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From Berlin to Baghdad: America’s Search for Purpose in the Post–Cold War World

From Berlin to Baghdad: America’s Search for Purpose in the Post–Cold War World by Hal Brands. University Press of Kentucky, 2008, 424 pp.

Hal Brands, a doctoral student at Yale University, has addressed a necessary gap in US foreign policy literature with his recently released From Berlin to Baghdad: America’s Search for Purpose in the Post–Cold War World. Brands argues that from the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 to the events of 11 September 2001 and the current wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, America’s foreign policy has wandered aimlessly. A coherent strategy with achievable objectives, for the most part, eluded Presidents Bush 41 and Clinton, and to a lesser degree, Bush 43. Brands eloquently and succinctly traces the development of foreign policy during the post–Cold War era, drawing a sweeping arc over this period of history and painting a picture of trial and error in the attempts of post–Cold War presidents to forge a grand strategy for circumscribing America’s place in the world.

In constructing his argument, Brands argues that during the 40-plus years after World War II, containing communism was the primary goal of US foreign policy. A single, monolithic nuclear power became the focus not only of our foreign policy but of our national security strategy and defense strategies as well.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the complexity of the world order defied simple catchphrase descriptions. Although no shortage of ideas came forth from the three post–Cold War administrations, uncertainty and ambiguity in world affairs, coupled with failed attempts to define a coherent and consistent foreign policy, left the world’s only superpower lacking the connective logic for developing a well-reasoned grand strategy framework. In essence, a post–Cold War strategy upholding containment’s moral clarity and political efficacy was forever lost and could not be regained.

In the first two-thirds of the book, readers are presented a very gloomy period in America’s political history. World events in which the United States became deeply involved after the Cold War—the Persian Gulf War; civil wars in Somalia, Haiti, and Rwanda; international trade (e.g., the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade); the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly among the former Soviet republics, but also in Pakistan, India, and others; rising near peers (i.e., China, Japan, and a resurgent Russia), and many others—caught US leaders flatfooted. Logical approaches to defining US foreign policy would be established, only to fall short and become illogical and unreasonable overnight due to the necessity to find a different approach to subsequent events for which the original approaches no longer made sense. In the 1990s, the Bush and Clinton administrations eventually acknowledged that they could not reduce America’s multifaceted post–Cold War objectives to a single fundamental precept. They certainly made the attempt—for example, Clinton’s “enlargement” agenda—but these pronouncements became false echoes when the failures above materialized.

Brands spends the last part of the book describing how the events of 9/11 finally galvanized the nation around a foreign policy mantra—the global war on terror—that was simple, understandable, and could garner the younger President Bush the carte blanche support (monetary, congressional, American public, international) necessary to pursue his agenda and objectives. Brands almost treats this portion of the book sycophantically, praising almost every aspect of Bush 43’s handling of the war on terror. Fortunately, he balances his effusive praise by describing similar policy shortcomings of Bush 43, but not nearly to the extent that he chastised Bush 41 and Clinton.

Brands never adequately answers one of the most important questions one might ask when reading this book: Why was it so difficult to formulate a useful foreign policy during this time? He argues that during the post–Cold War period, America’s interests and priorities were vast, involving nearly every corner of the world. Yet, American officials charged with developing foreign policy often found it difficult to establish rational policy that would not undermine approaches in other regions. This often frustrated not only the policy makers whose compass could not find the way, but the American public’s support barometer, that would often swing its support away from the administration when it became clear a policy was not working well. One poignant example of this is Brands’ characterization of the public reaction to the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. He notes that this incident highlighted China’s human rights shortcomings while paradoxically and concurrently undermining the progress US policy makers were having with regard to trade. He uses several examples like this throughout the book to illustrate his points.

Another weakness of the book is that it does not develop a good rationale or argument for why not having a coherent policy during this period mattered. Brands adeptly articulates the quandaries of each administration in trying to deal with this problem instead of trying to evaluate how the “on-the-fly” approaches served US interests. Without a crystal ball to know in advance if foreign policies or approaches would succeed or fail, Brands implies that no administration could have succeeded in this endeavor during the post–Cold War period. The rally cry reaction to the events of 9/11 broke the foreign policy stalemate and set President Bush 43 up beautifully for the events that followed.

Despite these critiques, Brands captures the fundamental nature of the difficulty presidents have in developing and advancing foreign policy agendas. Current White House advisors would do well to consider this brief look at America’s search for purpose over the last 18 years and heed its underlying messages, or they too may find themselves adrift in a sea searching for the port of foreign policy coherency.

Col Chad T. Manske, USAF

Air Force Doctrine Development Education Center

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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