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The Truman Standard

Authors: James M. Goldgeier, Dean, School of International Service, American University, and Derek H. Chollet, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security
Summer 2006
The American Interest

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“Soon after arriving at the State Department”, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in December 2005, “I hung a portrait of Dean Acheson in my office.” The reason for choosing the visage of Harry Truman’s second Secretary of State to gaze down upon her? “Like Acheson and his contemporaries, we live in an extraordinary time—one in which the terrain of international politics is shifting beneath our feet and the pace of historical change outstrips even the most vivid imagination.”

In and of itself, this is nothing new. Since the end of the Cold War, it has become customary for American secretaries of state to compare the challenges before them to those confronted by Truman and his two distinguished top diplomats, Acheson and his predecessor, General George C. Marshall. But the second term Bush team has taken this comparison to a new level. Particularly at the State Department, the Truman-Acheson reference has become a mantra, part of the standard, bedrock rhetoric of the Secretary both in her prepared and extemporaneous remarks. Secretary Rice and President Bush clearly want this comparison to be accepted and made by others. But in some important ways the analogy, if thought through, highlights more of the Administration’s shortcomings than its strengths. What, then, is the Truman Standard, and how does the Bush Administration really measure up to it?

Analogies, Intended and Not

It’s easy to see why Secretary Rice, President Bush and others in the Administration invoke Truman and Acheson when explaining their own circumstances and choices. Like Truman, Bush takes pride in being plainspoken and enjoys needling Washington’s political and policy elite. The Truman Administration, facing novel and unexpected challenges, rose to the occasion with sharp analysis, bold policy change and courageous leadership in the face of much hidebound skepticism and fear. The principals of the Bush Administration fancy themselves as having done the same thing.

In a way, this has been inevitable. After all, the Cold War story of danger, struggle, determination and victory is the happy-ending story they know best. Rice often mentions that when she was watching the USSR break apart as the White House Soviet specialist during 1989-1991, she “was only harvesting the good decisions that had been taken in 1947, in 1948, and in 1949.” A half century from now serious historians may conclude that the British success at defeating the Indian Rebellion of 1857—which sparked broad unrest against British rule on the subcontinent—is a better analogy to the American “war on terror”, but no one should expect American leaders to draw from that or any other similarly distant historical event.

Besides, there are arguable parallels between the late 1940s and the early years of this century. Then, some sixty years ago, the Soviet Union had occupied half of Europe and exploded an atomic bomb, and with communism sprouting up in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, Truman and his team feared a new existential threat to the United States just a few short years after the defeat of fascism. Now, the challenges posed by the nexus of al-Qaeda and the perils of WMD proliferation seem similarly to pose an existential threat, and again a threat rising unexpectedly just after a great victory. So as the Truman Administration recognized the scope of the threat and responded to scale, the Bush Administration strives to do the same. Just as freedom and democracy were the guiding inner lights of Truman’s vision, so they are for George W. Bush. And just as building democratic allies in Germany and Japan were the key arenas for the success of containment, so the Bush team views the creation of a democratic Iraq and Afghanistan as similar in importance to the success of its long-term strategy. None of this is farfetched.

No less important a Truman parallel is the belief that George W. Bush will be vindicated by history, despite his increasing unpopularity among the American people today—not to speak of how unpopular he may be when he leaves office in January 2009. In this way, the Truman comparisons offer a kind of psychological comfort for the beleaguered Bush team. As Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said at a press briefing late last year, Truman, who is now remembered as a fine president, [left] office in 1953 with an approval rating of about 25 percent, one of the lowest recorded ratings since folks started measuring those things. . . . Back then, a great many people questioned whether young Americans should face death and injury in Korea, thousands of miles from home, for a result that seemed uncertain at best. And today the answer is the Korean peninsula. Former New York Times columnist William Safire predicted for 2006 that, “As Bush’s approval rises, historians will begin to equate his era with that of ” Truman.

It is true that Harry Truman is held in far higher esteem today than when he left office. He is now considered one of America’s greatest presidents, much admired for his humble style and his decisive, gutsy leadership. Yet what such comparisons overlook is that the Truman Administration not only helped build up two major new democracies and established the strategy of containment, but developed the tools to implement its policy over the long haul. That Administration created the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the IMF and the World Bank, institutions that have underpinned American leadership in world politics for more than half a century.

There is yet another Truman parallel that, unsurprisingly, the Bush team does not go out of its way to emphasize. In the 1952 election, with an unpopular president mired in war in Korea, both Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson and Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower ran against the Truman legacy. The year 2008 will witness the first presidential election since 1952 in which, presumably, neither the sitting president nor the vice president is running. If George W. Bush cannot turn things around in Iraq—which appears depressingly likely—candidates from both parties may well run against his record, and not just in foreign policy. The skyrocketing budget deficit, lagging health care reform, the prescription drugs-forseniors mess, and the continuing ethics scandals that often plague second-term administrations are available as campaign grist, as well. The Republicans are already heading into a difficult mid-term election in November (in the 1950 midterm elections, Truman’s Democrats were trounced, losing 5 Senate seats and 28 in the House). So at least in the short run, Bush might prove to be a lot like Truman, leaving office with little popularity and a legacy that politicians from both parties treat as a liability.

But will Bush win big in his long-term gamble—that, as with Truman, future historians will esteem him as a visionary leader? That is not clear on account of the biggest difference between the Truman of 1950 and the Bush of 2006. Truman not only created international institutions, but he also built his foreign policy with bipartisan support, so that his successors—Republican and Democratic alike—were destined to operate within the framework he created. So far, President Bush has done nothing of that scale and scope. Not only has he largely disdained formal institutions, he has also spurned bipartisanship. There is thus no lasting institutional or political legacy to ensure that his successors will adopt his general approach to world affairs.

Work to Do

What would President Bush have to accomplish in the final three years of his presidency to make his Truman show—and Rice’s supporting act to compare herself to Acheson—less a theatrical slogan than an achievement historians and the public will truly come to appreciate?

The Truman Administration faced five unprecedented challenges: turning vanquished adversaries into democratic allies; defending the free states of Europe from possible Soviet aggression; developing a new architecture for managing the global economy; creating international legitimacy for American actions abroad; and deterring the Soviet nuclear threat. As President Bush and Secretary Rice have asserted, today’s challenges are somewhat comparable. It is in America’s interest to spread freedom in the broader Middle East, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in the Palestinian Authority, Iran and Syria. Strong alliances continue to be important for that and other purposes. The global economy is under significant strain. America needs to ensure that its foreign policy actions are perceived as legitimate. And the United States faces a range of foreign policy threats, including nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, the continued threat posed by al-Qaeda, the uncertain future of a growing China, and the reassertion of Russian power, this time not least in tightening global energy markets.

The Administration has a long way to go to meet the Truman Standard, and its most serious impediment is the Iraq problem. In the 1950s, America ensured that Germany and Japan became pro-American allies because they had been occupied after the war with sufficient numbers of American troops and protracted American oversight. In Iraq, the United States bungled badly the postwar occupation. And if Iraqi democracy—or chaos and collapse—leads to greater Iranian dominance of the region, the effort will hardly be compared to postwar American leadership in Europe and Asia.

There are some areas where the Bush team is showing promising course corrections. For example, the Administration did not necessarily need to create new alliances because it inherited those created during the Cold War. But having initially decided not to work through NATO in Afghanistan and then splitting the alliance over Iraq, the Administration recognized early in its second term a need to repair the damage it had done. Deciding that the first overseas trip of his second term would be to Europe, the President stirred hopes for better relations by visiting not only NATO but the European Union in Brussels. And with an increasing NATO role in Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur, it appeared in 2005 and early this year that Bush might yet infuse the alliance with new shared purpose. Unfortunately, the disputes over treatment of terrorist suspects on European territory and U.S. policies of preventive detention have complicated efforts to forge that renewed sense of purpose.

On trade, the Administration decided early in its tenure to pursue bilateral deals and the relatively small Central American Free Trade Agreement rather than to reach for more ambitious multilateral accords. This left tough issues of the Doha Round on the back burner until it was too late to forge a comprehensive agreement at the WTO’s December meeting in Hong Kong. There is no question that concluding the Doha Round would be a real challenge for any administration given the range of demands from Europe and some of the leading developing countries, but rising to that challenge would go a long way toward defining Bush as Trumanesque.

Having soured relations with the United Nations, and alienated much of the world by the way it has handled its policies toward terrorist detainees and interrogations, the Administration seems unable to decide where to turn to rebuild American legitimacy in global affairs. The September deal with North Korea appears insubstantial; negotiations with Iran have faltered; bin Laden and Zarqawi remain at large, China has begun to dominate Asian affairs, and a more authoritarian Russia has been working to counter American democratization efforts along its borders. The Administration has made clear that it does not trust formal institutions and does not want to create new bureaucracies to develop global governance. It has preferred to work through less formal structures like the G-8, the loose frame-work Bush used to promote his Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, and the Six Party Talks for solving the North Korean nuclear problem. Some of these informal structures have been useful, but they are hardly firstorder institutions. And they often exclude countries whose cooperation is essential to solving global problems. It seems unlikely, for example, that the G-8 can really handle major transnational issues like proliferation, terrorism and global health when countries like China, India and Brazil stand on the sidelines.

There is also the question of how lasting Bush’s grand strategy, defined by preemption and democracy promotion, will really be. Will preemption get enshrined in the first half of the 21st century as containment did in the second half of the 20th? Perhaps. After all, any president faced with imminent threats of the kind that struck the United States on September 11, 2001 will want to preempt them. Yet the first test of the new strategy, Iraq, was sold as preemption in the face of an imminent weapons of mass destruction threat. Since we now know that there was no such imminent threat, the American public and the Congress might be much less compliant in future crises. A debacle in Iraq could well be the undoing of the Bush team’s efforts to develop an enduring grand strategy for the post-9/11 era.

The future of the other strategic pillar of the Bush policy, democracy promotion, is also uncertain. Secretary Rice speaks often of “transformational diplomacy”, which is underpinned by the idea (if not the practice) of promoting freedom everywhere. She has made some sensible reforms in the way professional diplomats are trained and where they are stationed. What’s missing from this notion, however, is a coherent strategy for pursuing not only democratization but other American interests as well. Few would argue against the idea that a freer and more democratic world is in America’s interests. This idea is not new; “transformational diplomacy” is little different from the doctrine of “democratic enlargement” enunciated by Bill Clinton’s first National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake, in 1993. Yet what the idea lacked in 1993, and still lacks today, is a way to apply it globally in a meaningful way. In the Cold War we knew what we wanted to contain, and where we wanted to contain it. Clinton and Bush have stated a desire to enlarge the community of democracies, but there is no consensus domestically on where, how or when to do so.

So, what can President Bush do? Like Truman, he has already shuffled some key personnel. But as even sympathetic observers have suggested, he could do a lot more in this regard and make an honest stab at bipartisanship. It might go against his every instinct and anger his base, which, with the exception of the immigration issue, he has been unwilling to do so far. But he has to do it if he is to meet the Truman Standard. To gain support for the Marshall Plan, Truman reached out to Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg and chose Republican businessman Paul Hoffman to head the agency that would oversee disbursement of the funds. Would George Bush work in partnership with the Vandenbergs of today, like Delaware Senator Joseph Biden?

Would he choose a Democrat with experience in foreign aid to head his Millennium Challenge Corporation? If he did, it would be a sign that he was not simply talking about Truman but actually taking a page from the Truman playbook.

The President could also do some secondterm institution building. New domestic and international institutions were critical to the Cold War strategic framework. Truman engineered the National Security Act of 1947 and the institutional architecture of America’s modern foreign policy and military establishment. Bush has taken major steps to reform intelligence and homeland security, but he still has a long way to go to reform how we go about promoting democratization and development. Without fundamental changes to the ways we use our so-called soft power—or what Pentagon planners call the tools to win the “long war”—the U.S. approach will continue to be piecemeal, lack focus, and ultimately fall short.

International institutions embedded American ideals and habits of cooperation into the structure of global politics, and they helped lend legitimacy to American actions. This has hardly worked perfectly, as the deep flaws of institutions like the United Nations make clear. Yet despite the boldness of his rhetoric, President Bush’s efforts to create new avenues for American legitimacy—through institutions or otherwise—have been underwhelming. The Administration’s most successful new international programs—the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Millennium Challenge Account—hardly compare with the creation of NATO or the World Bank. To meet the Truman Standard, Bush will have to develop new ways to build American legitimacy to act internationally. Perhaps transforming the Community of Democracies from an ineffectual and occasional talk-fest into a real, working alliance, with a permanent secretariat and a real budget, would be one way to do this. But the Administration has consistently opposed any such idea—at least up to now.

Finally, there is the political reality of the Bush legacy. Unless the President can find a way to turn the Iraq situation around and get American troops out gracefully, and without leaving behind a civil war, by 2008, the next presidential election will be defined by which candidates can better distinguish (and distance) themselves from the current Administration. And to leave something lasting behind, the Administration will need to reinvigorate NATO and elevate U.S. cooperation with the EU; find the key to success in the Doha Round; gain consensus with Europe, China and Russia on containing the threats posed by North Korea and Iran; capture or kill bin Laden and Zarqawi; and counter Russian and Chinese diplomacy in places like Ukraine, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Southeast Asia while finding ways to engage those two countries on matters of common strategic interest.

If Bush fails to do any of this, he will likely leave office politically hobbled, with his opponents emboldened and a country deeply disillusioned about his policies around the world. He will be remembered as a leader who tried to do big things and articulate a new vision for America, but because of his stubbornness and insularity failed to garner the support to sustain his policies beyond his term in office. The result might be an America more withdrawn from the world and reluctant to take on significant challenges. And instead of evoking comparisons to Harry Truman, President Bush will leave a more mixed legacy closer to another of his predecessors—Woodrow Wilson.

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