Forgetting Lessons in American Foreign Policy

It often seems to me that American foreign policymakers over-learn or under-learn from history. They rarely end up in the “goldilocks zone” of applying historical lessons to good effect. This assessment is, of course, highly subjective and perhaps unfair. History is a complex web of causes and effects that does not lend itself to the teaching of lessons. Supposed lessons are often subjected to decades of scholarly disagreement. It is potentially unfair because policymakers are not usually scholars. Even if scholars can reach consensus on a lesson, it takes time and effort for that lesson to suffuse the institutional culture of the large bureaucracies that control America’s foreign and national security policies. However, once a supposed lesson does take hold in an institution it is difficult see beyond it and it is often over-applied. My favorite example of the latter is the so-called “lesson of Munich” that America must always forcefully deter, rather than “appease” international aggression.

The lesson of Munich is made all the more durable because it was learned through the wartime experiences of American and western policymakers. They went on to staff the national security bureaucracies set up by the National Security Act of 1947 and they made sure to imbue those institutions with what they thought was the lesson of the cause of World War II. Those same bureaucracies then grappled with and – for a time, at least – learned lessons from the Cold War. The most important of these was “trust, but verify.” Beginning after the Cuban Missile Crisis and lasting until the 1990s, American and Russian policymakers put the question of nuclear stability at the core of their diplomacy. The puzzle is why this lesson has proved to have less institutional durability than the lesson of Munich. John Lewis Gaddis writes in his abridged history of the Cold War that

“[w]hat nuclear weapons did was to make states see – even in the absence of a common language, ideology, or set of interests – that they shared a stake in each other’s survival, given the tiger they themselves created, but now had to live with.”

This realization produced a giant diplomatic effort to craft procedures, agreements and institutional structures to bring transparency, trust and reciprocity to bear on the nuclear standoff. A direct phone line was setup between Washington and Moscow. Treaties were signed that limited and then banned the testing of nuclear devices. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty banned the introduction of means to intercept nuclear missiles on the theory that mass destruction that was both mutually assured and mutually understood was a force for peace. The Strategic Arms Limitation treaties introduced caps on certain delivery systems and elaborate verification procedures to ensure compliance. Additionally, the United States was respectful of the Soviet sphere of influence in Europe, including of the neutrality of buffer states like Finland and Austria. After a dangerous flirtation with roll-back even Ronald Reagan embraced the logic of nuclear stability with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the only treaty to abolish an entire class of delivery systems.

This litany reminds us that the diplomacy of nuclear stability became absolutely central to the Cold War – the first strategic competition of the nuclear age. It should also remind us that these policies were successful. We should wonder why nuclear stability is no longer the focus of superpower diplomacy. To be sure, there have been efforts in the post-Cold War era to build on the successes of earlier diplomacy. The Open Skies Treaty of 1992 strengthened transparency by permitting Russian and American surveillance planes to fly over each other’s territory. The various iterations of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty talks have led to steep declines in nuclear stockpiles. Yet it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that concern for nuclear stability is no longer a focus of American diplomacy. We have withdrawn from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to pursue a ground-based missile defense system which does not work. We have alarmed Russia and China by introducing missile defense systems to Eastern Europe and South Korea. We are developing a new generation of air-launched cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads. We have not made nuclear issues a priority in our relationship with China, despite that country’s nuclear status and likely emergence as a peer competitor of the U.S. We have pursued a maximalist grand strategy geared towards denying spheres of influence to great powers other than the United States.

Needless to say, if we had continued to place the highest priority on the diplomacy of nuclear stability in the post-Cold War period we would not have done any of those things. Somehow the precipitous end of the Cold War in December of 1991 caused a dangerous paradigm shift in the thinking of American policymakers. It caused them to forget that it is usually in America’s interests to respect the interests of other great powers. It caused them to view “the nuclear problem” as an artifact of the past.

We still live in the nuclear age and the U.S. government should endeavor learn from its own experiences. The lesson of the Cold War was not that “good guys inevitably win.” The lesson was that persistent diplomacy produced trust and transparency that helped to prevent a nuclear exchange. We should cherish that lesson and American policymakers should ask themselves whether, in the nuclear age, the preservation of stability ought to be the overriding concern of super power politics. Given the stakes, they should have an extraordinarily good reason for answering “no.”


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