The library of books on American foreign policy, which has swollen rapidly since Americans rediscovered the world four years ago, can be split into two basic types. First are the Big Ideas books: eye-catching volumes with a single, sexy, overarching theme, often one that promises to revolutionize the world. Then, on the back shelves, are the more nuanced guidebooks, sober, sometimes tedious tomes that scout the territory with carefully detailed road maps.
So far the Bush administration has shown a marked preference for the first type. Last year the president sang the praises of “The Case for Democracy,” by Natan Sharansky, the former Russian refusenik turned hawkish Israeli politician. And Vice President Dick Cheney positively gushed over Victor Davis Hanson’s “Autumn of War,” telling assistants that it encapsulated his tough-guy philosophy.
These tastes may seem surprising for a White House often criticized for anti-intellectualism. In fact, this administration has a soft spot for Big Ideas, especially those that split the world into airtight categories like us versus them. Books like Sharansky’s and Hanson’s reflect this worldview perfectly. They are attractively clear, with simple, unified theories. Indeed, Sharansky’s blunt division of the planet into “the world of freedom and the world of fear” sounds very much like the president’s own.
The big-idea genre is vast — other recent books include the work of the British historian Niall Ferguson, and even some left-wing critics like Chalmers Johnson (whom Bush is less likely to read). Predictably, their messages vary. Sharansky touts democracy as a good thing everywhere and all the time. Hanson advocates the unapologetic and aggressive practice of old-fashioned Periclean values. Ferguson lauds the benefits of liberal empire (whether British or American). What they have in common is their attempt to supply a single answer to the world’s many problems. No wonder this style resonates with Bush’s own.
These books also tend to be written in morally indignant language, with a tone of blustery outrage that may have felt especially appropriate after 9/11. Hanson, a respected classics scholar turned cranky pundit, poses as a sort of Attic farmer-philosopher who implores us wimpy moderns to see the world as the ancients did, in tragic and heroic terms. Hopped up on Homeric glory, he advises us to fight the war on terror “as we did in the past — hard, long, without guilt, apology or respite until our enemies are no more.” Sharansky is similarly stark, insisting on “moral clarity” in all things, with no excuses.
Of course, it’s much easier to state universal rules when you can ignore or gloss over exceptions. And Hanson, Sharansky and the rest provide little guidance for drawing their bright lines onto messy reality. They refuse to get bogged down in the mechanics of actual governance.
But that’s exactly the problem with these books, which are as impractical as they are engaging. They may be fun reading for policy makers, but they have little value for making policy. Hanson and Sharansky both preach democracy promotion — but they don’t explain how democracy can be promoted in a nuclear-armed hermit regime like North Korea, or what to do about its destabilizing effects — if, for instance, the new democracies fall apart, attack their neighbors or elect governments hostile to the United States. Ferguson argues that a benign, free-trading empire is the solution to today’s fractured and fractious world. It sounds good — but he never explains how Washington should sell the idea to reluctant Americans, or ward off the resentment and competition an American empire would breed. The big ideas are rhetorically attractive, but governments, working on day-to-day problems, don’t have the luxury of relying on rhetoric.
Enter the humble how-to guides, the often overlooked ugly ducklings of the foreign policy library. These are books without slogans, manuals that favor subtlety over simplicity, moderation over bombast, pragmatism over ideology.
Consider some recent, prominent examples, all level-headed prescriptions for America’s predicament: “Does America Need a Foreign Policy?” by Henry Kissinger; “The Choice,” by Zbigniew Brzezinski; and “The Superpower Myth,” by Nancy Soderberg. All of these authors have firsthand experience in government (Kissinger served Nixon and Ford, Brzezinski worked for Carter and Soderberg was a top Clinton aide), and it shows. Though they come from different parties, have advised very different bosses and don’t necessarily take the same positions on particular issues, their books are remarkably similar in outlook and tone.
They all begin by pointing out how intricate the world is. Unlike Sharansky and the other hedgehogs, these foxes recognize that foreign policy is complex and full of paradoxes — first among them, that the United States today is both supremely powerful and supremely vulnerable. As Kissinger remarks, it is thus impossible to “apply a single formula to the analysis and interpretation of the contemporary international order.”
These writers reject all purist approaches. Soderberg, for instance, shuns policies based only on idealism or straightforward national interest; she argues (convincingly) that we have to balance both. Even that personification of power politics, Henry Kissinger, favors a mix. So much for “moral clarity.”
Instead of big ideas, these books focus on process, explaining how to follow the middle path they describe. “The Superpower Myth,” which doubles as a memoir of Soderberg’s years in the Clinton administration, is a history told from inside meeting rooms, full of detail about how government bureaucracies actually function — and why sometimes they don’t. Kissinger and Brzezinski, meanwhile, both preach the value of working through tedious institutions like NATO or the United Nations, urging Washington to reinvest in the painstaking business of alliance building.
Calls for accommodating clumsy institutions hardly make for rousing battle cries, of course, which probably explains why they don’t attract much attention. With their moderation and caution, such books can come off sounding bloodless. A pragmatist like Soderberg can look like a spoilsport for poking holes in nice-sounding notions like Bush’s declared commitment to universal democracy. Kissinger has long been condemned by Sharansky and others for putting statecraft over principle; and sure enough, in his latest book he praises the virtues of hypocrisy.
The truth is, reading these books can even be — how to put this? — a bit boring. But isn’t that a small price to pay for accuracy? If the world isn’t neat, why should the books be? And so what if the solutions they preach are modest and unsurprising? As all three of these authors make clear, the conventional wisdom on foreign policy is both widely shared and essentially right. Free trade is good, but we should soften its rough edges. The environment is important, and we should protect it as much as we can afford to. Our allies strengthen us, so we should work with them when possible (but alone when necessary). We should not be afraid to use force, but we shouldn’t rush to use it either. We should act on ideals, but only when they don’t damage us. And we shouldn’t worry too much about a little hypocrisy.
Repeating such obvious truths may make for dry reading, but such banality is something our exhausted country could use more of these days. After 9/11, the president seemed to fall for the big idea. The intervening years, however, have not been kind to his black-and-white idealism. Maybe it’s time to bring back boring, and put big ideas back on the bookshelf.