LEARNING FROM THE PAST….Dan Drezner has an op-ed in Sunday’s Washington Post outlining the search for a new foreign policy “grand strategy” that’s a worthy heir to George Kennan’s theory of containment, the overarching policy that guided the U.S. during the Cold War. You can read the various contenders here, none of which Dan sounds all that thrilled about. That being the case, I’m going to ignore the topic at hand and complain instead about his offhand mention of one of my foreign policy pet peeves. It comes up in his desultory discussion of John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s proposal:
To their credit, the two make explicit a point that others have not: Kennan had it easy. In his time, the United States faced only one obvious threat, the Soviet Union. In contrast, Ikenberry and Slaughter argue that “ours is a world lacking a single organizing principle for foreign policy,” with “many present dangers, several long-term challenges and countless opportunities.
This drives me crazy. Everybody always thinks that things were simpler in the past, and as near as I can tell this is based on little more than the fact that the past has already happened and we know how it turned out.
But is it really true that the post-WWII national security environment was simpler and less dangerous than today’s? Color me unconvinced. After all, back in the 40s and 50s, in addition to the Soviet Union, we had to deal with China, the nonaligned movement, the dissolution of the British empire, the rebuilding of Europe, Nasser and pan-Arabism, and the supposedly terminal decline of scientific acumen among our youth (hooray for the New Math!). And that’s just to name a few.
It’s true that the Soviet Union provided an organizing principle for dealing with most of this stuff ? sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly ? but militant Islamic jihadism does the same today ? again, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. What’s more, the Soviet Union had something that today’s jihadists don’t: lots and lots and lots of nuclear bombs. Not just the vague possibility of acquiring a nuclear weapon or two, but actual nuclear weapons in frightening numbers. And while we might engage in rosy reminiscing today about how Soviet leaders were really conservative, deterrable, and not so very dangerous after all, that sure wasn’t how we thought about them at the time. In October 1962 nobody was talking about how reasonable and conservative Nikita Krushchev was.
The present always seems more complex and scary than the past because, as Yogi Berra pointed out, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” But if you had told George Kennan in 1947 that liberal democracy would reign triumphant in the 21st century and our biggest threat would come from a small band of religious fanatics hiding in caves and supported only by some of the most backward economies on the planet, I’ll bet he would have laughed in our faces. In fact, the Kennan of 1947 might have said, “You guys have it easy.”