Weary from a decade-plus of foreign wars, the United States has pulled back from its traditional role of global leader and has pursued a less ambitious and more multilateral approach to addressing international crises. Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins, and CFR's Stephen Sestanovich join Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose to discuss the prospects for renewed, more assertive U.S. leadership, or whether the current period of foreign policy retrenchment is likely to continue.
ROSE: Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations' discussion today, "Does U.S. Leadership Have a Future?" We have a spectacular panel here today.
We—the specific occasion is the publication of Steve Sestanovich's new book, "Maximalist America in the World from Truman to Obama. But we also have Michael Mandelbaum, who has a wonderful new book out, The Road to Global Prosperity. And we have Bob Kagan, whose most recent book was on a similar set of themes, The World America Made.
So I can't think of a better collection of Hawthum (ph) to address such august topics. That is indeed...
(UNKNOWN): Is that the plural?
ROSE: That is indeed the...
(UNKNOWN): Is that plural?
ROSE: Yes. Hawthum (ph) is the technical term, the foreign policy jargon here. Not your father's Council on Foreign Relations. OK. Somewhere George Kennan, as we know from his diaries, is rolling over in his grave right now at that.
OK. Which is funny, because Steve is actually the George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at CFR. Michael is the Christian Herter professor of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins. And Bob is the senior fellow for foreign policy, and the project on international order and strategy at Brookings.
So, there's a huge aspects of this topic that we could—many aspects we can delve into. You could say, you know, the title could have been, you know, "Washington"—you know, "So Long Washington, We Hardly Knew You."
But what I've given to the panelists is a very general brief to address as they wish, aspects of the topic as follows: What was U.S. leadership, is it fading, and if so, how does this era of fading compare to previous eras? And looking forward, what specific actions should Washington take or avoid taking in order to sustain or extend, or re-establish its leadership role?
So we'll go Steve, Bob, Michael, in that order. And Steve, why don't you start us off?
SESTANOVICH: OK. Thanks, Gideon. I want to start by just putting the present moment in historical context, having written a book about the American Foreign Policy from Truman to Obama, I hope you'll understand this inclination. We always, year-in and year-out, debate whether America's in decline. But—books are written about how it's a myth.
But retrenchment, which is the period we're in now, is not a myth. We've done it four or five times since the end of World War II. And it always works pretty much the same way. I want to say briefly how it works, what the features of retrenchment are, how it comes unraveled, and then raise the question whether we are headed toward the same kind of result that we have had in the past, which has been a return to a kind of activist—activism.
Retrenchment in the past has always followed either a big disaster, or a big exertion of effort that tired the country out. And so the policies that follow it, the strategies are pretty much as follows: A strong support, really a consensus that there needs to be a reduction in effort, cuts in spending, a more sustainable level of effort.
"Sustainable" is a big word. "Long haul" is another key phrase in retrenchment periods. That support exists across the political spectrum generally. And it's especially strong in the center.
There's a desire to shift burdens to allies, engage with adversaries. There's a de-ideoligization of foreign policy, and a new conceptual framework, an inspiring vision of the world that allows for reduced American effort that's still going to allow things to work OK.
And there is also strong presidential control. Retrenchment presidents are strong managers of foreign policy. That's true, Eisenhower, Nixon, Obama. And these—these policies, however, while they enjoy very strong support in the time that the president who's mopping up after the big disaster, they tend to be challenged when that disaster is put behind us, and when there are new challenges that appear.
And that is so that each of those features—presidential control, de-ideoligized foreign policy, shifting burdens to allies, engaging with adversaries, political support, even from the center—all of those are challenged when new problems arise.
And that's what—that's where we are now. We've got the mess behind us, you know. We're not dealing any longer with Bush foreign policies. We've got a whole new set of problems. And the president has to figure out whether he wants to—intends to pivot from that period of reduced leadership to a renewed activism.
It is—the historical pattern is to make that pivot. But it's generally a pretty long process, even when it happens. Retrenchment often lasts longer than the maximalist excess that precedes it.
Gideon, why don't I stop there.
ROSE: Let me ask you one follow-up before we turn to Bob, which is, is that period of retrenchment usually ended by a conscious act of proactive will or self-assertion by Washington, or by some exogenous shock that forces the country or the leaders to recognize, "No, we've got to turn back and go forward again"?
SESTANOVICH: Well, they're different patterns. Sometimes it's an exogenous shock. Sometimes it's the election of a new president who's got a different theory of the case.
You know, in substantive terms, from Carter to Reagan, the emphasis wasn't totally 180 degrees different. But there—but putting a whole policy together, it was—it was different.
Kennedy and Reagan represent the election presidents with a different theory of the case. Harry Truman, George W. Bush, those represent presidents reacting to an exogenous shock that they didn't really expect. And we can look at other ones if you want.
KAGAN: I guess, for me the question really is, the period you look at is not the totality, obviously, of the 20th century. When I look at a somewhat longer period of time, going back to, let's say the 1890s, when the United States became heavily active in various ways, and then went through a similar brief periods of retrenchment—I mean, Teddy Roosevelt, ironically, was not very much of an activist when it came to using force, and then heading up into World War I again, but which was followed then in the '20s and '30s by something that I would not call "retrenchment." It was in fact a rejection of a certain role in the world.
Wilson had proposed, along with Teddy Roosevelt, along at one time with Henry Cabot Lodge, and all the internationalists of the first couple of decades of the 20th century, America really occupying a central place in shaping the world—in shaping the world order in cooperation with other nations, but really in a very central way. And that was certainly Wilson's vision after World War—at the end of World War I.
And that, the American people, led by their Congress in that case, really did reject. And so it wasn't just, "Let's have a little time out here." It was, "We are not going to be doing that."
"We're not dealing any longer with Bush foreign policies. We've got a whole new set of problems. And the president has to figure out whether he wants to—intends to pivot from that period of reduced leadership to a renewed activism."
And it really took an awful lot to get Americans out of that. There were plenty of terrible things that happened beginning in the late 1920s, and in the '30s. And this is aside from the Depression, which I think was obviously a check of sorts, but it wasn't really all that was going on.
In the '20s, the idea that we shouldn't be doing this was firmly entrenched. And a lot of terrible things happened, including ultimately Hitler rampaging across Europe. And even that was not enough to sort of head up into this other phase that you're talking about.
It seems to me after World War II—and this I think is the thing that we sometimes forget in our discussion of American foreign policy and national interests, and what have you—the United States adopted what has to be understood as an abnormal type of foreign policy.
Normal nations look after their narrow self-interest. They look after their homeland security. They try to be prosperous. They want to have freedom of maneuver in the international system, and not be bullied around. That's a normal policy.
After World War II, the United States took on I think ultimately in self-interested way, but it was a very enlightened self-interest, they took on vast responsibilities for maintaining a global order. This was buoyed by communism, which seemed an existential threat, which sort of—Roosevelt, when he—when he devised this global strategy during World War II was very aware the American people wouldn't sustain it. And he probably was right to worry. But communism sort of kept it afloat.
And the periods you're talking about, of retrenchment even, during the Cold War, in historical terms, they're not much of a retrenchment. I mean, after all, Eisenhower, in his period of retrenchment, kept 750,000 American troops deployed overseas; 750,000 out of a population that is half our present population.
I think we still spent, on average, 10 percent of GDP on defense throughout the entire Eisenhower period. So, yes, compared to the Korean War, compared to Truman, compared to the Marshall Plan, compared to all that, those immediate post-war activities, it was retrenchment. But compared to traditional American foreign policy before that, it wasn't retrenchment.
And even then, I would say it didn't last that long. You said they lasted a long time. I'm not sure how long that really was. After Vietnam, I mean, my goodness, within six years you've got Ronald Reagan, "We've got to get back on the horse. We've got to increase our defense spending."
That was a pretty—and even under Carter, I think—and even under Carter and Nixon, you couldn't say that the retrenchment went very deep. So the question that I have is, are we still in that cycle of activism followed by what I would call "shallow and brief retrenchment," or have we in fact moved back to a period that is more like the '20s and '30s?
I would like very much to believe the former. I fear the latter. And I fear that what is going on now is that Americans are quite understandably, are not only tired of the burden, but they no longer understand why we even took on this burden in the first place.
And I think if you ask a lot of Americans why do we have a global Navy that keeps the waterways open everywhere, I'm not sure they would know why. If you ask them why do we have tens of thousands of troops deployed in Japan, I'm not sure...
KAGAN: It's that upsetting what I'm saying?
ROSE: You violated the red lines.
KAGAN: What red line did I cross?
ROSE: You questioned why we have a Navy.
KAGAN: Do we have to leave, or could I keep going?
ROSE: Can you talk over this?
KAGAN: Do you want me to keep talking? OK, I'll keep talking. Oh, there you go. Thank you.
You know, as we look at events around the world, I mean, yes, the American people didn't want to do anything about Syria. Syria's a complicated issue. Yes, they don't particularly want to get more involved in Ukraine. Ukraine's a complicated issue.
And I think there's a perception that, nevertheless, the core—the core sort of commitments that the United States adopted after World War II, those are still sustainable. I worry that if you actually reminded Americans that we have an Article V commitment to Latvia, and that we would therefore have to allegedly, theoretically send American troops to defend Latvia, I'm worried about what that poll might show.
ROSE: (Inaudible) take a poll.
KAGAN: Well, somebody should take a poll, actually. I'm not sure how many Americans are aware that we have these Article V commitments. But in any case, that's my concern, that we've actually—the—all the rationales from the original post-World-War-II rationale, which is we don't want to let what happened in the '30s happen again, to the communist existential threat rationale, Al Qaida has not replaced communism in that regard—that we may really be at one of those turning points where Americans want not isolationism. I reject the notion of "this is isolationism."
They may understandably want normalcy. That's what Harding promised in 1920, was a return to normalcy. And in a way, that's what people like Rand Paul, I would say—I'll use Rand Paul. I don't know what Rand Paul really thinks about anything.
But people—there are a lot of people out there who say, "Why do we have to maintain this burden?"
ROSE: You have been working on the second volume, haven't you?
KAGAN: I have been working on it, yes. Even if I never publish it, at least I can say things.
ROSE: Bob is the author of a brilliant first half of the history of U.S. foreign policy. And the second half is much awaited in many quarters, which will carry this story to the 20th century, and into the 21st.
KAGAN: Even to the 21st.
ROSE: And obviously, there's been work on this, I'm very curious to see the full volume. It's actually working out better in terms of the sequencing than I had thought it would.
Michael, you have written extensively, not just about exactly the rationale and logic for U.S. hegemony and the goods that it provides, public goods for the world, the ones that Bob fears the American public doesn't know.
But you've also written in "The Fate of Nations," a book in which you argued, as I would characterize it, that the pattern that Bob characterizes as abnormal, the role of provision of public goods for the system at large, is in fact maybe historically abnormal for the United States and for smaller powers, but more normal for powers of a certain incredible power position in the system at large.
And so therefore, to the extent that the United States occupies its extraordinary role, it may not be inappropriate for it to play this role in the system more generally. Do you think that's true? And do you think—do you worry the same way that Bob does, that we might be on the verge not just of a short-term retrenchment, but of a longer-term backing away from the provision of public goods that the hegemon requires to keep the system going forward?
MANDELBAUM: Good question. Let me say first that American leadership in the world, which has been the result of the projection of American political influence and military power around the world, has had important, and I would argue benign consequences, that are not only political, but also in these days, I would suggest, and do suggest in the road to global prosperity, even more importantly, economic.
American military power forms the political framework within which the global economy that has come into existence over the last two decades functions, and functions relatively smoothly. Every market needs a stable political framework to operate, whether it's local, national, or international in scope.
For local and national markets, it's the government that furnishes the framework that enforces contracts, and keeps things on an even keel. For the global economy, since there is no global government, it has been the United States.
And the role that the United States plays in procuring the continuation of globalization and the global economy, is crucial, although underappreciated. Now it'll be better appreciated after people read my book.
And therefore, to the extent that the United States falters, it puts in potential jeopardy not just the security of this or that country, but also the rising tide of prosperity that the world has enjoyed over the last two decades, and the rising tide of prosperity that the Western world enjoyed between 1945 and 1990, before globalization went global.
And I do agree, at least up to a point with Bob, that it is in jeopardy. There is pressure on the American global role now, as there was, as Steve's excellent book points out, at other times in history. The pressure has economic roots. People are worried about the chronic budget deficits, and feel the need to reduce government spending, which was certainly true after the Korean War, probably less true after Vietnam, but not absolutely unimportant.
And the downward pressure on the American role and American defense spending also has political roots. The public is disenchanted with the consequences of the American military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And of course, that fits very nicely into the pattern that Steve identifies, because the public was disenchanted with Korea; although, in retrospect, that effort has come to seem more successful than it was regarded at the time. And then of course, with Vietnam.
There's this difference between those periods of retrenchment and this one. This gets to Bob's point. Then we had a Cold War that put a floor under the decline of American power and the American presence in the world.
Whatever people thought about Korea and Vietnam, they generally believe that the United States faced a dangerous adversary—the Soviet Union and global communism—that was a threat to the United States, and that the United States had to exert a certain level of effort to keep in check.
Well, the Cold War is gone. The floor doesn't exist. And therefore, at least the potential for freefall, or at least for freer fall, for greater reduction in the American global presence, is part of the politics of our time.
How it'll all end up, of course, we don't know. But that brings me to my third point, and to respond to Gideon's question, what is to be done?
Well, at the risk of being parochial, what is to be done is to assure the health of American society and the American economy. The United States, being a democracy, ultimately any policy the government carries out, including any foreign policy, including the profile of American's global presence, has to be ratified by the American public.
And as Bob suggested, the American public is not naturally isolationist. Indeed, it's not particularly principled, or insofar as it is principled, it believes in principle in a vast American global role, and in promoting American values.
What determines the public attitude toward any particular policy is cost. Americans just don't want to pay more than what they think the policy is worth. And they calculate cost, both in terms of the cost of a particular policy, and over the longer term, by how prosperous and successful they think the country is, and how well it's doing, and how well they think it will do in the future.
To coin a phrase, "Foreign policy begins at home." Richard has made this point in his book. I made it in a book that I made—that I wrote with Tom Friedman. It's been, I think, rightly an important theme that Richard has emphasized here at the council.
And the idea that foreign policy depends on domestic politics, I have discovered doesn't capture people's attention. It's kind of boring. It's cliched. It gets you into all kinds of economic discussions. It's tedious and forbidding.
It just—there is, however, one other characteristic, and that is, it's true.
ROSE: So with that, let me take one question to all of you guys. Let me play the Pollyanna or Pangloss here. I understand intellectually everything you've just said, and I accept the potential for what you talked about, Bob. And I also buy the argument, Michael, that the lack of a Cold-War-type enemy, or even a Neo-War-on-Terror, you know, type enemy, doesn't—creates the possibility of freefall.
But I just don't buy the argument that we're anywhere near retrenching in a significant manner past the kind of retrenchment that Steve was talking about.
And the argument would be the following: All the things that people talk about now, right now, in terms of the worrisome retreat—the lack of involvement in Syria, which festers—continues to fester, the allowing of the Russians to take Crimea, things like that, the occasional strife in the South China Sea, and so forth, the consulate in Benghazi gets overrun, and people get shot up—all these things are essentially, to me, relatively minor events that occur outside the contours of the core liberal order, both for the global polity and the global economy.
And what is striking to me is the major—in previous eras, the core questions of ideology were in dispute. The core industrial areas of the world were in dispute. And with the exception of China – and that is a big exception, and it's one that we all know is the potentially-significant bilateral relationship, and the most major challenge to the future of the global economy, the American hegemony, and so forth.
With the exception of China, though, which is its own set of questions, it just seems to me that none of those kinds of core issues—either ideologically, or geographically, or economically—is in play in any significant way now, compared to the way they actually were in generations past.
So I just don't see—the question of how much we should intervene in a terribly-tragic civil war in a peripheral country to stop suffering may be a legitimate and important issue for foreign policy, but it's nothing like the idea that, you know, the global economy's going to collapse, or the future of the industrial core of the world is in jeopardy.
And the fact that Russia has taken over part of Ukraine, a backward poor part that, you know, is largely Russian anyway, however unpleasant that is, however much that needs to be countered in various ways, that that in any way, shape or form, implies that we won't fulfill Article V commitments to NATO members, strikes me as madness.
So what am I missing that makes me—should make me more worried than I am?
KAGAN: Do you want to go?
SESTANOVICH: Go ahead. I'll follow you.
KAGAN: Well, you know, I'm not ringing an alarm bell that, you know, the end is nigh. I'm concerned that the problems are not simply, do you want to intervene in Syria, that if you—you know, I'm not sure where the American public is without the rationales that they used to have.
Now, it could be that that doesn't matter, and that, you know, a president can lead the public in any direction he wants to, although history suggests that that's not necessarily so easy to do. I guess what I would say is if—I think we have a problem, and it's been a problem for a while, in our understanding of what the national interest is.
Now, if the national interest is not simply in avoiding the most obvious, you know, the dominance of the Eurasian continent by a single hegemon, but is in fact the world order in general, then I would say, right, any one of those individual cases by themself is something that you could say, "Well, it's unfortunate, but, you know, everything is still in good shape."
But there is the potential, I fear, of an accumulation of these things.
ROSE: The death of 1,000 cuts?
KAGAN: I mean, really, what you say about the present could, to some extent, been said about the late '20s and '30s. Now, yes, there was a greater economic crisis; although, we sort of—we've had a pretty great economic crisis, as these things go.
1931, the Japanese invade Manchuria. Who cares? Manchuria is sort of less than Crimea, from our point of view.
You know, 1933, some kook gets elected in Germany. Who cares? You know, then you've got Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Who cares? These are all on the periphery of the core as you're talking about.
So then some creepy fascist intervenes in the Spanish civil war. Who cares? Now—but the fact is, is that what obviously was happening was the accumulative breakdown, if you will, of a mode of behavior.
And by the way, this is what people like Roosevelt began warning about. You know, Roosevelt could never prove to the American people's satisfaction that their vital interests were affected by any of this. What he was saying is, "This kind of world is going to be bad news for us."
So—and since China is actually a big deal, we face the prospect of a major country like Russia—Crimea may or may not be something we care about. It was in fact part of another country; in a way, more legitimately, part of that country than the Sudetenland was part of Czechoslovakia even. You know, Hitler, in a way, had a better case than Putin does.
But if you begin to allow that—I'm going to stop talking, one second. But when Bush, the elder, went to war over Kuwait, it was not for the oil, it was not because he cared about Kuwait.
It was because he and Brent Scowcroft believed that if they allowed that to happen, it would begin to open the floodgates of aggression being undertaken, and that the United States is the only power that has been taking on that role. And if it's clear to the world that the United States is moving out of that business, then things can accelerate faster than you think they do. That would be my answer.
ROSE: I got a—to answer to that, but you guys go in first.
SESTANOVICH: Well, let me just add one thing to it. I think the way in which this problem is framed for future presidents may be a little different from what Bob says, although we'll have those elements.
Remember, for years, in panels like this, we have said that one of the characteristic features of the current era is that the great powers did not have security conflicts with each other. And I think we are now—if we haven't passed that moment, we're certainly getting to the point where we now do think about major powers having security rivalries. And by "security rivalries," we mean the potential for direct conflict.
For the United States, the—you know, in the post-Cold-War order, the whole idea has been, you raised the term "core liberal order," Gideon. The whole world was supposed to be part of the core liberal order.
Now we're seeing maybe that isn't true, and that it's going to be—the organization of it is going to depend on what the relations among the great powers are going to be. And that raises a set of questions for American policy, which we haven't had to address in a really long time; meaning, above all, just to be really concrete about your to-do question, what kind of alliance leadership are we prepared to exercise going forward?
How seriously do we take those questions, and not just about Latvia, but about, you know, allies that we consider not postage-stamp countries, but part of the industrial heartland, to coin an old phrase.
ROSE: Such as?
SESTANOVICH: Well, Korea, Japan, Germany. You know, we're now talking about a more traditional conception of the world, but without an American theory of the case. And we haven't gotten there. That's why I say debates of our retrenchment are long.
ROSE: As someone who's tried to put forward the theory of the case, Michael, would you—and the case for Goliath, whose last book was titled, "The Case for Goliath."
MANDELBAUM: Well, the question that you properly asked, "Is this really the end of the world?" reminds me of a saying from my favorite source of metaphors and wisdom, namely, baseball. Somebody who had played in a low, minor leagues, in a very small town, was asked what it was like to live there. And he said, "Well, it wasn't the end of the world, but you could see it from there."
So this isn't the end of the world, but with some imagination, it doesn't—you know, it doesn't take a wild imagination to see it's the kind of scenario that Bob outlines, precisely because there is no Cold War anymore.
Now, the United States has been able to perform its role as global hegemon, and supporter of the global economy, and pacifier of previously-troubled regions for two decades, because there wasn't a lot of opposition. It was relatively cheap. As long as nobody is trying to beat us up or kick us out, we could probably do it at a cost that the American public will sustain.
All you need, really, is a Navy and an Air Force. And the public, at least historically going all the way back to the 19th century, has always liked the Navy. Navy's a senior service, because it doesn't require a draft, it helps trade, and all this stuff takes place far from American shores.
That means that the extent to which the United States can afford to continue this role will depend, to a great extent, on Chinese foreign policy, on what the Chinese decide to do in the world.
Now, finally, to respond to your request for concreteness, I agree, I think, with you. I hope I'm not putting words in your mouth. Syria really doesn't matter, and Iraq didn't matter. And the Balkans didn't matter. We could have done without all of those, and still performed our basic role.
I think Iran does matter, because of the oil in the Persian Gulf, and because with nuclear weapons, Iran becomes a much more substantial threat, which means that I don't think there's any case for intervening in Syria.
I think there is a case for using force to destroy or set back the Iranian nuclear weapons program. I don't know whether that's the right thing to do, but a president should certainly be thinking seriously about it.
And as for Russia, Russia is no longer an actual—or a great power like the Soviet Union, or a candidate great power like China, but it matters. So we can't afford to ignore Russia; although, I don't worry about a don not austin (ph) or a don not vest in (ph) beginning with Crimea. I think that what the Russians are doing to Ukraine deserves to be taken seriously.
But let me give you my solution. We're living in a world in which the tools of economics are more powerful than ever before. And Putin's vulnerability is economic. If the West were to dramatically reduce his oil revenues and/or cut him and his cronies off from the global financial system, that would deal him a devastating blow.
And that's the sort of thing that we ought to be thinking about doing. But the major responsibility falls on the Europeans. They are the ones with the intense and close economic relations with Russia. They are the ones who have real leverage over Russia.
They are the ones who can at least hope to deter and even roll back what Putin has done in Ukraine by taking certain economic measures. I'm not optimistic that they will. But that potential exists.
And I don't think that American leadership is going to make much difference here. It's up to the Europeans. It's a test of their political will.
KAGAN: I really disagree. If I could just—I really disagree with that. If it is up to just—is this on the record or off the record? Are we being...
SESTANOVICH: ... live-streamed.
MANDELBAUM: You don't want to be on the record, because...
ROSE: This time your family is on the record.
KAGAN: My family is on...
MANDELBAUM: You're noted as a great champion of European robustness.
KAGAN: No, look. I mean, I think there's a history here. There is a history here of Europe not being able to address this kind of challenge over and over again.
And one of the great accomplishments of the Cold War period was that the United States, by injecting itself and making itself effectively a European power, was able to organize a better Europe than Europe was able to organize by itself. And I think we are still in that mode, much as we would like to think of the Europeans as having emerged as an independent force with the E.U.
I think all the evidence suggests to the contrary, that it actually does require a strong—I never liked the word "leadership," because no one's looking for a leader. So I don't know how you be a leader if nobody wants to be led. But we do need to provide, you know, a certain amount of backbone in this situation.
And let me just end by saying Putin is not done. Let's be clear about that. So to talk about what he's done in Crimea is not the real conversation. He is going to take the rest of Ukraine, and maybe not the West. But he's going to take Kiev. He's going to take the East plus Kiev.
So we're going to wake up at some point in the next couple of months, and that's going to be the situation. Then the world is going to attempt to lay various sanctions on him. The Europeans will do more or less than we would like them to do. We'll do more or less than I might want us to do.
And the result is going to be that it's not going to change his calculations one bit. It's not going to drive him out of Ukraine. It's not going to drive him out of Kiev. And that's the new world we're going to be living in.
And then, yes, we are going to be talking about the next thing. And my question is, where does that leave the American people? Is that the big wake-up call at that point? Because again, history suggests that those kinds of things can happen. And the ineffectual response to that leads to further ineffectual responses down the road.
There's no—you can't work on the assumption that because we failed to stop him doing one thing, that therefore, we'll definitely stop him doing the next thing. I mean, history, unfortunately, does not support that that always has to be the case.
MANDELBAUM: Well, obviously, I disagree with this. But this is an important issue, and bears further debate; although, not at this point. Let me simply say that I think Cold War precedents are not relevant, because this is not military, it's economic.
KAGAN: It's a 1930s precedent.
MANDELBAUM: And to me—well, this is economic, not military. And to me, the precedent from the Cold War era is the Urengoy gas pipeline, which the Europeans were building to get Russian natural gas. When the Polish government that behest the Soviet government cracked down on solidarity, the Reagan Administration said, "This is unacceptable. You Europeans have to cease and desist building this pipeline to make the Russians feel it."
And the Reagan Administration, which I presume none of us thinks was a wuss, or lacked forcefulness, was completely unsuccessful.
"And let me just end by saying Putin is not done. Let's be clear about that. So to talk about what he's done in Crimea is not the real conversation. He is going to take the rest of Ukraine."
ROSE: You want to jump in on this?
SESTANOVICH: I will say that, you know, my book is about overdoing it and under-doing it. And sometimes, the overdoing it tends to result from a guilty conscience about having underdone it beforehand. This is clearly operating on the calculus of a number of presidents.
That is just, as one thinks about the dynamic ahead for the next president who will be making judgments at the moment of the wake-up call that Bob talks about, he will be—that will be informed by...
ROSE: You mean so the Obama Administration is looking at what wasn't done in response to Georgia, and is saying that now we need to do something?
SESTANOVICH: The Obama Administration is going to be facing a record in which they're going to be nervous about being blamed for having done too little.
ROSE: OK. We're going to throw it open to our participants and guests. First, let me just—I oddly enough find myself in the role of the complete dove on this panel. And I just need to put the alternative case here. Bob, while I agree with you against Michael about the need for U.S. leadership in getting the Europeans to do what they actually need to do, the idea that this is the '30s, I just find fundamentally far-fetched, because these are not rising powers, these are declining powers in the case of Russia.
And to me, the analogy is precisely the Cold War analogy, but it's Hungary, '56; Berlin, '61; Czechoslovakia is '68; Poland, '81. The origin of this crisis is Ukraine, which was a vassal client state in the Soviet sphere, decided to essentially abdicate and come over to our side.
And this is a defensive paranoia clamped down to keep them from running into our sphere, and we didn't respond in Hungary. We didn't respond in Czechoslovakia. We didn't really respond in Poland. We let the wall go up in '61.
All those were signs of weakness rather than strength. And ultimately, the tides of history wore down the Soviet Union, and it fell away. This strikes me not as an aggressive rising power feeling its oats, but a desperate power clamping down on something that was already theirs, and was threatening to go away.
The real challenge, and the different case for me, is Asia and China, because there, you actually have a rising power that potentially is fighting the order. So to me, the South China Sea stuff, even though it looks like Crimea, is infinitely more significant.
And if we were to allow China to take an island or something like that, then I would have the kind of worries that you're talking about. Whereas, this strikes me as sort of something that essentially is not that big a deal.
KAGAN: Russia's been a declining power for 300 years.
ROSE: Well, with that, let's turn this over to—no, you can't just say that, because...
KAGAN: Do you remember what Dean Atcheson called the Soviet Union?
KAGAN: "Upper volta with rockets." I mean, this is—I mean, yes, they may be declining. In 40 years, I hope they're no longer a big problem. But we have to live through the next 40 years.
ROSE: OK. We have a lot of people who want to get in on this, and good reason. So I'd like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. Please remember that our meeting is on the record. Wait for the microphone, and speak directly into it. Stand, state your name and affiliation. And with that, over here (inaudible).
QUESTION: Winston Lloyd, International Rescue Committee. This is superb discussion, by the way. My question has to do with democratic values. The conventional wisdom that after 1989 freedom was on the march, everyone's going to become a democracy, the conventional wisdom now is freedom is in retreat, and everyone's going to go autocratic. And Freedom House measurements bear these trends out.
My questions are, number one, how optimistic are you that democracy will make a rebound, not just in the near future, but over the long term? Secondly, how important is this to American interests? And thirdly, what should the U.S. government do about it?
ROSE: That's a council question. Three parts. Each one could have—three questions, each of which could have books written about them. Who wants to go?
MANDELBAUM: I can—I can give you, Winston, a brief answer. I'm optimistic in the long term, mildly pessimistic in the short term. And I don't think that the—it is profoundly in the interest of the United States, that other countries become democratic, because I think it does transform their foreign policy.
So we have a profound interest in getting rid of Putin and Putinism. And that would be worth doing whatever he had done in Ukraine; although, I'm not sure that we can be confident that if and when Putin falls, what will follow will be a democracy.
And that leads to my answer to your last question. I don't think there's anything the United States government can do effectively to promote democracy. It has to come from within. Our efforts have been sometimes vigorous, always goodhearted. And I think we have no track record of success.
KAGAN: I'm less optimistic about the long run, only in the sense that, I mean, again, if you look at the whole sweep of human history, democracy is a rare flower. It is—there's no reason to assume the sort of teleological argument of Frank Fukuyama and others that, you know, that human kindness, just moving onward and upward, and that it just keeps happening, regardless of what nations do, or what people do.
I think we are seeing very resilient autocracies who—by the way, we always think, you know, only democracy responds to the needs of human beings, that's false. Autocracies also respond to the needs of human beings in various ways.
And so the notion that all we have to do is wait these guys out, I think is a mistake. I find it very hard, just as a purely kind of, you know, thinking again historically, it's purely a coincidence that there were 10 democracies on the eve of World War II. Then we enjoyed six decades of the American order. And we have 115 democracies today. And that had nothing to do with the United States.
Somehow or other, there seems to be a correlation between the dominance of the world's largest democracy in the world, and the spread of democracy. Now, whether we have always been good at it, I think our track record is in fact mixed, not fatal. It's mixed, in part because we've not, in effect, always tried to promote democracy.
Right now, we are promoting a vicious military autocracy in Egypt. We're promoting that. We're not trying to promote democracy. We do have the capacity to have some influence.
Nations in the real world are influenced by exogenous factors, you know, and always have been. You know, when the Spartans won a lot of oligarchies sprang up. When the Athenians won, a lot of democracy sprang up. I mean, it's just the nature of the beast.
So I think we – where Mike and I agree, is that we do have a profound interest in it. This is something that I think we've always understood from the very beginning.
I think where I disagree, is I think we have the capacity to do something about it, not perfectly, and not all the time. But I worry that if we don't do it, we will begin to see this contraction continue that Freedom House has been measuring.
"I don't think there's anything the United States government can do effectively to promote democracy. It has to come from within. Our efforts have been sometimes vigorous, always goodhearted. And I think we have no track record of success."
SESTANOVICH: I mentioned the prospect that we're looking at a world in which rivalry among the great powers will be more important. If China and Russia are the two autocracies in that world, we will pay a lot of attention to their internal evolution.
But they're not likely just to evolve quickly into democracies. And in fact, what's happened in Russia is a kind of warning about what the political turbulence of political transition can bring; that is a kind of nationalist resurgence, a kind of more robust and bristly outward policies that are disruptive of international order.
So whatever we might think about the importance of democracy here, the transition in these great powers that we worry about, may be pretty tumultuous. And that—just every so often we remember that Gideon wanted our to-do list—makes the importance of a coherent and cohesive democratic bloc that can defend its interest more important.
ROSE: Let me take a two finger (ph) on your your thing, and not to put words in Michael's mouth, but is it possible that there's a difference between indirect and direct methods of democracy promotion, and that by promoting a general order in which people can grow, which you provide an example of liberal orders at home, and a steady, given the environment, you allow countries to come to that outcome on their own over time through the natural processes of modernization and development, rather than forcing the issue.
It strikes me, as I look at history, that we think of the Korean War, we did not talk about regime change as a chief goal of the Korean War. In fact, we allowed a thuggish American, you know, dic—back despot, Syngman Rhee, to have full power in Korea afterwards. And yet, 50 years of wonderful growth and stability later, Korea, you know, is a nice thriving democracy because it got there, thanks to the efforts of the Korean people enforcing things, but the general progress of modernization.
So could the order that you're talking about have been responsible for democratization, but not necessarily by direct political involvement?
MANDELBAUM: I can answer that quickly. That is correct, and that is a major theme of a book that I wrote on the subject called "Democracy's Good Name."
KAGAN: And what I would say is it's partly correct, but it's not entirely correct. Because all these countries that go through these evolutions, they reach a critical moment when they may go one way, or they may go another. And this is a point that Sam Huntington made in "The Third Wave," when Sam Huntington believed in promoting democracy. He later changed his mind, as he did about so many things.
But when—in that book, he talked about how critical it was. And he named 24 countries where this was true, where not only had we supported a democratic government, but we had discouraged coups that were going to occur in those countries. And if those coups had been allowed to occur, they might have sent those countries into a very different course overall.
The Korean example's an interesting one. Yes, Korea had reached a certain point where, you know, all the wonderful, you know, political science modernization factors were in place. But you still had a South Korean military dictatorship until Gaston Siegert (ph) went over to them finally and said, "You're done. It's over."
You know. And since they were dependent on the United States, they ultimately had very little choice. And if you look at the 1980s, there were numerous occasions. In the case of the Philippines, we pulled the rug out from under the long-time dictator in order to promote democracy.
In the case of El Salvador, we turned away from a strategy of supporting rightwing dictatorship to promoting some kind of democracy, you know, which was fairly successful for quite some time before the drug wars destroyed everything.
So I think that, yes, it's a mixed picture. But we actually have had quite a lot of influence, both by what we do, also what we prevent from happening.
A lot of these democracies are taking root in unfertile soil, I agree with that. And whether they stay that—whether they continue to thrive in this unfertile soil usually depends on an exogenous factor keeping them in that place.
And I think when you remove the exogenous factor, yes, you'll see rollback. The jungle will take over the garden again.
SESTANOVICH: Gideon, lest anyone believe you that regime change was not our goal in the Korean War, I hope you will read my chapter on...
QUESTION: You know, the historical perspective is remarkable, but there are these moments in time, even very recently, where you can see present history changing. In August—at the end of August 2013, Barack Obama had made his speech on Syria, and had not said, "I have the right to act, but I'm going to ask the Senate to do it, and then go away for a week," but had simply acted, as he said was his right as president, and had done an air strike on Syria. Obviously, history of the last, you know, over the last year would have been different.
How would it have been different? We don't know. But there is one problem with this kind of analysis, which is that it fails to take into account decisions that are made by individuals at certain very specific moments in time that bifurcate the possibilities.
And therefore, retrenchment isn't just a historical accident, or a pattern. It has something to do with political choices that are made inside a polity by our own leaders. And I think it's very hard to talk about the current status of the United States without taking account of how the president himself views the kinds of challenges that don't instantly become a matter of national referendum.
ROSE: If you were president, what specific things would you do differently that would not be...
KAGAN: Gideon, get over it. We're not coming up with a strategy...
QUESTION: Literally, I would have struck in Syria. Now, that's all I'm saying. I'm only using what the president himself could conceivably have done, had this deal—this side deal not been struck, and had he not decided in some odd way to say that he had the right, and then to remove the right from himself, which is a very unusual thing for a leader to do, it seems to me.
So I'm wondering, in that sense, you know, these decisions—either—either Obama is being—has been affected by grand historical forces beyond his ken, or, you know, we are looking at this through two distant and grand a lens, and that this is simply a matter of discrete decisions having been made over the last couple of years that hopefully, if you feel the way I feel, can be reversed.
KAGAN: I mean, I think it's a good point. And history is like that. The problem with history is you've got grand forces operating, but then you have individuals making critical decisions which have some impact on it.
Now—and I think what you can certainly say is true, that when Clinton was thinking about doing something about Kosovo, the public-opinion polls were against it. Then he did it, and then his approval ratings went up. And it's not inconceivable that that could have happened again.
But again, making the—going back to some of the defense of the larger-forces issue, I would say it's no accident, comrade, that, A, we have this president with this attitude who made that decision, you know. Now, it could be yes, presidents sometimes fight against the trend.
Roosevelt, in his first term, went—even though he was a big internationalist, he went completely—sort of basically caved into the isolationists. And in the last 1930s, he started to push against where the public was. Most presidents don't push against where the public is. I'm sorry. Go ahead, Steve.
SESTANOVICH: No, no. Well, just add one thing about this. Our previous retrenchment presidents had been somewhat reluctant in retrenchment, because they worried about the consequences for America's place in the world. That was true for Eisenhower. It was true for Nixon. George Bush is a kind of mini-retrencher in the last part of his—of his term.
They weren't thinking, "There's a depressing domestic agenda which needs to be my focus."
I think for good reasons, President Obama actually has a different view of the relative urgency of international versus domestic concerns. And that makes him a less reluctant retrencher.
It makes it much more understandable that you get those decisions. But Bob is right, most presidents have tended to think foreign policy exertion will be unpopular. And some of them fight against it, and others don't.
ROSE: Over here?
QUESTION: (Inaudible). I agree about the economic underpinnings in the sense of national well being as a predicate for global leadership. I'd just like to observe that we've had no growth in median income in the United States for 20 years, and that most economists, and certainly most investors, view Europe, the United States, and Japan, as low-growth economies with intractable deficits, of for which there is no quick fix.
Therefore, for the retrenchment—I'm not sure if that's the right word, but you understand my meaning—is a long-term cycle, not a short-term one. And that leads me, as a person who travels for a living, to ask you this question: Which countries will be defined as, quote, "the American interest," as opposed to the maintenance of the large global order, in the world ahead of us, because in Asia and in the Middle East, as you're much more aware than I am, there's a tremendous degree of uncertainty, and hedging, and second-guessing taking place, which if we don't define our interests, could lead to unexpected events forcing the reaction or non-reaction.
SESTANOVICH: There's a lot of continuity in the answer that American presidents will give. And that is the core alliance commitments of the United States, that have existed for decades, will be the core concerns of American policymakers going forward. And that means Europe, it means East Asia, and it means, in a complicated way, for reasons, some of which Mike mentioned, Middle East.
SESTANOVICH: Well, under pressure, there's no doubt about it. The commitment of the president to keep a large fleet in the Western Pacific is going to be hard to sustain. He's made that commitment.
MANDELBAUM: Let me answer you in two ways, both of which support a somewhat more optimistic view than the one that was implicit in what you said. I think that, for a variety of reasons—and I go into them in some detail in the book—America's economic prospects and prospects for growth are better than those of Europe.
I don't think Europe's prospects are good at all. America's prospects are better. It's not to say they'll be fulfilled. But one can—again, with imagination, one can tease out a scenario in which very respectable growth resumes.
The other is it's somewhat easier to maintain the necessary presence in East Asia, partly as Steve says, because this is an historical area of interest. People tend to forget. But Bob and Steve certainly know that the United States was a Pacific power well before it was a European power, because this is the economically-dynamic part of the world.
And that gives the president an argument he can use; and partly, because you don't need ground troops there. You can do it with the Navy and the Air Force. And Americans are much more likely to support high levels of spending on Naval and Air Forces, even though they're more expensive, because the technology's more expensive.
So I would be somewhat more optimistic about the chances of sustaining the American commitment in that part of the world.
KAGAN: I would just say that the pressure on defense spending is almost entirely arbitrary. There is nothing about our economy that has required us to cut defense budget in the way that we have.
Defense—as I recall, we're looking for ways to create jobs. But just as a basic fact, defense spending creates jobs. It's not like a dead loss.
And really, the fact that the defense budget has been gone after in the way it has, has not been some kind of strategic judgment, or judgment about retrenchment. It is just been, I would say, because there isn't this floor, there is the perception that this is just a cow you can just keep going after, because no one knows why any of it matters.
But it is an arbitrary decision. Everyone knows that the American fiscal crisis is not because of the defense budget. It's because of entitlement spending and other mandatory spending. And if we really were serious about fixing our problems at home, that's what we'd be fixing.
And so we have the capacity, in fact, to spend enough to complete—to be able to perform the missions that we have to perform. And that's why, for me, the issue is more, what do we think we're doing, rather than what are we capable of.
And the only other thing I would say, and it's a little bit in response to something that Mike said earlier, there's not a one-to-one historical correlation between the wellbeing of the American economy and activism in the international system.
So for instance, in the 1920s, we had a booming economy, and were opposed to activism in the international system. In the late 1970s, when things were swinging toward the sort of Reaganite approach, the American economy was in disastrous shape. We were suffering from stagflation. We were still—hadn't recovered from the oil shock of the 1973 embargo. But that wasn't the hindrance to America playing a more active role.
So I just want to move away from this notion that simply, you know, you can correlate clearly between the well being of the economy and the happiness of the American people, or even the average median income. I mean, I have no idea what correlation that has to how we act in the world. My guess is it has no correlation, that it's other factors that shape our decisions about that.
ROSE: It is a hallowed council tradition that events end on time. It makes me even sadder than usual to enforce that tradition, if only because there's so many good topics that need to be pressed further here, and not least, for example, what the role of something that has not been mentioned, the nuclear revolution, has been in any of this, in terms of going forward, how much the historical trends of great power competition are worrisome in an era in which nuclear deterrence is both consistent and more multilateral than ever. Fascinating question that we haven't touched on.
Or even things like the revolutions in shale and energy, more generally, and what role that might have either in terms of growth or geopolitical issues. But I want to thank all of you, and especially our panelists.
And all I can say is this is the one kind of session where you have to end it by saying time will tell. We hope to bring all of you back in the future to see who was right.