During the 1990s, victory in the Cold War seemed more than just a triumph over the Soviet Union. Communism’s failure as both ideology and geopolitical threat left unchallenged the democratic system promoted by the United States. What the commentator Charles Krauthammer dubbed “the unipolar moment” promised a chance to establish liberal aspirations as global norms. Developed nations welcomed the Washington Consensus of the 1990s that underpinned globalization. Other nations saw the access to markets and capital that it provided as shortcut to their own development. The Iron Curtain and its bamboo counterpart insulating China were only some of the barriers that fell. Francis Fukuyama captured the spirit by arguing that liberal democracy’s triumph had brought about “the end of history.”
History, however, returned with a vengeance. Cracks had appeared in the façade even before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 turned attention to the clash of civilizations and drew the United States into the project of reconstructing societies in South Asia and the Middle East. Resistance to American initiatives abroad grew. Their failure brought a popular backlash at home seen particularly in the 2016 election cycle and the widespread distrust it revealed toward Washington’s foreign policy establishment.
How did the effort to promote American values and institutions after the Cold War end so badly as to make the United States now seem less secure?
Part of the answer lies in a failure to appreciate the use and limits of power. Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies deftly sketches the dynamic in his new book Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era. The United States intervened politically or militarily in other countries because it could do so without significant cost. Then-U.N. Ambassador Madeline Albright’s notorious remark to Colin Powell during the conflict in Bosnia (“What are you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?”) revealed a wider unwillingness to separate national interest from ideals or needs from wants. The ease with which the United States could exercise power during its post-Cold War hegemony masked the difficulty of using the tools of diplomacy to shape other countries within their own borders. To impose American norms in this way, Mandelbaum argues, was to embark on mission impossible.
The 1990-1991 Gulf War marked a pivotal transition. When the Soviet Union acceded to the American-led coalition’s driving the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, it left the United States without opposition for the first time in decades. The result downplayed power politics and national interest, and made calculating foreign responses a less important consideration for the administrations that came after George H.W. Bush’s, preoccupied as they were with achieving an openly competitive global environment.
The cost of intervention would drop even further with the Soviet Union’s collapse by the end of 1991. With a key constraint removed, domestic interest group politics, whether business lobbies, ethnic lobbies, or human rights activists, influenced foreign policy all the more. Mandelbaum points out that election rhetoric drove Bill Clinton’s support for human rights in China. Bush’s unwillingness to damage relations with Beijing after the massacre in Tiananmen Square gave the Democratic challenger an issue in the 1992 campaign that struck an important theme in his own party while reaching activists beyond it. The Chinese resisted Clinton’s attempt, once he entered the White House, to link human rights with the granting of Most Favored Nation trade status. Democratization, from Beijing’s perspective, amounted to unacceptable meddling with internal affairs. The military and diplomatic tools that gave the United States an upper hand on international disputes provided no leverage to force domestic change against firm resistance. Mandelbaum notes that facing resistance, Clinton reversed his policy.
Normalizing trade as part of a larger agenda of promoting economic globalization mattered more. Security issues during the 1990s yielded to financial and economic considerations that ranked higher on the post-Cold War agenda. A 1996 crisis in the Taiwan Strait where both sides backed down to avoid confrontation offered an exception illustrating the new pattern.
Efforts to shape post-Soviet Russia by pushing economic reform and democratization also failed during the 1990s. Where George H.W. Bush carefully avoided entanglement with internal politics in the former Soviet bloc, Clinton deliberately took sides to promote a transformation that never came. Backing President Boris Yeltsin tied the United States to a single figure, and a flawed one. He did help keep nationalist and communist rivals from power, but his failings became America’s problem. Russians blamed Washington for a collapse in living standards amidst an economic transition that failed to establish a market economy regulated by impersonal law. Elites and the wider population saw NATO expansion, a policy significantly driven by American domestic politics, as a betrayal of earlier assurances made possible by Russian weakness. The result fostered anti-Americanism in Russia.
Humanitarian intervention, which Mandelbaum disparages as confusing foreign policy with social work, became a dominant theme of the 1990s. Despite its embarrassing failure, military assistance to famine relief in Somalia set a precedent. Intervening in Haiti proved easy at first, but changed nothing on the ground. The United States neither alleviated poverty nor improved the government’s respect for human rights in that benighted country. Clinton, however, challenged the claim of sovereign states under international law to have sole authority within their boundaries. A new responsibility to protect civilians from abusive governments qualified the longstanding principle of national independence.
Civil wars in the former Yugoslavia opened a new sphere for action. Efforts to protect Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians involved taking sides in a bitter conflict. Military superiority compelled belligerents, especially Serbia, to accept American terms without reconciling anyone to the result. Short-term victories were more visible than long-term costs that included alienating Russia and China. Intervention also created a kind of moral hazard that encouraged insurgents to hope the vicious repression visited on them by the government would bring them foreign aid. Maximal demands and armed resistance seemed a better bet than negotiation or nonviolent protest. The fact that NATO took the side, in Kosovo, backed by Osama bin Laden took on a bitter poignancy after 2001 that most observers carefully avoided.
Mandelbaum points out that values-based policies drew support, or at least curtailed political opposition, among Americans so long as they involved minimal cost. He quotes a claim by Dick Morris, a Clinton political advisor, that focusing on abuse, especially of children, offered an emotional appeal for intervention. Compassion fatigue, however, worked against it. So did the sense that little changed for all the efforts made. By the 2000 presidential election, a backlash had set in favoring a more humble foreign policy, with candidate George W. Bush speaking in just those terms.
The author claims that George W. Bush’s administration, far from marking a divide, intensified the pattern seen under his predecessor. Neither Clinton nor Bush fils entered the White House having focused their candidacies on foreign policy. Few people voted on the basis of foreign policy. Both men also behaved recklessly—Clinton in his personal life, and Bush in deciding to invade Iraq without planning for the aftermath. The result indelibly tainted their reputations. In Bush’s case, recklessness defeated his signature policies and damaged America’s global standing.
The response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks brought new American efforts to transform the internal structures of foreign societies. Mandelbaum describes the atrocities of 9/11 as “a horrible but isolated episode” rather than a turning point. The reaction mattered more than the actual event. Public anger gave George W. Bush carte blanche to pursue the perpetrators along with those who aided or sheltered them. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan became an immediate target. When it refused to surrender bin Laden, the United States used airpower and a minimal number of specialized troops aiding local auxiliaries to overthrow the Taliban.
The mission of denying al Qaida a base, disrupting its cadres, and making an example of the Taliban gave way, however, to the much larger project of reconstructing Afghanistan into a stable, democratic state that followed Western norms. Failure ensued, along with disillusionment over the whole project of stabilizing Afghanistan where fighting continues more than 15 years later. Military force could not implement the policy with any realistic strategy.
Iraq posed a similar problem where American military prowess could not handle the post-conflict stabilization. Mandelbaum again sketches initial success giving way to failure, describing the Coalition Provisional Authority established to reconstruct occupied Iraq as the post-Cold War effort to transform another country’s domestic institutions and culture “in its purest and most ambitious form.” The project rested upon a near total failure to understand Iraqis—their culture, their institutions, and the effects of the dictatorship on both.
Democratization was not the sole factor shaping policy. It’s hard to see Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, for example, naively following the publicists who advocated it. Power politics guided key figures, along with the prospect of securing Iraq’s oil. Making an example by conquering the Islamic cultural center of Baghdad factored into debate, if not into policy deliberations. The pertinent example soon proved to be the limits of what American military power could accomplish despite its battlefield prowess.
Other Middle Eastern questions showed the limits to American power. The Arab-Israeli conflict drew an utterly disproportionate amount of diplomatic attention with nothing achieved because Palestinians, despite their weakness, refused any terms Israel could accept. Promoting democracy failed to change the outlook of Arab rulers. The Arab Spring movement drove Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt with the United States pushing for his departure, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascendancy following elections brought a backlash as the military seized power with widespread popular support. Libya saw a reprise of the 1990s interventions in the Balkans, with the United States joining an effort to stop Muammar Qaddafi’s military from crushing a rebellion. The result left Libya a failed state prey to Islamic radicals who had gained a foothold in Iraq and Syria. Intervention could tear down, but not build any lasting replacement.
Mandelbaum frames his indictment of imposing American norms on foreign countries as “mission impossible” from a liberal internationalist standpoint. He has long defended an open global order led by the United States as a positive good, arguing for the benefits of globalization and the neoliberal consensus behind it. Writing from the “radical centrist” perspective of the technocratic elite, Mandelbaum deplores the damage that mission failure has done to American supremacy. Defenders of the policies he indicts operating within the same assumptions cannot dismiss him as quickly as they do other critics who reject their premises from the start.
The emphasis Mandelbaum places on idealism as the motive behind mission failures, however, leads him to skip over important factors that merit attention. Intervention served other ends. Breaking down barriers to market access and securing control over key resources or military bases stand out among the aims he ignores. Empire became a trendy theme even before 2000, with advocates like Niall Ferguson and Max Boot promoting the United States as Britain’s successor. Mandelbaum, for all his criticism of treating foreign policy as social work, defended America’s ascendancy as the essential framework for promoting globalization.
Nation-building fit that narrative readily, at least until it failed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it also provided control or at least significant leverage where the United States intervened. Whatever public arguments officials made, other more practical considerations, whether reasonable or mistaken, also weighed upon their calculations. Shaping an environment that favored American interests remained the underlying objective even as strategies for pursuing it brought unforced errors.
Pace Mandelbaum, there wasn’t a holiday from power politics in the aftermath of the Cold War that ended in 2014 with Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea away from Ukraine. The period in between, described in this book, amounted to its pursuit by other means as countries maneuvered for what they perceived to be advantage. Mandelbaum shows that the United States and China, for example, accomplished what they could while accepting what they could not prevent. U.S. allies, including non-democratic states like Saudi Arabia, went along with what they considered to serve their interests. As happened in the Cold War, governments and non-state actors sought to turn great power rivalry to their advantage. Who played whom was not always clear because even the shrewdest outsiders typically lacked the local knowledge to be sure. Clients often got more from the deal than their patrons, a factor that should inspire caution rather than hubris.
Viewed in retrospect, the triumphalism of the 1990s was flawed from the start. Inattention to the limits of hard power that Mandelbaum rightly notes joined other failings to squander the post-Cold War peace dividend. History, a few appreciated, had returned when the Berlin Wall fell. Closer attention to pre-1914 dynamics held in check by the superpower rivalry and ideological conflict would have served policymakers better. So would balancing the effort required to achieve a specific aim with its real value. Leaders might then have worked more effectively within the contours of culture, history, and geopolitics to secure lasting gains. Instead, the United States now faces a more hostile world from a less advantageous position, and a level of domestic support much weakened by the mission failures Mandelbaum decries.