From the AICGS Bookshelf: The United States Is an Exceptional Nation—Except When It Is Not
The story of how the United States sees itself and how others see it, its foreign policy in particular, underlines its exceptionalism. It is the convergence of national interests and proclaimed values which shape foreign policy in the United States as well as in most countries. Michael Mandelbaum takes a long look at the United States in his evaluation of how foreign policy intentions and their consequences did not always align over the past twenty five years since the end of the Cold War in his book Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era. He offers explanations, but not many suggestions on how to improve the record. But in essence, he is arguing that the United States engaged in many missions which were doomed to fail, due to a combination of hubris, hopes, and an historical narrative about its unending ability to encourage others to follow the U.S. model.
Mandelbaum examines a number of cases, in which the United States found itself trying to put out various fires around the world—in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Haiti—and declares the efforts failures. None of those engagements resulted in an improvement in the situation in their respective cases, according to his evaluation. His analysis also goes in depth on U.S. engagements in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Iraq, which also get bad grades. In all of these cases, He defines the fault as the U.S. desiring to occasionally use military means to not only change the situation, but also to change the overall “culture” of the problem. “Americans have always believed that they have a vocation to improve the world and have always wished to carry it out by helping others become more like themselves…The enormous power with which their country emerged from the Cold War gave them an unprecedented opportunity to attempt to do just that.”
That attitude is carried over into the United States’ dealing with both Russia and China in the past twenty five years as well, says Mandelbaum. Both countries needed to become “stake holders” in the post-Cold War system, of which the United States was in command as the mightiest country on the planet and was facing no serious opponent.
Needless to say, the United States ended up making mistakes, as the author sees it. Under consecutive administrations, Washington overestimated the willingness of individual nations, especially those in conflict with each other, to change attitudes and behavior solely according to American persuasions. The deep roots of ethnic and religious conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan would not be diminished with either military or economic aid. Nor would the rejection of respective positions be overcome in the Middle East. We could apply military power wherever needed, but we could not secure transformation in the minds of people. Mandelbaum spends much time explaining how that transformation did work in post WWII Germany and Japan, but could never be duplicated in the post-Cold War era.
In the case of China and Russia, U.S. foreign policy decision makers were unable to recognize how American policies (NATO expansion) or interpretations of manifest destiny (China’s perceptions of long-standing grievances demanding recognition in the South China Sea) would clash for both strategic and domestic policy reasons.
The analysis ends with an assumption that the road to overcoming old nationalist conflicts in the 21st century has ended with a restoration of conditions which tends to resemble 1916
rather than 2016. He argues that the U.S. belief in the universality of its values and its institutions has become tainted by the impact of failed missions and policies, both at home and abroad, be it the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the economic implosions of 2008. That left resentment and hostility in lots of places and a serious trust deficit in U.S. leadership. It also left a lot of lost opportunities for the United States to realign its values and interests in a changing environment of power and influence.
That is all pretty depressing and no chapter offers solutions to remedy the problem. Presumably, the next administration in Washington will face the same ongoing challenges Mandelbaum describes. Certainly, the rising threats of terrorism are long-term, generational threats as are those of climate change. The danger of nuclear conflict rise with proliferation of weapons produced by North Korea or potentially Iran. Russian and Chinese confrontational behavior will not likely end in the near future, as leaders in both countries flex their military and political muscles in the wake of what they may perceive as retreating U.S. power.
At the same time, liberal democratic governments are coping with incredibly nervous voters watching how events at home and abroad are impacting their lives.
Yet one has to wonder whether there are still enough opportunities to respond to the future by measuring whether there actually were more instances of progress than one extracts from this book. The global economic situation for millions of people around the globe has improved. The military equation of global power is clearly still favoring the dominance of U.S. forces.
The United States counts far more countries around the globe as partners in confronting threats than any of its challengers, and many of them want to be under the shelter of an alliance like NATO or in partnership in Southeast Asia. And despite the clear gap between rhetoric and reality in many cases, the United States remains far more attractive as a political, economic, and indeed cultural model than what is being offered by repressive governments in Moscow and Beijing.
The United States is exceptional in that it can call out its own mistakes and try hard to correct them. It is not exceptional when it ignores or denies them.
There might have been a chapter which called out this year’s White House hopefuls to remember how to rethink the mission and to remember lessons learned about mission failures. Maybe we will see that in the upcoming debates before November 8. But what happens after the election is more important.