In January we noted the Foreign Policy article on the Bush Doctrine by Yale history professor John Lewis Gaddis in our post “The Bush Doctine as grand strategy.” (The article does not appear to be available online now.) Professor Gaddis has expanded the article into a book (Surprise, Security, and the American Experience) due out next month, and the book is the occasion for today’s Boston Globe article “Grand old policy.”
Professor Gaddis is the preeminent American diplomatic historian. His 1998 We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History is a debate-closing book on the longstanding academic controversy over the origin of the Cold War. In addition to his purely historical pursuits, Professor Gaddis’s academic interests include the revival of the study of grand strategy.
Laura Secor is the author of the Globe article, and she frames Gaddis’s thesis with the skepticism that the typical Globe reader would bring to it:
Every president makes foreign policy. Only a select few, over the sweep of history, design what scholars term grand strategy.
Grand strategy is the blueprint from which policy follows. It envisions a country’s mission, defines its interests, and sets its priorities. Part of grand strategy’s grandeur lies in its durability: A single grand strategy can shape decades, even centuries, of policy.
Who, then, have been the great grand strategists among American statesmen? According to a slim forthcoming volume by John Lewis Gaddis, the Yale historian whom many describe as the dean of Cold War studies and one of the nation’s most eminent diplomatic historians, they are John Quincy Adams, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and George W. Bush.
Gaddis knows the latter name may bring a number of his colleagues up short. Critics charge that President Bush is a lightweight, Gaddis laments, and they do so because the president is a generalist who prefers the big picture to its details. Over lunch at Mory’s, Yale’s tweedy private dining club, Gaddis suggests that academics underrate Bush because they overvalue specialized knowledge. In reality, as his new book asserts, after Sept. 11, 2001, Bush underwent “one of the most surprising transformations of an underrated national leader since Prince Hal became Henry V.”
Professor Gaddis not only credits President Bush with formulating a successsor to the Rooseveltian postwar grand strategy that was appropriate to America’s post-9/11 circumstances, but also with early success in applying the strategy:
The postwar United States extended its sphere of influence partly through generous economic aid, partly through the alliance system, and largely by the consent of the states in its orbit. So long as the Soviet Union was around, small states always knew that there was something worse than American domination.
The end of the Cold War changed all that — and found the United States without a grand strategy. President Bill Clinton, says Gaddis, thought that “globalization and democratization were irreversible processes, therefore we didn’t need a grand strategy. Clinton said as much at one point. I think that was shallow. I think they were asleep at the switch.”
Enter Prince Hal. The Bush administration, marvels Gaddis, undertook a decisive and courageous reassessment of American grand strategy following the shock of the 9/11 attacks. At his doctrine’s center, Bush placed the democratization of the Middle East and the urgent need to prevent terrorists and rogue states from getting nuclear weapons. Bush also boldly rejected the constraints of an outmoded international system that was really nothing more than a “snapshot of the configuration of power that existed in 1945,” Gaddis says.
Despite the dark predictions of critics, Gaddis writes, so far the military action in Iraq has produced “a modest improvement in American and global economic conditions; an intensified dialogue within the Arab world about political reform; a withdrawal of American forces from Saudi Arabia . . .; and an increasing nervousness on the part of the Syrian and Iranian governments as they contemplated the consequences of being surrounded by American clients or surrogates.” Indeed, Gaddis writes, the United States has emerged “as a more powerful and purposeful actor within the international system than it had been on Sept. 11, 2001.”
That’s not to say that the Bush administration has behaved flawlessly. Gaddis says, “They don’t give enough weight to how frightening it can be if you have that much power and then you deploy it, and you deploy language foolishly.” Nonetheless, he stresses, “I do take them very seriously. I do think Bush is in charge himself, and has been very underrated as a leader in all of this just as Ronald Reagan was underrated.”
Secor also sought out distinguished academic critics of Gaddis’s thesis, whom she quotes in the article. This is a serious piece of journalism on an important subject.
UPDATE: Peter Schramm has a wonderful comment on Secor’s piece in his post on it at No Left Turns.
MORE: Benjamin Udell has kindly forwarded us a current link to Professor Gaddis’s Foreign Policy article: “A grand strategy of transformation.”