Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Dean Acheson as being secretary of state in 1945. He assumed that position in 1949.

On Feb. 18, 1970, Richard M. Nixon delivered what in retrospect might seem an uncharacteristically humble speech. “America,” the first-term president told a war-weary Congress, “cannot — and will not — conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.” The United States, he went on, would serve only as “a weight — not the weight — in the scale.”

It was a passing moment of balance-of-power, foreign policy modesty for Nixon, who went on to author epic bombing campaigns against North Vietnam, a diplomatic opening with China, the concept of detente with the Soviet Union and some truly radical, and unilateral, economic policy experimentation.

The retreating spirit isn’t an easy fit for American leaders. “You pay the same price for doing something halfway as for doing it completely,” Nixon once observed. He fretted that the United States was in danger of going “down the drain as a great power” and did everything he could to maximize the country’s muscle. Yet Nixon’s vacillation over America’s role in the world embodied a theme of his presidency and a perpetual tension in American foreign policy — between the desire to dominate the world and the impulse to pull back when the costs and consequences rise.

In his engaging and richly anecdotal new book, “Maximalist,” Stephen Sestanovich applies that understanding as a framework for reexamining post-World War II U.S. history to find the persistent truths and lessons that he believes can inform our understanding of the present. Presidents who seek to put America’s stamp on the world — the “maximalists” — garner attention, but those who inherit the burden of retrenchment often enjoy political benefits at home for curbing military adventures, reducing spending and returning the nation’s focus to domestic issues.

Nixon, at least in his first term, was one such president. The most recent is President Obama, whose reelection came less than a year after he held a news conference at the Pentagon to announce that “long-term nation-building” and “large military footprints” were no longer tools of U.S. policy. He invoked another figure Sestanovich has identified as a retrenchment president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose tenure was defined in part by efforts to scale back international military obligations and restore a balance with domestic programs.

‘Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama’ by Stephen Sestanovich (Knopf )

Beyond the simple binary designation of presidents, Sestanovich delves thoughtfully into the recurrent patterns of U.S. foreign policy and puts the lie to the myth that Americans have ever reached broad consensus on how to — or even whether to — in Obama’s words, “do big things.” Far from it. Budget constraints, policy mistakes and the usual triumph of short-term opportunism over longer-term strategic planning have plagued U.S. foreign policy decision-making since at least the end of World War II.

A scholar of the Soviet Union and a former U.S. diplomat who now teaches at Columbia University, Sestanovich shows that the ambitions of policymakers and the cycles of public opinion that drive them are inevitable and recurrent. He is at his best in describing the Johnson and Nixon administrations, capturing the infighting among those presidents and their senior advisers as they grappled with America’s role in the world. Perhaps that is because Lyndon Johnson was in some ways a recalcitrant maximalist, just as Nixon was an unlikely retrenchment president.

Sestanovich begins his survey at the end of World War II. In late 1945, future secretary of state Dean Acheson summarized the public’s view of foreign policy in three bullet points: “1. Bring the boys home. 2. Don’t be a Santa Claus. 3. Don’t be pushed around.” Acheson’s boss, President Harry Truman, thought he’d enjoy the benefits of a military wind-down after Japan’s surrender in 1945; instead, with the onset of the Cold War he ramped up spending on nuclear weapons and conventional forces and began a process of stationing U.S. troops abroad that ultimately resulted in 450 bases in 36 countries.

When the crises fade, the costs kick in. Eisenhower, the architect of the D-Day invasion, tried at every turn to corral military spending and take a more collaborative approach to the world. He accomplished strong domestic growth and moderated the nation’s tendency toward military involvement in the world. But by the time his two terms were nearing an end, the campaign to succeed him was dominated by discussions of whether the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union and needed to expand its international presence.

That cycle is evident even now, as the nation debates how to handle the collection of telephone and digital records that the National Security Agency has aggressively gathered since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In another context, Sestanovich quotes George Tenet, the CIA director who served Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and might know something about the increase in cyber-surveillance. Tenet once joked that inside the Beltway, for every action “there is an unequal and opposite overreaction.”

And that in some ways is the overarching lesson of Sestanovich’s book. The day may come when the United States either wearies permanently of — or simply cannot afford — its maximalist tendencies. But it is as likely as not that the next president will face a challenge that calls for even greater exercises of American power.

Near the end of the book, Sestanovich cites comments by former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton that echo what Nixon said in 1970. It is in the country’s “DNA” to work with “disparate countries and people together around common goals.” But she adds a maximalist flourish: “We do believe there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved.”

Marcus Brauchli , a former executive editor of The Washington Post and a former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, is a media consultant.


America in the World From Truman to Obama

By Stephen Sestanovich

Knopf. 402 pp. 28.95