“But how could the United States reduce its commitments in the world without at the same time conveying the appearance of weakness, and thus risking humiliation…?”
When was this written?
So let’s turn to Ukraine for a second (or the next couple of months, probably). The WSJ reported European diplomats saying “that while the U.S. portrayed itself as acting tough in recent weeks, the Americans had left them alone on the Ukraine issue for far too long…” On a related line, the NYT suggested it’s both Russia and China “exploiting a belief that the United States is turning inward, exhausted by years of war and reluctant to get drawn into costly foreign entanglements.” But why China, too? Because “if Putin is seen to have gotten away with his land grab in Crimea, that could signal to the Chinese that unilateral actions can succeed”; it’s like “Crimean Lessons for East Asia.”
One undertone of all of this is the U.S.’ drawing down of foreign engagements since Obama came to office. This is the point of NYT journalist David E. Sanger’s book published two years ago, “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power.” It’s about the U.S. pulling troops out of the Middle East after a very bad experience there and, more broadly, a very expensive decade pouring money into the military and various foreign trips in the name of anti-terrorism. We discussed it recently in my IR course under the heading: “Why, according to Sanger, has Obama tried to lighten America’s “geopolitical footprint”? What are the pros and cons of doing so?” My partner and I had put together a handout summarizing the book, and the potential perception of U.S. weakness was definitely in the “Con” column, for all of the ways it would affect/shake up/empower/consternate both America’s allies and adversaries. Sanger, keeping consistent, wrote this week about how these “Global Crises Put Obama’s Strategy of Caution to the Test.” Such are the headlines dominating Western news these past weeks.
But that very relevant first quote, all the way up top? Refresher: “But how could the United States reduce its commitments in the world without at the same time conveying the appearance of weakness, and thus risking humiliation…?”
That’s not news, at all. That was written on page 297 of a book first published 32 years ago, called “Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War” by historian John Lewis Gaddis. It’s about the U.S. pulling troops out of Vietnam after a very bad experience there and, more broadly, a very expensive couple of decades pouring money into the military and various foreign trips in the name of anti-communism. The question was: After years of leaving American dollars and physical footprints (and bloodshed) all around the world, would pulling back look like weakness? Would it lead to a “humiliation that Nixon and Kissinger, like their immediate predecessors, so strongly feared?” There were other countries watching, too – allies seeking reassurances and adversaries watching for open doors – as they are now.
It’s always astonishing to hear the echo of your history books in the news, and the news emphasizing your history books. A lot has changed in 32 years, of course, an inescapable fact for someone who’s actually in the Media and Communications department. However, these convergences deserve mention, if only to recognize that 32 years is not long of a time at all, or to play spot-the-difference between the two case studies, or to try and figure out what key learning we can garner from the post-Vietnam era… or really just ponder that old saying, “History repeats itself.” Or Mark Twain’s awesome riff: “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
P.S. Today at lunch, my close German friend asked me if the Ukraine thing was still all over my [American] news as well, like it is for her go-to outlets. It was a fascinating question. My friends and I, studying the global distribution of news and media, are much too aware (and sometimes to a level of redundancy) that almost everything we know and deem important is contingent on geography. A recent example of this was the surprising lack of coverage I saw out here about the unbelievably violent event that happened several weekends ago in Kunming, China on March 1. After a Chinese friend explained it to me the Monday after, I expected to see it stamped in headlines everywhere – but I expected too much. What I heard instead, from almost half a dozen other friends, was surprise and disapproval that Western outlets insisted on using quotation marks around the word “terrorism” to describe the attack, when there shouldn’t have been any doubt. (I just found this article to explain.)
It all sheds light again on this phenomenon of variable coverage and narrative: how similar events are portrayed identically, how similar events are portrayed differently, across parameters of time and geography. I guess now I just really want to read how Ukraine is being covered by Russian outlets. (Wait, why have I not asked my Russian friend yet…?!)