Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama
From a writer with long and high-level experience in the U.S. government, a startling and provocative assessment of America’s global dominance. Maximalist puts the history of our foreign policy in an unexpected new light, while drawing fresh, compelling lessons for the present and future.
When the United States has succeeded in the world, Stephen Sestanovich argues, it has done so not by staying the course but by having to change it—usually amid deep controversy and uncertainty. For decades, the United States has been a power like no other. Yet presidents and policy makers worry that they—and, even more, their predecessors—haven’t gotten things right. Other nations, they say to themselves, contribute little to meeting common challenges. International institutions work badly. An effective foreign policy costs too much. Public support is shaky. Even the greatest successes often didn’t feel that way at the time.
Sestanovich explores the dramatic results of American global primacy built on these anxious foundations, recounting cycles of overcommitment and underperformance, highs of achievement and confidence followed by lows of doubt. We may think there was a time when America’s international role reflected bipartisan unity, policy continuity, and a unique ability to work with others, but Maximalist tells a different story—one of divided administrations and divisive decision making, of clashes with friends and allies, of regular attempts to set a new direction. Doing too much has always been followed by doing too little, and vice versa.
Maximalist unearths the backroom stories and personalities that bring American foreign policy to life. Who knew how hard Lyndon Johnson fought to stay out of the war in Vietnam—or how often Henry Kissinger ridiculed the idea of visiting China? Who remembers that George Bush Sr. found Ronald Reagan’s diplomacy too passive—or that Bush Jr. considered Bill Clinton’s too active? Leaders and scoundrels alike emerge from this retelling in sharper focus than ever before. Sestanovich finds lessons in the past that anticipate and clarify our chaotic present.
recoiled at anything suggesting the need for increased American commitment. The downsizing of policy was particularly controversial in connection with the slow-motion breakup of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union in 1991. Here were two multiethnic states, long ruled by Communist parties whose political monopoly had clearly become unsustainable. Each was eventually brought down by challengers to its central government, in revolutions much like the ones that had brought down the Soviet bloc two years
from Europe after an October visit, Marshall told Truman and others that he found all the Western Europeans “completely out of their skins, and sitting on their nerves.”42 Before and during the blockade, both the British and the French remained aware of their critical dependence on American military power. But dependence did not by any means give them confidence that the United States would use its power wisely. And it did not make them willing to defer to Washington. To the contrary, Chip
effort. Now, alarmed by what Americans were saying, they feared an overreaction—and a wider war.40 This was an unquestioned disaster—the biggest setback for U.S. policy since World War II. Yet it was the result of a far more orderly and thoughtful process than Kennan admitted, shaped less by mass hysteria or individual folly than by systematic strategic choice. As soon as American ground forces went into Korea at the end of June, Washington policy makers began to deliberate on the goals of the
familiar with Truman’s blunt Missouri talk, but this was too much. British troops were endangered by Chinese troops and now, it seemed, by American leaders as well. With Parliament in an uproar, Prime Minister Clement Attlee had to address the matter face to face with Truman. When he announced a quick trip to Washington for an Oval Office showdown, there were, Truman sheepishly acknowledged, “cheers from both sides of the House.”56 Attlee arrived in Washington on December 4, 1950, for a five-day
meeting, the usual American response would have been to try to mollify the Europeans. Instead, the Kennedy administration stopped telling them the truth. Rusk left Paris pledging that the United States would offer no concessions that its allies found unacceptable, but the president overrode his commitment. The British and Germans, Kennedy explained, must not stop the United States from showing Moscow how flexible it was prepared to be. In mid-February 1962 he wrote Khrushchev again to propose