needed due to American's short attention span, and they express a guilty conscience for having allowed the previous retrenchment to go too far.

On the retrenchment side, Sestanovich argues that during these periods, an isolationist strain in the background is more vocally expressed, that presidents exert strong control to rein in previous excesses, that the administration speaks in terms of policies that can be sustained for the long haul, that these views tend to hamper the ability of the administration to respond to new challenges that may emerge and ultimately the retrenching president is revealed as inarticulate in his defense of the policy and loses public support.

Sestanovich eschews invitations to choose whether expansion or retrenchment is the better policy, he explained, because both tend to screw up. Most refreshing to a practicing cynic is his concluding advice that just at the point when the leader believes he has found a sustainable policy for the long haul is probably the time to change course.

Although Sestanovich did not raise this question, one wonders whether it should have been possible in the financial arena to recognize, just as policymakers were celebrating The Great Moderation, that a great disaster was at hand.

(Archived video can be found here.)

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Robert-Feinberg
Columbia University historian Stephen Sestanovich discussed his book, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, before an audience at Columbia recently.
Sestanovich, retrenchment, maximalist, Cold War
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2014-38-08
Thursday, 08 May 2014 07:38 AM
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