Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Presidential Foreign Policies - The Ranking

Reading a special English-language edition of Der Spiegel today en route to London from Munich, I was struck by the vociferousness of the criticism of the current American President and his administration.

"Nine-Eleven" has entered the English language as a metaphor, an abbreviation even bigger than a millenial milestone: 9/11 broke through Fortress America, turning it into another country. George W. Bush has tried to turn the planet into another world. And failed.

While one may or may not agree with this judgement, I find myself constantly bemused by the extent to which it has become received wisdom that the unfortunate Dubya is one of the worst things to happen to the world in a great many years. Possibly, in fact, the worst thing to happen to the world since Bill Clinton, who I don't remember being especially popular amongst European commentators back in the 1990s, which many now seem to recall as a golden age of a wise, benevolent American hegemon, committed to international organisations and treating its allies with respect.

There are a great many ways in which President Bush can be criticised, and there are a great many missteps that America has made in the years since the 9/11 attacks. President Bush doesn't rank amongst my favourite people. Yet a reflexive assumption that America has gotten it wrong in every way is neither helpful nor fair, and the presupposition of impenetrable American stupidity - epitomised by the ape at the country's helm - strikes me more as being in the grand tradition of European anti-Americanism than in the far grander tradition of intelligent discourse and dispassionate analysis. The vitriol directed at Bush may be scaling new peaks of intensity, but the contention that Bush himself is the sole target of the scorn, rather than America itself (or its citizenry) is dishonest: what the scathing rhetoric really reflects is a rather more deep-seated anti-Americanism, one that has always found expression in ridicule of the American president in the post-war era. It is interesting to note, as Josef Joffe does in this summer's issue of the American Interest, that during the wave of large-scale anti-war protests in 2002 and 2003

[t]he telling aspect was the absence of Saddam Hussein from these manifestations of disgust, let alone of lesser targets like Vladimir Putin (for oppressing Chechnya) or Ayatollah Khamenei (for
supressing dissent in Iran) or Yasir Arafat (for manipulating terror against Israeli civilians). It was George W. Bush who was compared to Hitler and condemned for setting the world aflame.

Yes: it's true that it wouldn't make much sense to protest against any of those other figures at a rally opposing American aggression in Iraq. Yes: it's true that protestors have a right to hold America to higher standards than they hold the other nations to, because America itself aspires to higher standards than any of the other nations mentioned. But the instinctive recourse to an anti-American position - and one which vilifies the leader, especially - is still disappointing on one level. On another level, of course, it can actually be quite amusing. As Joffe goes on to write,

[w]ith the exception of John F. Kennedy, America [Europeans assume] elects only mentally or morally deficient men to the presidency. Roosevelt ("Rosenfeld") was a Jew in the Nazi imagination of the 1930s and 1940s. Truman, who built a towering edifice of international institutions like the UN and NATO, was a haberdasher; Eisenhower, who had commanded millions of men in World War II, was a dolt in uniform. Johnson was a Texan brute and Nixon a thug (even before the 1972 Watergate break-in); both were war criminals. Jimmy Carter, the nuclear engineer, was a "peanut farmer", and Reagan, who had cut his teeth in politics as the president of the powerful Screen Actors Guild and sharpened them as two-term governor of California, remained until his last day in office "a second-rate actor" of B-movie fame. From Portugal to Poland, George W. Bush, a graduate of Yale University and the Harvard Business School, has been depicted as an illiterate, cretinous cowboy, "a political leader who can barely string a sentence together."
The irony in such sentiments seems obvious to me, but precious few see it that way.

In any case, anyone who's interested in Anti-Americanism would do well to read Joffe's article, which is genuinely superb (and can be found here). I doubt I could ever do the subject justice after his splendid treatment of it. What interests me, however, is the strategic thinking that we find lurking behind the rhetoric. Does Bush's foreign policy really deserve its awful reputation, when compared to the records of the other Presidents? Limiting ourselves to the post-WWI era (when America really began to strut its stuff on the world stage), we can put together a hugely arbitrary ranking of which Presidents had the best foreign policy, and see that Bush the Younger doesn't actually fare particularly badly, as American administrations go.

Without further ado, the ranking of Presidential Foreign Policy, from worst to best. And remember: we're only considering foreign policy performance, not character or domestic policy.

16. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
Somewhat preoccupied with his important economic policy of "doing nothing" as America suffered through the depression, Hoover's foreign affairs legacy was a policy of treating Latin America slightly better than before, and the enunciation of a doctrine that America would not recognise any territories acquired by force - a nice sentiment rather undermined by his later opposition to Lend-Lease and desire to work with Hitler rather than fighting him.

15. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)

I do my best to read widely, and yet the only time that I can recall coming across this one is when the Atlantic recently described him as (to paraphrase) being "widely regarded as the worst ever president". He managed to conclude peace treaties with Germany, Austria and Turkey after the failure of Versailles to clear the Senate, and to host a naval disarmament conference which gave Japan naval dominance in the Pacific, but apart from that he generally led America back into post-war isolation while failing to take on any of the main issues of the day.

14. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
Notable for never having been elected to either the Presidency or the Vice-Presidency (he was appointed Vice-President under the 25th Amendment shortly before Nixon resigned), Ford found himself stymied by Congress and generally a bit useless: the most enduring image of his diplomacy is of his falling out of a plane. Not even the retention of Kissinger as Secretary of State could salvage his foreign policy, although his term did witness the final withdrawal of the last American troops from Vietnam.

13. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
Inheriting American foreign policy at a time when it was extremely weak, Coolidge did little to strengthen it, his most notable achievement being the agreement of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, under which everyone renounced war. (It didn't really work.) But Coolidge wasn't an isolationist, and presided (from afar) over the Dawes Plan which helped get Europe temporarily back on its feet.

12. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)
Johnson inherited a rather pleasant strategic situation which saw the USSR on the back foot, but he became so embroiled in a failed strategy in Vietnam that he was forced to drop out of the race for re-election in 1968. Probably better remembered for his social programmes and his impressive stint as Senate Majority Leader than as a foreign policy president.

11. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
Carter hailed from the idealistic tradition of American foreign policy, promising to put Human Rights on the top of the agenda. In this he succeeded, and the Helsinki Accords laid the groundwork for much of the domestic agitation that ultimately toppled European Communism in the 1980s. But human rights were a poor basis for a superpower engaged in such a high-intensity struggle, and Carter's starry-eyed naivete - and unwillingness to play hardball - resulted in America reeling by the end of his term from the multiple blows of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Communist agitation in Africa, and the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis. Combine this dismal record with the fact that many of his other achievements - including the Camp David accords making peace between Israel and Egypt; full diplomatic relations with China; and the agreement of the SALT II arms control accords - were essentially legacies from the Nixon administration, and you have the makings of an idealistic but ultimately pretty dismal presidency.

10. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
Kennedy has achieved iconic status, and with good reason: he was dashing, eloquent, charismatic, and successful. Had he lived longer, he might have achieved greater things; as it is, however, he is more notable for keeping his nerve in the face of Khruschev's extreme provocation than for achieving anything on his own initiative. He managed to weather the Cuban Missile Crisis successfully, and sat through a prolonged crisis over Berlin which resulted in a huge propaganda victory for the West with the construction of the Berlin Wall. His stoicism in the face of Soviet bluster eventually forced Khrushchev out of office. Kennedy deserves credit simply for surviving these episodes, and also for his creation of the Peace Corps; but his other achievements are not quite so impressive, including the Bay of Pigs fiasco and an increasing commitment in Vietnam. He is thus best remembered as an inspiring leader who reacted well under pressure.

9. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
Roosevelt was the longest-serving president in US history, and a lot happened under his watch, but he wasn't quite the genius that successive generations made him out to be. He instinctively distrusted isolationism, but still campaigned on a platform of keeping America out of WWII despite his quiet but firm efforts to support the British. His wartime leadership after Pearl Harbour was inspiring, but he completely misread Stalin and proved impervious to Churchill's entreaties to take a harder line. His post-war vision of the Four Policemen may have been the inspiration for the United Nations, but it would have proved unworkable had Truman not vigorously reinvented it. All in all, an impressive wartime leader, but not a particularly incisive strategic thinker.

8. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
Clinton ultimately turned out to be quite a good foreign policy President. The problem was that early on,while he was finding his feet, he had the misfortune to step on the rather sharp broken glass of Somalia, and thus spent much of his first term hopping around ineffectually, missing the mark on both Rwanda and Bosnia. But the agreement he reached with North Korea on nuclear weapons managed to endure the entirety of his term, and his stance towards Iraq and Serbia (over Kosovo) in his second term was considerably better executed. Relations with most of the rest of the world were well maintained, earning Clinton stability and management bonus points; he also gets a lot of points for effort over his dogged determination to continue to press for peace between Israel and Palestine. Besides his early failings, perhaps his greatest problem was that he was often closer to international opinion than domestic opinion: on issues such as the Kyoto accords, Clinton ended up negotiating agreements that the Senate could never ratify. Ultimately, not one of the great foreign policy presidents, but possessing a record that he can be happy with as he turns his attention post-presidency to issues that he couldn't deal with effectively while in power.

7. George W. Bush (2001-present)
And so to the incumbent. In terms of foreign policy outside of Iraq, Bush has continued in much the same vein as Clinton, adopting restrained multilateral poses on crises over North Korea and Iran while managing relations with other great powers like Russia, China and India quite well; perhaps his biggest non-Iraq mistake was giving up on peace between Israel and Palestine. But it's over Iraq that the Bush Administration will undoubtedly prove to be divisive for decades to come.
So here's a prediction: historians will ultimately come to the conclusion that the Bush team was able to formulate an idealistic (or ideological, depending on your perspective) vision of far-reaching consequence and genuine insight, adopting a policy which represented the greatest triumph of American idealistic self-confidence that the country will perhaps ever see. The Bush team came to the conclusion that the ultimate cause of the terrorist attacks on the United States was political repression in the Middle East, and that the solution was the export of American ideals of civil liberties and democratic governance - an analysis that is both consistent with American ideals and, in all likelihood, fundamentally clearly correct.
Historians will also, however, come to the conclusion that the Bush Administration was callous in its methods (limiting civil liberties), inept in its execution (blinded by arrogance, it failed to adopt tactics that would lead to its desired strategic outcome), and disgracefully misleading in its arguments (resting the case for war in Iraq on flimsy arguments that Iraqi weapons programmes posed a direct threat to the US, and on entirely fictitious links between the Saddam regime and al-Qaeda). Top marks - ironically enough - for intellectual coherence and idealistic optimism, but a bit of a disaster in terms of implementation. Perhaps the ultimate triumph of idealism over realism, and thus, however quixotic, something of a noble failure.

6. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
While we're on the subject of quixotic, noble failures, Woodrow Wilson must feature prominently; the only reason that his noble failure ranks higher than Bush's is that it was something less of a failure. Wilson saw an opportunity in the ashes of European civilisation to create a new world order based upon the renunciation of war and American principles of self-determination. His vision created the League of Nations, and thus led indirectly to the UN that we have today. Had America joined the League - and had it worked - Wilson would have gone down in history as perhaps the greatest statesman of modern times. As it is, however, his vision endures and his legacy remains, despite his inability to convince his countrymen of its value.

5. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
Eisenhower inherited from Truman a compelling long-term strategy - containment - which he stuck to with admirable conviction, navigating Khrushchev's early years without disaster. He also inherited Korea, which he extricated himself from promptly. His contribution on the larger scale was important and lasting. His formulation of the Eisenhower Doctrine spread American efforts at fighting Communism around the world, for better or worse: for better, because the logical extension of containment did indeed confront Communism and halt it in its tracks in many places; for worse, because American involvement in places like Iran and Indo-China foreshadowed the sort of unpleasant intereference in other countries - and the stalemates that can result - that was to characterise much of American Cold War foreign relations. But he also made a major contribution to ending traditional colonialism, demolishing Britain and France as independent great powers (and lashing Israel firmly to America for the long run) in the Suez crisis. Last but not least, he launched the Space Race with the creation of NASA after enduring the shock of Sputnik. Eisenhower managed the evolving Cold War well and made some difficult decisions, ultimately earning his reputation as a very solid and responsible leader.

4. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
Reagan was the George W. Bush of his day, ridiculed for alleged stupidity and widely considered to be dangerous rather than responsible; after all, he launched a new arms race that reignited the Cold War, right? A more nuanced view will hopefully prevail. Reagan was the perfect marriage of an instinctively ideological American foreign policy with a time in office when such a policy was absolutely perfect. He is reputed to have made many foreign policy decisions from his gut - but rather than being rash and impulsive, this meant that he was absolutely in tune with mainstream American opinion, contributing to a national resurgence after the endless divisions of the 1960s and 1970s. He rejected any notion of moral equivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union, and he correctly perceived that the USSR could be defeated - and converted to American values. The resulting push was far from being rash and uncontrolled: America acted to undermine Soviet adventurism in Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, and Central America, while countering Soviet nuclear strategy by matching the Soviet deployment of medium-range missiles to Europe. Throughout, Reagan maintained the detente institutions of cooperation and made feelers to Soviet leaders about making a more enduring peace. It was largely because of American pressure in the Cold War that the USSR ended up appointing a reformer to rescue its strategic situation. But Mikhail Gorbachev found reform impossible to pull off, and Reagan was largely able to conclude the Cold War on American terms. America went from a country reeling from Soviet pressure in 1981 to being a strong, resurgent nation confronting a weakened enemy in 1985. The collapse of the USSR happened for domestic reasons, but it was Reagan's foreign policy that turned up the pressure to precipitate it, earning Reagan a largely well-deserved reputation for winning the Cold War. So much for the image of a dim-witted B-movie actor.

3. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
If Reagan's clarity of vision was what was needed to end the Cold War on American terms, his Vice-President's nuanced and detailed understanding of the complexities of the world was precisely what was needed to navigate the potentially treacherous waters of the new unipolar world. Bush had foreign policy experience that made him expertly qualified for the job: UN Ambassador, Director of the CIA, Vice-President. He had a preference for working through international institutions and building consensus; he also had a preference for melding an idealistic approach to the new world order with a realistic appraisal of how to move forward. The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe was welcomed and expertly managed; German reunification was deftly and sympathetically supported; the Gulf War demonstrated that America finally had the will and the international position to implement the Wilsonian ideals of collective security that could make the world a safer place; and a careful response to the brutal Chinese repression in Tiananmen Square mixed appropriate outrage with an unwillingness to kick-start a new Cold War with one of America's newly most important trading partners. In short, there was no-one better to navigate the difficult time following the Cold War. Had his 1988 election pledge been "Read my lips: Genius Foreign Policy", then he might not have had such difficulties in achieving re-election.

2. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)
A relatively undistinguished fellow from Missouri, Truman was somewhat neglected by Roosevelt when he was Vice-President: Stalin famously knew about the Manhattan Project before Truman did. And like Roosevelt before him, Truman misread Stalin and Soviet intentions, failing to grasp the hidden chance to end the Cold War before it began. But it is too much to expect him to have grasped it when few American thinkers understood how Stalin's mind worked (a matter which is still of not inconsiderable controversy). And unlike Roosevelt, Truman found himself in a position to both shape the new postwar order and to confront Soviet Communism, both of which he achieved with aplomb. He hosted the conference in San Francisco where the UN charter was drawn up, and was instrumental in merging Roosevelt's Four Policemen concept with the League of Nations to generate a workable framework. His institution-building extended far beyond this, with the advent of the Bretton Woods institutions and NATO. His legendary foreign policy team - including Marshall, Acheson, Kennan, Harriman and Stimson - tackled the reconstruction of West Germany, Japan, and Western Europe with a zeal that firmly created and cemented a vast American sphere of influence. Simultaneously, his defence of West Berlin through the Berlin Airlift evolved into a strategy of containment that laid the groundwork for American policy for the following forty years; the ultimate collapse of the USSR resembled Kennan's prediction to a remarkable degree. Although Truman later got bogged down in Korea, his overall foreign policy stands as being the decisively successful era which established America as a superpower than could win the Cold War.

1. Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974)
There were two great presidents at either end of the Cold War. Truman created the containment policy and laid the groundwork for the eventual American victory. Reagan reformulated Truman's strategy and used it to win. But it was Richard Nixon, right in the middle between the two, who applied a dose of realpolitik to US foreign policy to set up the ultimate victory.
Nixon is popularly remembered for being something of a crook, as indeed he fairly clearly was when it came to his domestic policy (and his behaviour). But in the foreign policy arena, he was a remarkably clear-headed realist who had an instinctive understanding of international politics, unsullied by the idealistic ideologies which have proven both the inspiration and the downfall for some of the more spectacular presidents such as Wilson and the younger Bush. With Henry Kissinger - perhaps America's greatest ever thinker on international affairs - at his side as his Secretary of State, he was able to pivot from a position of weakness to a complete strategic outflanking of the USSR.
Nixon inherited the morass of Vietnam: when he came to power, America was caught up in an unwinnable war involving an incredible commitment - both material and moral - that was of highly dubious strategic utility. Nixon tried some new strategies to attempt to win, but, failing that, he simply extricated himself. Once free of that mess, America was able to prosecute its foreign policy with a new vigour. Nixon's crisis management was absolutely sterling, as evidenced by the 1973 Israeli-Arab conflict, which necessitated large-scale American support to keep Israel afloat - but which Kissinger was able to transform, after intense diplomacy, into a lasting peace settlement. The innovation of shuttle diplomacy was able to stop the fighting, and the ultimate result was that Arab nations came to the conclusion that only America could deliver Israel in any sort of settlement, a conclusion that fatally undermined Soviet influence in the region, serving to effectively end the Cold War in the Middle East (as well as setting up the conditions for every single American peace initiative in the region, from Carter to Clinton).
But most importantly, it was Nixon who realised and capitalised on the divide between Soviet and Chinese communism. When Nixon went to China and achieved detente with it (beginning a process ultimately leading to full recognition of the Beijing regime under Carter), he removed the only meaningful ally that the Soviet Union had, surrounding it with unfriendly states - leading directly to a Soviet willingness to lower tensions through detente. Every single other ally that the USSR could call on was a drain on its resources. Nixon thus achieved - at a stroke - a strategic situation that would win the Cold War once Reagan's America was strong enough to exploit it (helped by the Soviet economic enfeeblement), and the establishment for the groundwork of economic relations with a country that will one day be the world's largest economy.
Ultimately, then, Nixon managed American relations with the rest of the world expertly, while also manipulating the strategic environment so as to create the policy paradigm that Reagan would use to win the Cold War. No other President has ever displayed quite such brilliance in their foreign policy.

Sunday, September 17, 2006



I seem to have dropped off the face of the planet a little bit, blog-wise, for which I do apologise. (I'm very impressed by the loyalty of the three people who check back every day, just in case, though - even if they only stay for an average of three seconds.) Amidst the general chaos and confusion of the past couple of months of travel and moving to London, it rather just fell through the gaps.
There's good news to be proffered now, though, because I am now back online. I got back from Canada nearly a month ago, and the intervening time has been spent relatively productively. When I left, my belongings were piled around the walls, looking forlornly temporary. (You could measure how long I'd been subscribing to magazines by the height of their piles: 60cm for the Economist, 40cm for Edge, 20cm each for Private Eye and the New Yorker. Towering over all of them was the 150cm-tall tower of books wedged into the corner.) A telephone call to Argos about some bookshelves and a good day's DIY later, and everything is tidy: magazines all sorted by date order, books, DVDs and games all in the right place and happily alphabetised. Floor space is growing. The wireless internet was sorted. I visited home to catch up with the 'rents.
Then it was off to Munich for a week of the Oktoberfest with Una, which was lovely. I'm back today, and I start work on Monday, which is a little strange.

However, while my mind (and, more pertinently, my fingers) may have been cut off from my blog by sheer force of activity or the difficulties associated with internet access, my blog has never been far from my mind. So here's a sample of some of the prospective blog entries that I was intending to write about, but somehow never got around to.

So there you are. We'll see how things go. With a bit of luck, maybe I'll get onto them soon, although things aren't looking so good on that score now that my laptop is due to be transferred to my sister in the next couple of days. And who knows what'll happen when I get to work and find out what the policy on personal blogs is. So, er, enjoy this post while it lasts.

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