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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Mission Failure" (Michael Mandelbaum)

TITLE: Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era
AUTHOR: Michael Mandelbaum
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016, (504 pages).

The title says it all. America's post-Cold-War foreign policy has largely failed. Looking through the recent decades, despite pockets of successes, American influence in the world has created lots of negative perceptions more than ever. In spite of the reputation of being the world's sole superpower, there are limits to what America can do to or for other nation states. Whether it is military interventions or economic embargoes, one wonders if America has gone far beyond what it is called to do. Has the country over-exerted itself in its foreign policy? Has it interfered in the domestic politics and policies of countries of lesser economic strength? Has it overstepped its moral or legal boundaries to what it needs to do? In a nutshell, for a post-Cold-War era, how can a nation that claims to want to do good for the world ends up creating more problems instead? These and many more questions are examined and answered in a very insightful book about American foreign policy after the Cold War, and especially after September 11. The author looks back at the history of American foreign policy and lists four distinct periods.
  • Period 1 (1789-1889): Inward focus; American Civil War (1861-1865)
  • Period 2 (1898-1945): Outward focus
  • Period 3 (1945-1992): WWII aftermath and the Cold War
  • Period 4 (1993-2014): America's Post-Cold-War era
This book is about Period 4, and how America's foreign policy had shifted:
  • From Controlling external behaviour of other countries to Internal Governance
  • From containment to interference
  • From Military Defense to Ideology Expansion
  • From Self-Interest to Humanitarian
  • From political practices to political values (eg human rights)
Not everything have changed. The US is still largely driven by its DNA of religious heritage and piety. Parroting GK Chesterton's observation of the US as "a country with the soul of a church," America is exporting its values (gospel) like a messenger (missionary). The failure is also dramatic. Afghanistan and Iraq are not any more tolerant than before. The Middle East is far from being peaceful. The world is not necessarily a safer place now. It is one thing for America to flourish in its brand of democracy and economic strategies. It is yet another to export them to other countries. In fact, many countries that had attempted to emulate America had also failed miserably. 

On China, Russia, and many Arab countries, America's efforts at societal transformation had largely failed. In fact, the failures are more frequent and more saddening. At times, they had to abandon certain initiatives due to strong opposition, like human rights in China and Russia's economic troubles. On the various US presidential administration styles, while Clinton and Bush utilize American military prowess and Obama his personality force, all of these administrations failed to make headway in terms of peace and overall goodwill. America's nation-building efforts of other countries are poorly conceived and clumsily executed.  Even as the number of democracies worldwide have increased from 35 to 120 in the past 50 years, life is not necessarily getting any better for these new economies. Moreover, many of the countries have cultural push-backs against American-style democratization. Complex relationships between factions in various countries make matters even more difficult. With ethnic differences, political affiliations, religious divisions, and dramatically different historical backgrounds, not even a world superpower will find it easy to unite these developing nation states. An extensive chapter was written on Iraq, in particular the two invasions of Iraq by two different US Presidents. Explaining the historical background of the Iraqi people, and the rising complexity of American engagement in a failed state, Iraq is the major failure of American foreign policy. Initial military success has not stemmed the flow of radicals. Instead, it has created newer and more dangerous militants. Mandelbaum notes that the biggest factor for success or failure is not American tactics but Iraqi identity, or the lack of it.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor and Director of the American Foreign Policy program at the Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies. He has worked at the US Department of State, appointed senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and written ten books on US foreign policy. Thus, he has a special position to observe the highs and lows of American foreign policy in a post-Cold-War period.

Let me offer three thoughts on this book.

First, intentions are always less effective than realities. For all the nice ideology and good intentions America may have for the world, not having a proper feel of the real world on the ground will make implementation extremely difficult, if not impossible. Without the proper infrastructure, social structures, and common support, a country would fail right from the start. Many of the countries that America is involved in do not have a collective identity in the first place. The differences are way too vast. The war on terrorism is also very difficult because there is no distinct identity of who a terrorist is. There are no particular nation to aim rockets at. In fact, terrorists often masquerade among common citizens and could attack anytime, anywhere, and any manner. This can easily frustrate the best of intentions and create the worst of situations.

Second, America looks like a solution-salesman looking for a problem place to sell its wares. In the light of America becoming the lone superpower of the world, it is quite logical to expect America to think of alternative ways to use it. How can one translate its economic power and military might into other countries' domestic policies, politics, and governing philosophies? Saying it is not easy is an understatement. Just because America has it does not necessarily mean any one country would need it. When one buys something because of hard-sell tactics or during a moment of weakness, it can create ill feelings that could take a long time to recover. The way Mandelbaum talks about US being some kind of a missionary for democracy is interesting. Ultimately, we must learn to care for people.

Third, I believe it is better for America to learn from its mistakes. The present superpower status comes largely as a result of America's Post-WWII successes and its positive humanitarian actions such as the Marshall Plan in Germany and the humanitarian assistance to countries afflicted by major crises. By recognizing that this status has been inherited from the previous generation, it is hoped that America will not simply think about imposing or superimposing its power on others, but to invest for the future. The big elephant in the room is the huge US financial debt which essentially borrows money that future generations would have to pay back. As the world's largest debtor nation, the US must come back to develop policies to reduce this bubble. The likelihood of good foreign policies will be higher if countries have their backyard in check. That is why some countries accuse the Americans of being hypocritical.

In general, I find this book rather depressing about US foreign policies. There are more bad news than anything else. Sometimes, it appears as if that whatever the US touches will turn rotten. I believe that is not the intent of Mandelbaum. This book is essentially his personal view and suggestion of the mis-steps done by the existing and past few US administrations in the hope that the next President and US foreign policy will be better. With the US elections to be held toward the end of 2016, this book may probably be a good resource to learn, to adapt, and hopefully, turn for the better. The comparison between British foreign policy and US foreign policy is one of the best I have read.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Oxford University Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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