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Pushback Against U.S. Retrenchment Still Ahead, Argues Stephen Sestanovich in New Book

February 12, 2014
Council on Foreign Relations


The Obama administration's search for a less costly, more "sustainable" foreign policy recalls previous presidents who wound down major wars, according to Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. In Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, Sestanovich argues that the most challenging phase of retrenchment comes after the United States has extricated itself from a stalemated conflict. Postwar cutbacks in the Pentagon budget usually last longer than the surge that preceded them, but political controversies over the direction of American foreign policy begin much sooner.

Sestanovich compares the current administration's strategy—from the Middle East to East Asia and elsewhere—with those of other retrenchment presidencies. He finds that Obama's predecessors presented their policies as a necessary corrective to overcommitment in order to win both public and Congressional support. But he warns that the perception of retrenchment often evolves from being seen as a strategy for averting decline of U.S. power to one "that accelerates, accepts, and even embraces it."

Drawing on memoirs, speeches, and declassified documents, Maximalist captures the fluctuation of American foreign policy, between maximalist overreaching and the underreaching in which retrenchments usually end. Sestanovich explores the personalities and decisions that produced each of these swings and offers new perspectives on crucial moments in American policy, from the Marshall Plan to Vietnam, from détente to the end of the Cold War, from September 11, 2001, through today's reduced commitments.

These frequent changes of direction have led many observers—presidents and experts alike—to yearn for greater continuity in American strategy. Maximalist comes to a different conclusion. Because policymakers so often guess wrong, the most important ingredient of decision-making has to be the ability to change course. "Discontinuity," Sestanovich writes, "has been the source of our greatest success."

Praise for Maximalist

"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, Secretary of State for President Clinton

"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

"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

"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

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