International Diplomacy: Professor Stephen Sestanovich on American Foreign Policy from Truman to Obama

Feb. 18, 2014Bookmark and Share

In his new book, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, Professor Stephen Sestanovich’s argues that since World War II, policy makers have repeatedly miscalculated, quarreled with allies and underestimated their foes. Presidents worried that too much or too little has been done to shape events, and then set out to rectify their predecessors’ mistakes.

Sestanovich calls one of these extremes “maximalism,” for the tendency of the U.S. to overcommit American resources abroad—military, political and economic. At the other end of the pendulum is retrenchment, a pulling-back after a period of overextension. “Maximilizers and retrenchers have a sort of cyclical relationship with each other,” he says. The former tend to overreach, and the latter introduce policies to clean up the mess.

As U.S. ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet Union during the Clinton administration and a senior staff member at the National Security Council and the State Department during the Reagan years, Sestanovich is well placed to tell this story. He is currently the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, and the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

His book upends the accepted notions of widely known events and shows how personalities can play as important a role as events in creating policies. For example, he says that the military at first vigorously opposed President Harry Truman’s order to airlift supplies into Berlin when the Soviets blockaded the city. Two decades later, it took a great deal of persuasion by his advisors before a skeptical Lyndon Johnson committed troops to Vietnam.

Sestanovich argues that, “there is much to learn from the history of American foreign policy, but that we can’t learn it from the sepia-tinted versions of the past that have dominated public discussion in recent years.”

—Story by Columbia News Team
—Video by Columbia News Video Team