15 August 2006

The Wrong Kind of History

[Cross-posted at The Crolian Progressive.]

I've been reading "Transformation Is Hard" (subscription only), by Harvard Distinguished Service Professor of International Relations Joseph S. Nye, Jr., which was published last month in TIME Magazine. While not a historian by training, Nye has written extensively in the field of history and foreign relations, including Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. So it was with great disapointment that I saw just how tone-deaf he was about the most disastrous foreign-policy President in America's history: George W. Bush.

After Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush made three major changes to the grand strategy that the U.S. had pursued for a half-century. He reduced reliance on permanent alliances and institutions, broadened the traditional right of pre-emption into a new doctrine of preventive war and advocated coercive democratization as a solution to the problem of terrorism in the Middle East. His September 2002 National Security Strategy was widely seen as revolutionary.


"Revolutionary"? That's all Nye can muster for the idea of forced American hegemony over all nations that have the misfortune to contain terrorists -- a concept he euphemistically terms "coercive democraticization"? I suppose, by Nye's logic, Bush could have launched a nuclear bomb at the Middle East and annihilated it all at one blow, and that would have been "revolutionary" too. Myself, I'd give it another name.

The point of Nye's article is "to look at the history of previous efforts at transformation." To this end, he compares Bush with three previous American Presidents with big international ambitions: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

At the turn of the century, Theodore Roosevelt sought to adapt U.S. foreign policy to match the nation's new position in world politics. But while he persuaded Congress to back his efforts to bolster U.S. hegemony in the western hemisphere, he failed to overcome long-standing suspicions of balance-of-power politics in Congress and among the U.S. public. As a result, his transformation proved untenable. Woodrow Wilson came to office focused on domestic issues but ultimately intervened in World War I, leading him to envision a transformation of world politics through the spread of democracy and the creation of new international institutions. But his reach exceeded his grasp, and the succeeding dcades witnessed the rejection of his policies and the return of American attitudes that favored a more traditional distancing of the country from the European balance of power. ...

[Franklin Roosevelt] linked Wilsonian ideals to a realist vision, combining the attractive power of his Four Freedoms with the idea of four policemen (later five, with the addition of China) as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. And in the Bretton Woods economic institutions, he laid a basis for global economic stability.


All well and good -- but Nye's facile analysis betrays some serious flaws. Theodore Roosevelt, for one, was an unabashed war hawk mostly because he believed war ennobled the national character, not because of "balance-of-power politics." Wilson's reach didn't exceed his grasp; in fact, his western speaking tour would have destroyed the opposition to the League of Nations had not a stroke cut him down in full swing. And Franklin Roosevelt -- well Nye is just about right there; there's no greater realist in American history than FDR.

But Nye misses the point. All these leaders transformed American strategy not for political gain, as Bush has, but because they truly believed that the country needed them to do so. Theodore Roosevelt's love of war was motivated by his passionate belief in a strong national character; Wilson's clamoring for peace was, to his mind, nothing less than fighting for world salvation from an already-rising German menace. Even cautious, political FDR believed strongly that the best security he could reasonably provide his country was to bolster its allies through world alliances and global economic prosperity. Match these beliefs with Bush's base calculations, and you have a mismatch not seen since the princess and the pea.

Nye, of course, doesn't think he can say all this; he doesn't want to be partisan with his history. But is it partisan to point out the fact that Bush may be the most politically-motivated war hawk President in American history?

Nye closes his argument with a succinct and bafflingly non-analytical summary:

Looking back over the past century, successful major strategic transformations have been rare. Transformational leaders have not been necesssary for successful foreign policy, even in periods of major change. President Bush aspires to buck that trend, but at this point it seems that the historical odds are against him.


Now Nye has really gone off the deep end. Is Nye calling Bush a transformational leader? If so, his blindness exceeds his brilliance by a mile. Transformational leaders, like Woodrow Wilson, seek to make their nation better through force of will. They have transcendent visions of the future, and they make these visions into reality through grit, determination, and not a little inspiration.

Bush's only transformational aspect is his chameleon-like ability to become whatever his advisors tell him is the most popular type of leader for that particular time. He lacks the key facet of the true leader: a decisive vision, and the will to impose it on those around him, rather than having his advisors (like Rove and Rumsfeld) impose their visions on him. These people do not see farther than the next election, and their foreign policy concerns are similarly short-sighted.

Nye's greatest failing is not that he does not condemn the neocon worldview, but that he does not understand that Bush is not an authentic neocon. A mere malleable pawn in the hands of political strategists, Bush does not belong in the category of true leaders in which Nye places him. Instead, he more properly belongs in the company of such historical nonentities as Warren G. Harding, William McKinley, and James Buchanan. By not looking beneath the surface of Bush's slick persona, Nye falls prey to the same lack of leadership that is the greatest failing of the Bush administration.

America deserves better, both from its leaders and from its historians.

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