Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama

Overview

From a writer with long and high-level experience in the U.S. government, a startling and provocative assessment of America’s global dominance. Maximalist puts the history of our foreign policy in an unexpected new light, while drawing fresh, compelling lessons for the present and future.

When the United States has succeeded in the world, Stephen Sestanovich argues, it has done so not by staying the course but by having to change it—usually amid deep controversy and uncertainty....

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Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama

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Overview

From a writer with long and high-level experience in the U.S. government, a startling and provocative assessment of America’s global dominance. Maximalist puts the history of our foreign policy in an unexpected new light, while drawing fresh, compelling lessons for the present and future.

When the United States has succeeded in the world, Stephen Sestanovich argues, it has done so not by staying the course but by having to change it—usually amid deep controversy and uncertainty. For decades, the United States has been a power like no other. Yet presidents and policy makers worry that they—and, even more, their predecessors—haven’t gotten things right. Other nations, they say to themselves, contribute little to meeting common challenges. International institutions work badly. An effective foreign policy costs too much. Public support is shaky. Even the greatest successes often didn’t feel that way at the time.      
    
Sestanovich explores the dramatic results of American global primacy built on these anxious foundations, recounting cycles of overcommitment and underperformance, highs of achievement and confidence followed by lows of doubt. We may think there was a time when America’s international role reflected bipartisan unity, policy continuity, and a unique ability to work with others, but Maximalist tells a different story—one of divided administrations and divisive decision making, of clashes with friends and allies, of regular attempts to set a new direction. Doing too much has always been followed by doing too little, and vice versa.

Maximalist unearths the backroom stories and personalities that bring American foreign policy to life. Who knew how hard Lyndon Johnson fought to stay out of the war in Vietnam—or how often Henry Kissinger ridiculed the idea of visiting China? Who remembers that George Bush Sr. found Ronald Reagan’s diplomacy too passive—or that Bush Jr. considered Bill Clinton’s too active? Leaders and scoundrels alike emerge from this retelling in sharper focus than ever before. Sestanovich finds lessons in the past that anticipate and clarify our chaotic present. 

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
10/14/2013
A Clinton-era diplomat, Reagan administration official, and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Sestanovich is well placed to assess the course of American foreign policy since WWII. He does so in lively prose with the understanding of a practitioner as well as an academic. While his trenchant narrative of America’s changing posture toward the world can carry itself, Sestanovich hangs it on a framework that it doesn’t require. The U.S., he argues, has oscillated over the past half-century between all-in “maximalism” and more restrained “retrenchment” approaches to international affairs, the use of its power, and the strength of its military forces. It’s difficult to argue with that characterization, though it doesn’t add much to what Sestanovich authoritatively relates. It’s a line of thought that echoes the long-running tension between realism and idealism in American foreign policy—a classic, probably unresolvable academic and official debate. Also, Sestanovich’s confusing restraint in assessing what he calls retrenchment makes changes in policy seem more fundamental than they were. With that said, this is a valuable survey of America’s international policies since 1945, and anyone would benefit from and enjoy reading it. (Feb.)
Kirkus Reviews
2014-06-13
An informed analysis of American foreign policy that reveals a cyclical pattern.Sestanovich (International Diplomacy/Columbia Univ.) served in high posts under Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan and is currently asenior fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. In this overview of the last 12 presidential administrations, he identifies two contrasting stances: maximalism, characterized by aggressive, expensive responses to international challenges; and retrenchment, efforts “to unwind a disaster and to put American policy on a more sustainable foundation.” Truman, Kennedy, Reagan and George W. Bush were maximalists, the author writes. Eisenhower, Ford, Johnson, Nixon and Carter undertook retrenchment, providing “a corrective to the other’s mistakes.” Clinton and George H.W. Bush were hybrids. In each case, “when retrenchment fails to rebuild American power, meet new challenges, or compete effectively, the maximalist reappears, ready with ambitious formulas for doing so.” No matter who was president, Sestanovich found vehement discord among advisers, in Congress, and in public discourse, as maximalists vied with retrenchers or, midstream, changed their positions. In 1948, for example, Truman’s advisers Dean Acheson and George Kennan were at odds, with Kennan believing the Cold War was “a temporary spike of tension” that could be resolved through compromise, and Acheson refusing to yield to Soviet demands. The author analyzes Kennedy’s decision-making about Russia’s presence in Cuba and Johnson’s about Vietnam, which resulted in the administration’s conclusion “that the United States would succeed only if it could run the show.” The Obama administration began with retrenchment, Sestanovich writes, but while Obama favors “innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches,” among those innovations are forceful measures such as drones, surveillance and Special Forces strikes.As his title implies, Sestanovich believes in “productive maximalism” that acknowledges America’s imperative to “call the shots” to achieve “a satisfactory global order—secure, prosperous, and democratic.” This book gives ample evidence of the rocky road toward that goal.
From the Publisher
“[An] analytic tour de force . . . a useful and often original look at the strategies of the last 12 American presidents . . . a strong case. . . . Anyone interested in the past or the future of American foriegn policy and power would benefit from its insights.” —Walter Russell Mead, Foreign Affairs 

“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. . . . 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.” —Marcus Brauchli, The Washington Post

“Maximalist . . . makes clear that the U.S. has never achieved strategic continuity. American strategy has frequently shifted, sometimes over the course of a single administration, and these disruptions have often proved beneficial to our national security. . . . [An] excellent book.” —Sohrab Ahmari, The Wall Street Journal

“Among the many virtues of Maximalist is the mathematical elegance of its thesis. . . .Maximalist surveys American foreign policy from Truman to Obama. . . . Compelling. . . . Refreshingly non-partisan.” —Michael Doran, Commentary

Maximalist is a highly readable account of American engagement during the Cold War and the War on Terror. It provides a commonsense means to assess American military and diplomatic policy without the fog of political rhetoric.” —Karl Wolff, New York Journal of Books

“A leading voice. . . . Offers a provocative reasssement of America's global dominance. . . . Sestanovich finds fresh lessons in the past that clarify our chaotic present."
The Record

“Incisive and provocative. Written by one of our country’s foremost scholars, Maximalist is rich with anecdotes and enlivened by little-known details about well-known events. Sestanovich has made a masterful contribution to the history of modern American diplomacy.” —Madeleine Albright
 
“This is one of the most important books ever written about U.S. foreign policy. It will immediately join George F. Kennan’s classic American Diplomacy as essential reading for all students of America’s behavior in the world. In fact, it should replace it. Sestanovich is a brilliant and insightful writer. His book couldn’t be more timely.” —Robert Kagan, author of The World America Made
 
Maximalist is a nicely provocative and highly readable account of how presidents have used American power since World War II. It combines carefully researched history with advice that is very relevant to the situation of the United States today.” —Joseph S. Nye, Jr., author of Soft Power and Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era 

“Americans routinely need to be reminded that our past was not as smooth and rosy as we like to remember it; Stephen Sestanovich provides a masterful and entertaining corrective.  Maximalist is beautifully written, with engaging anecdotes woven throughout. Most important, it  will change your view of Obama's foreign policy.” —Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO, New America Foundation; Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307268174
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/11/2014
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 138,544
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Sestanovich served as U.S. ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet Union during the Clinton administration, as a senior staff member at the National Security Council and the State Department during the Reagan administration, and as senior legislative assistant to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He is currently the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

“We Do Big Things”

In 2003, forty years after [President Kennedy’s] death, when America’s reputation abroad was in tatters, I was in Rome for a speaking engagement, and invited by a local foreign policy group to give an address. “On what subject?” I asked the chairman. “Tell us about the good America, when Kennedy was president,” he said. I did. I talked about an America admired for its values, respected for its principles, not feared for its might or resented for its success; an America that led by listening, worked with the rest of the world, and respected international law; an America that stood for peace, not one that started wars.

—Ted Sorensen

it is hard to think of any country that has ever put a larger stamp on its time than the United States of America in the second half of the twentieth century. In the wake of two world wars, which left other major powers severely crippled, America made the decisive contributions to global recovery. During the Cold War and long afterward, it was an anchor of security, an agent of prosperity, an advocate of national independence and political modernization. The most valuable institutions of international cooperation were, directly or indirectly, inspired by the United States. Its impact, moreover, extended far beyond high politics. American ways of doing things encouraged economic, social, cultural, intellectual, and technological innovation around the world.

That, at any rate, was the twentieth century. The twenty-first has already been different. Its early years brought terrorist attacks, diplomatic isolation, a burst of global anti-Americanism, and military campaigns that the United States found easy to start, impossible to win, and extremely difficult to end. To these travails were added a global financial crisis, widely blamed on American mismanagement, and a shake-up in the international economic pecking order. The United States is now on track, some say a fast one, to lose its position as the world’s largest economy. Scholars and pundits argue that its central role in international politics is also at risk. And with Washington policy making blocked by partisan gridlock, many question the country’s ability to cope with significant new challenges.

America’s past and present, in short, have rarely seemed so different from each other. One result of this mismatch has been a surge of interest in the ingredients of our previous success. What was it that once enabled the United States to deal so effectively with so many international problems—to give the world so much while also getting so much in return? Although military power and economic growth are essential ingredients of a large global role, many find the real secret of America’s large achievements in its readiness to create equal partnerships with other nations, to take their interests and ideas into account, and to play by mutually agreed rules. For others, the key lies in policy continuity over long periods, the kind of steadfastness across decades that—to take the most glorious example—produced victory in the Cold War. Still others point to the importance of national consensus. In the past, it is said, when Americans agreed on how to handle big problems, they were able—in Barack Obama’s words—to “do big things.”

it is the argument of this book that there is much to learn from the history of American foreign policy, but that we can’t learn it from the sepia-tinted versions of the past that have dominated public discussion in recent years. Play well with others; make sure the country is united; find a good strategy and stick to it: our history has a more interesting story to tell us than these homilies suggest. The reason that the past can help us chart the future is that it was just as confused and chaotic as the present. It reminds us how often we have clashed with our friends and misunderstood our enemies, how often policy makers have miscalculated what they could accomplish, how rarely they kept commitments in balance with available resources, and how often they acted in full knowledge that public opinion was against them.

To take even a half-serious look at the history of American alliances is to learn how ambivalent Washington policy makers have been about working with others. Yes, they always aspired to join with like-minded governments in a spirit of give and take. They sincerely believed in the value of multilateral institutions and the advantages of observing accepted rules of the road. Yet in tackling the toughest problems, our leaders have—with some justice—usually come to doubt that collaborative approaches would succeed. Consulting with allies is one thing; letting their interests, not to mention their chronic indecision and feebleness, undermine American policy is something else entirely. It is no exaggeration to say that the history of American foreign policy is the history of what presidents and their advisers do once they conclude that others, at home and abroad, are not likely to help them very much.

No president illustrates this point better, as it happens, than the hero of Ted Sorensen’s “good America” story. John Kennedy’s exceptionally difficult relations with allied governments were captured in the title of Henry Kissinger’s 1965 book on the subject, The Troubled Partnership. As we will see, the animosity between Kennedy, on the one hand, and the leaders of France and West Germany, on the other, exceeded any case of transatlantic discord until the presidency of George W. Bush. Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer complained that Kennedy, when not simply deceiving them, was pursuing policies that put the security and independence of their countries at risk. Adenauer had a special reason to resent the young U.S. president, who openly maneuvered to oust him from his job. And De Gaulle may have known that American officials thought he needed “a psychiatrist.”

John Kennedy was, usually able to count on greater support from the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, than from the leaders of France and Germany. (So, of course, was George W. Bush.) But the Anglo-American “special relationship” had many lapses of understanding and outbursts of bad feeling. When the United States decided, in August 1962, to breach an international embargo on major arms sales to Israel, Macmillan sent Kennedy a furious protest. The prime minister expressed his personal “disgust and despair” at what he called a “disgraceful piece of trickery.” As always, when British and American priorities in the Middle East diverged, Washington insisted on taking its own approach and left London to adjust as best it could. (Macmillan had long been unhappy with Britain’s subservience to America. Early in his career, he compared relations between the two countries to the way “Greek slaves ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius.”)

Relations between the United States and its close allies have evolved since Kennedy’s day, but the problems that frustrated him have not gone away. American policy makers still find it difficult to get others to work with them as productively as they would like. In July 2009, in her first major speech as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton explained why. Multilateral cooperation, she said, often fails because other countries are so heavily influenced by things like “history, geography, ideology and inertia.” Even when a common interest is at stake, uncooperative governments “sit on the sidelines or sow discord and division.”

Speaking for a new administration committed to treating other countries with greater respect, Clinton expressed a dilemma that has vexed American policy makers for decades. She set forth principles of liberal internationalism with verve and conviction, but she was also clear-eyed about how much stood in the way of making these principles a reality. Obstacles to cooperation (which she gave their correct academic name, “collective action problems”) could only be overcome, she insisted, by American leadership. “No challenge,” she said, “can be met without America.”

Hillary Clinton’s predecessors, and presidential advisers of both parties, shared her view, and they were often far less polite about it. John Connally, Nixon’s treasury secretary, said of the economic disputes he handled, “The foreigners are trying to screw us, but I intend to screw them first.” John Foster Dulles, who served Eisenhower as secretary of state, dismissed Europe’s leaders as a group of “shattered ‘old people.’ ” Allied governments, complained Dean Rusk, who served Kennedy in the same job, had grown too accustomed to having all problems addressed by “an American plan put together as a complete plan from A to Z.” (Rusk’s exasperation showed when he snapped at a British journalist: “When the Russians invade Sussex, don’t expect us to come and help you.”) With other countries able to contribute so little, Walt Rostow, Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser, thought the United States had to act on “a relatively lonely stage.” It had to play this solitary role for years, “without throwing our sheriff’s badge in the dust.”

Because working with others has been so maddeningly hard for the United States, we cannot look to the past for ready-made solutions to “collective action problems.” For those who have convinced themselves that the troubles of the past decade were caused by simple neglect of some well-established collaborative tradition, this will be a disappointment. We don’t really have such a tradition. Yet the difficulties faced by past presidents and policy makers also mean that their experiences were closer to ours than we think. They too dealt with allies who couldn’t agree on much, with semifunctional multilateral institutions, and with the thankless consequences of trying to solve every problem through American “leadership.”

The lessons of this story can aid our thinking now and in the future. To learn them, we have to look closely at what past administrations accomplished and failed to accomplish. We will not get the answers right if we think we know them in advance.

a quick scan of our history also makes it impossible to believe that the global role of the United States was based on strategic continuity from one decade to the next. We are not wrong to consider American diplomacy in the second half of the twentieth century a gigantic success story, but it usually didn’t feel that way at the time. Until the very last years of the Cold War, every president leaving Washington at the end of an administration was widely condemned for his foreign policy record. Some were virtually run out of town. Almost every new occupant of the Oval Office thought the world had changed in some fundamental way that his predecessor either totally misunderstood or failed to manage effectively.

This was how Truman viewed Roosevelt, how Eisenhower viewed Truman, how Kennedy viewed Eisenhower, and so on. Twenty years later, when Ronald Reagan took over from Jimmy Carter, his verdict was harsher still. Reagan believed that America had been losing the Cold War for at least the previous three presidencies.

Some of these claims were unfair and partisan, but they were not mere campaign rhetoric. They shaped the outlook and actions of most new administrations. The story of American foreign policy, we will see, is not one of dogged continuity but of regular, repeated, and successful efforts to change course.

What pushed presidents to seek a new foreign policy direction? The short answer is, two different types of failure. The first was the kind usually associated during the Cold War with the word crisis—some alarming new challenge that raised the prospect of a major American setback and required an urgent response. These moments of crisis included Western Europe’s seeming economic collapse in the winter of 1947, North Korea’s attack on the South in 1950, the launch of Sputnik in 1957, Nikita Khrushchev’s threat to strangle West Berlin in 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, martial law in Poland in 1981, Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait in 1990, Balkan mass murder later in the decade, and of course the attacks of September 11, 2001. Time and again, Washington’s response was, to use George Kennan’s description of the debate triggered by the Korean War, like “a stone thrown into a beehive.”

At such moments, amid frenzied debate about what to do next, American policy makers usually concluded that a large response was the only way to turn back the threat at hand—and the still larger ones probably lurking behind it. The United States would have to develop new ideas, generate new resources, make new commitments, shake up the status quo. Our leaders typically had just one answer to such problems: Do more. Think big. Pedal to the metal.

“Maximalist” presidents, of course, heard from some of their advisers that the United States was overreacting, that the crisis reflected local conditions rather than a global challenge, or that doing too much might well worsen the situation and even undermine American interests. But they usually rejected such balanced advice. These presidents—Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan are the most obvious examples—wanted a big package of countermeasures. Maximalist policy making did not necessarily mean taking reckless or mindless action, and the most extreme imaginable responses were generally ruled out. But any plausible idea about how to push back usually got a sympathetic hearing.

We find a very different pattern when we look at presidents who had to cope with a second type of failure: that of overcommitment. Here Eisenhower and Nixon are the classic examples. Both were Cold War presidents charged with closing down stalemated wars at bearable cost. Their job was to unwind a disaster and to put American policy on a more sustainable foundation. They sought to calm an angry public, to shift responsibilities to friends and allies, to explore accommodation with adversaries, to narrow commitments and reduce costs. They too faced dissenters within their own ranks—advisers convinced that the global position of the United States could not survive any scaling back—and they too overruled them. The motto of America’s “retrenchment” presidents was the opposite of the one adopted by our “maximalists.” Do less, they said, not more. Think harder, not bigger. Hit the brakes, not the gas.

Strategies of “maximalism” and “retrenchment” bear an obvious cyclical relation to each other. Again and again, one has provided a corrective to the other’s mistakes. When the maximalist overreaches, the retrencher comes in to pick up the pieces. Then when retrenchment fails to rebuild American power, meet new challenges, or compete effectively, the maximalist reappears, ready with ambitious formulas for doing so.

Since the 1940s, we have seen this cycle played out at least three times. The first cycle began with the activism of the early Cold War—for many, American policy’s “golden age.” It ended with the seeming drift of the late Eisenhower administration. The second began with the activism of the New Frontier and ended with the abandonment of détente in the late 1970s. The third cycle opened with Ronald Reagan’s claim that America had the ability to “begin the world over again.”8 Whether this third cycle ever really ended—and if so, when; if not, why not—is one puzzle in the story ahead of us.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: “We Do Big Things”

Part One: 1947–1960
1. Truman at the Creation: “The United States Must Run This Show”
2. Truman at War: “Victory Is a Strong Magnet”
3. “Enough Is Enough”: Eisenhower and Retrenchment

Part Two: 1961–1980
4. “Boy Commandos” of the New Frontier: Kennedy’s Anxious Activism
5. “Mainly Violins, with Touches of Brass”:Johnson Against His Advisers
6. “We Have Not Been Divided”: Johnson at War
7. Retrenchment and Vietnam: “Get Going, Take Risks, Be Exciting”
8. Retrenchment and Détente: “A Nihilistic Nightmare”

Part Three: 1981 to the Present
9. “Outspend Them Forever”: Reagan and the End of the Cold War
10. “No One Else Can Do This”: Bush, Clinton, and the Retrenchment That Wasn’t
11. “Things Related and Not”: Bush and September 11
12. “No Wiggle Room”: Obama and Retrenchment

Epilogue: “If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Overdoing”

Acknowledgments
Notes
Index

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