The officials who make foreign policy don’t have it easy. Trapped between the domestic political environment on one side and the international system on the other, they have modest freedom to choose a course of action. They need to weigh the relative merits of several policy options on a vast range of intricate and thorny issues, many of them interconnected. And every few years, the senior management of the operation is completely replaced, with the top jobs going to newcomers who often know little about the issues in question.
How those newcomers handle themselves in office is a perennially interesting question and one that the journalist James Mann has made something of a cottage industry. His 2004 book, “The Rise of the Vulcans,” chronicled the backgrounds and experiences of George W. Bush’s initial foreign policy team, and “The Obamians” does something similar for the current administration.
Mann is a good reporter. He writes clearly and accessibly, often with insight and sound judgment. There are gaps in the new book’s coverage (Israel, Europe, trade), but the subjects he does treat (national security, Afghanistan and Pakistan, China, the Arab Spring) are handled accurately and without ideological bias. And here, as before, Mann’s strength is his close attention to the political and professional backgrounds of key administration officials, many of whom he interviewed.
The portrait is mixed. Mann argues that President Obama himself dominates foreign policy, relying on a few close junior staffers in the White House to execute his will while more senior, high-profile figures in the Cabinet protect his political flanks. The president comes off as smart, disciplined and engaged, but also arrogant, controlling, thin-skinned and political. He gives big speeches filled with grand rhetoric and ambitious goals, but not much of that gets translated into policy or achievement. Obama tries to escape stark choices, preferring to reconcile seemingly opposed courses of action. The record includes some successes and some failures, some bullets dodged, and a lot of cans kicked down the road.
Little of this is wrong, but little is surprising, either. The book is a good representation of conventional Washington discussion about the subject — event-driven, superficial and solipsistic. There is a lot of America in these pages, but not much foreign or policy.
At one point, Mann distinguishes between the Obamians (who had backgrounds in Congress and became loyal White House aides) and a group of experienced Democratic foreign policy professionals he calls the Trout Fishers (because of their penchant for fishing excursions during meetings of the blue-ribbon Aspen Strategy Group). Compared with the Trout Fishers, the Obamians “tended to know less about the nuances and subtleties of an issue, and they were less concerned with the practical details of governance. They were, however, more adept at providing a determined opposition to the Republicans, and much better at figuring out what to say in public about foreign policy [during the 2008 campaign]. They found it easier to offer the broad perspective of outsiders.”
The problem, of course, is that once in office, outsiders end up having to grapple with all those pesky nuances and details. The Obamians prove smart enough to understand that throwing the standard foreign policy playbook out the window will make things worse rather than better. And so they eventually trim their sails and act less transformationally than either supporters or opponents expected.
Mann tells this story, but because he rarely gets down into the weeds of specific policy choices, he doesn’t give the reader a strong sense of why this evolution is usually a good thing. The reason is that, as the Trout Fisher types of both parties understand, the basic template for American foreign policy has been relatively constant for almost seven decades now and needs only tweaking and updating, not fundamental revision.
The central task facing each new administration is pretty much the same: figuring out how to consolidate, protect and extend the liberal international order that emerged in the West after World War II. This order has both domestic and international components: At its core are democracies with mixed economies cooperating and trading with each other, nestling closely under an American security umbrella. It has provided a framework within which local economic, social and political development has proceeded across the globe, to the net benefit of the United States and the world at large. Generations of policymakers in Washington and allied capitals have nurtured and guarded their precious offspring, keeping at bay a host of dangers — war and aggression, economic nationalism, disruption and chaos.
The order derived from Western policymakers’ reflections on the nightmares of the interwar period, when unregulated markets and uncoordinated behavior led to economic disaster and the rise of aggressive dictatorships. The outlines of the system were sketched before the postwar break with the Soviet Union, and “containment” was a late (if complementary and appropriate) addition to the policy mix. Rather than saying that the Cold War caused the order, in other words, it is more accurate to say that the Soviet Union’s unwillingness to take part in the order caused the Cold War. This is why the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union changed the world less than many expected: Since those were never central to the order, their passing did little to affect it, merely paving the way for its extension into areas previously off-limits.
In recent years, the threats to the order have evolved. As the danger of conflict between the great powers has receded and globalization has taken off, terrorism — historically a secondary concern — has gained new importance. Countries such as China, India and Brazil have emerged as powerful regional actors and crucial pillars of an ever-more-interdependent global economy. U.S. influence in non-military arenas has diminished, and the institutions used to manage the system no longer work well. The challenge for policymakers in Washington and elsewhere today, therefore, is devising ways to revitalize the order, giving it a new lease on life so future generations, here and abroad, can continue to enjoy its benefits.
As for the Obama team’s record on this front, history will probably say that it made some progress, primarily by cauterizing some of the wounds of the Bush years. Thanks to its efforts, the next administration will inherit a cleaner slate and be able to focus less on crisis management and more on the big picture of global governance. That might sound like a small win — but given the extraordinary stakes for which this game is being played, even a small win is welcome indeed.
The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power
By James Mann
Viking. 392 pp. $26.95