Wednesday, January 29, 2020

American Foreign Policy after the Cold War

American Foreign Affairs after the Cold War

History Book Club

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Americans invade Iraq and end rule of Saddam Hussein

Ambassador Burns

William J. Burns, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and a Case for its Renewal; New York: Random House; 2019

            Ambassador Burns begins his diplomatic career, and this memoir, just as the United States arrived at the pinnacle of global dominance and prosperity. It was autumn of 1991, and he was accompanying President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker at the Madrid Peace Conference. Spain hosted the meeting, but the United States and the USSR sponsored it.  Mikhail Gorbachev, just two months before the collapse of the Soviet Union, was also there.

            In March of that year, President Bush had gained the collaboration of Arab neighbors to land troops in Kuwait and drive the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein out and back to Baghdad.

            It was a moment when the United States held most of the cards.  The Cold War was over, Russia was about to implode in a bloodless end; China was still turned inward. Bush had changed Reagan’s policy toward Israel, ushering in the possibility of Jewish-Palestinian peace.  

            The question for us was: Should we assume global dominance or draw upon our diplomacy to form a new world order, where our old rivals had a place, and emerging powers had a stake?

            As I read this, I thought about our country today, led by a President whose first and only tendency is toward dominance— “America First”. At this point in our nation’s life, I think we were fortunate to have a leader like Senior Bush, who understood the power of working together with other nations.  A quiet, soft-spoken  man, he recognized that no other nation likes to collaborate with a leader who talks about dominance.

            My own experience, which was spent in 34 years of Cold War, is working with officers from NATO and other allies of the United States, and respect and collegiality with those from non-aligned and even countries of the Communist bloc, when it was possible. Our alliances were like the alliances we formed in World War II. We are never so strong that it is not better to unite with allies to achieve our goals.  

            A year later, Bush was turning over the reins to President Bill Clinton. Russia was in financial turmoil, but communism was gone. Nationalism seemed to be a threat to peace in many parts of the world, and in the Muslim world, Islamic Conservatism was and is a potent threat to democracy as an organizing principle.

            Burns comments on the difference today, when China is growing, is developing formidable military power, and its economy may soon surpass ours.

            Russia appears to have the sense that its revival as a world power depends upon weakening the United States.

            During the Cold War the U.S. replaced the U.K. in being the “father figure” in the Middle East.  I was serving in Iran in 1971 when the Royal Navy sent the radio signal to its forces that it was moving out of “East of Aden”, and leaving that responsibility to the U.S. We were encouraging Iran to assume a larger role in collaboration with the other nations from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and even west to the Mediterranean. Iran even maintained secret relations with Israel.

            We badly damaged our authority in the region by the Iraqi invasion of 2003, Burns suggests. Burns became ambassador to Russia in 2005, which he describes as his “dream job”.  (I held a lower position in Moscow over two decades prior, and for me that was also my “dream job”. ) 

            Just after Burns arrived in Moscow with his family, with his household goods still stacked in boxes, he welcomed a Congressional visit from Senators including Barack Obama.  
Rice and Putin, Moscow 2006

            Burns relates a visit of George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to Moscow in April 2006, when Vladimir Putin demonstrated that “Russia is back!” and he fully intended to “make Russia great again.”  

            Putin and others rose from low positions in the KGB in the USSR. Others were marked for more success, but Putin overcame them and rose to the top, muscling his way past the ring of powerful men who quickly grabbed huge portions of what had been the state economy of the Soviet Union. Just like the Shah of Iran, he seems to have worked out a system that permits a small group of men to become very wealthy, as long as they do not get “too wealthy” or forget who is boss.


           Burns comes across as the quintessential State Department foreign service officer:  Polite, literate, sensible. He was not a braggart or a talker, he was self-effacing and modest, and his career path shows that his seniors detected his fine qualities.  He learned history and studied each piece of the world as he encountered it. He learned the culture and the language. 

            Few can experience the world that he faced and not appreciate the importance of a global approach to international relations, and he responded best to leaders who shared this appreciation: George H. W. Bush, Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, the Clintons, Angela Merkel, and Obama. Likewise, he was less impressed with those leaders who were more comfortable with one-sided relations, like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, and Donald Trump.     
Trump and Putin

            Now in the world there is a backlash toward globalization.  Donald Trump’s election and British exit from the European Union are examples of growing popular unease, and a sense among millions that the benefits of globalism are not worth the benefits. Burns retired before Donald Trump entered the White House, but he drew fire in Burns’ book. He found Trump shared the dismissive attitude of many Americans toward the State Department and its officers.  While it’s clear to see what our armed forces do for the country, especially when every family may have men and women who served, there is much less appreciation among many Americans for a service that deals with highly educated, linguistically facile people. That Trump halted hiring of high-level State Department appointees, and cut the departmental budget sharply, was another indication that he saw little value here.

            In his closing chapter, Burns summed up:

Sept. 11, 2001 changed everything. We quickly made the leap to use of military force without trying diplomacy first.

War in Afghanistan (2001)…Iraq(2003)… Global Financial Crisis (2007-8)  withering away of foreign service officers… growth of National Security Council Staff…Trump brought in a different style—brash and narcissistic, with no recognition of history, alliances and multilateral arrangements viewed as millstones and constraints, rather than opportunities for mutual support and collaboration.  His appointment of Rex Tillertson brought on massive personnel reductions, large numbers of senior staff retirement, blacklisting of personnel tainted with work on popular Obama projects.

            Burns lamented Trump’s withdrawals from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

            Burns ends on a positive note.  Recalling Teddy Roosevelt’s slogan “Speak softly and carry a big stick!” Referring to the fine examples of James Baker, Henry Kissinger and many others, American diplomacy and statecraft will return.

Samuel W. Coulbourn



Wednesday, February 26, 2020. America in Reconstruction after the Civil War. It was a terrible time. Civil war soldiers returned home, some in the south facing freed slaves roaming the streets, plantations emptied of their work force, and fear stoked by troublemakers warning of blacks raping white women and killing white men, and angry whites searching out and killing blacks without cause.  The formation of the Ku Klux Klan.  Northern leaders sending carpetbaggers to the south to enforce emancipation and protect freedmen.   

Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Israel, its History and its Prospects. Since its beginning with the proclamation of  nationhood by David Ben Gurion in 1948, followed immediately by the recognition of the new state by President Harry S. Truman, Israel's history has been filled with continual opposition by the Arab nations which surround it, and the Palestinians who were displaced, as well as those who still live there.  Britain, which had held a colonial over former Palestine, objected to nationhood, recognizing that this would stir up a hornet's nest. Israel, in between fighting wars with its neighbors, has turned desert land into fertile orchards, and created a modern state with a population of over 8 million, mostly Jewish, gathered in the ancient Jewish homeland from all over the world. [Suggested by Jason Shaw] 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020. The Effects of Colonialism in the World. Look at Portuguese, Spanish, French, British colonialism and missionary outreach in the world. What were the positive gains? Drawbacks? 

Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Russia since the end of Communism. Look at the seeds for replacing communism and the prospects for a new order. Oligarchs. Corruption. Democratic movements. A new superpower?

Wednesday, June 24, 2020. A History of Alcohol. Men have been fermenting fruit and grain and honey for many thousands of years.  The Babylonians, Greeks and Romans had gods and goddesses and there have been marvelous Bacchanalian feasts and tales of the dreadful effects of too much alcohol.  There have been anti-alcohol drives, temperance marches, Prohibition. Cultural and health effects of alcohol usage. [Proposed by Janos Posfai] 


Wednesday, July 29, 2020. China from 1900 to today. China has traveled a long way from the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 when western nations felt free to wander all over the vast country. Sun-Yat-Sen and the last Qing emperor…Military wardlordism ..Chiang Kai-Shek…War against Japan… Mao Zedong and the Communist Revolution, founding of the People’s Republic…”Great Leap Forward” and The Cultural Revolution…World’s No. 2 Economy, on the verge of becoming No. 1. [Proposed by Jason Shaw]