Book Review: America Between The Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11, by James Goldgeier and Derek Chollet

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In 1991, as the USSR was rapidly moving to its demise, the Republic of Georgia declared its independence on April 9th. Independence was ratified with the USSR’s dissolution on December 25th.

The recently published book by James Goldgeier and Derek Chollet, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11, is an excellent overview of a recent historical period that defied categorization. Discussing the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall (11/9/1989) and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (9/11/01), Goldgeier and Chollet provide a concise and insightful accounting of the coinciding international challenges and domestic debates America experienced during those years. Goldgeier and Chollet recapture both the auspiciousness and anxieties of the foreign policy elite in the wake of communism’s collapse and the Gulf War victory and chronicle how the unresolved debates and crises during that period have shaped many of the challenges facing America in the present day international arena.

The lack of resolution within the conservative / liberal and Republican / Democratic elites is central to the book. The tenuousness with which the Bush 41 Administration broached challenges such as Yugoslavia and Somalia were matched by the unfamiliarity of the Clinton team with international security issues upon its unexpected victory in the presidential race. The Bush 41 team was one of the most successful foreign policy teams in US history but its core pragmatism was ill-suited to meet expectations for a successor grand vision. President Clinton famously vowed to focus on the domestic economy “like a laser beam,” and understood global economic issues, but was certainly overwhelmed by the breadth of national security and foreign policy challenges in the first two years. Even though Clinton’s indecisiveness and vacillation contributed to the Republican Party’s return to power (in the Congress), the new GOP leadership was uninterested in foreign affairs. Ultimately, the 1992-1994 electoral cycle provided the basis for key divisions in the American foreign policy elite.

Left out of Goldgeier and Chollet’s account is how these disagreements among policy-makers reflected the divisions among the electorate. Goldgeier and Chollet, as with other observers, are right to note how foreign affairs seemingly mattered less to Americans, but it is equally important to highlight the voting public was undecided throughout the decade. After three straight presidential elections where voters delivered resounding majorities to the Republican Party, voters then denied both parties a majority in the next three elections. The public was just as divided as the elites and in the Nineties.

Chronicling these debates, Goldgeier and Chollet set the stage for the culminating 2000 presidential election between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. Revisiting the election is absorbing as the reader is reminded that Bush was the voice of restraint, calling for a judicious defense of national interests, while Gore was the interventionist hawk, ready to act on behalf of American values around the globe.

Gore was prepared to continue Clinton’s legacy of embracing globalization and formulating a “third way” of progressive global governance – even though Clinton himself acknowledged never having persuaded the American people the appropriateness of this course. As Goldgeier and Chollet noted, the denunciation of American foreign policy at Ohio State University and violent protest during the new round of world trade talks in Seattle signaled a growing but significant dissatisfaction within the Left that would come to a head in subsequent elections.

Regarding Bush, Goldgeier and Chollet similarly note his “far from transformational” call for a more nationalistic and unilateral approach to foreign affairs. Goldgeier and Chollet correctly diagnose how Bush never did resolve the tension between the varying conservative critiques of Clinton foreign policy during the 2000 campaign. Conservatives either agreed with the level of resources made available but wanted less commitments abroad or wanted the same level of commitments abroad but with more resources behind them. Bush’s attempt to split the difference – more resources (especially for missile defense) but less commitments – was unsatisfactory as it only communicated to an attentive world “arrogance without purpose.” (Again, the public was not necessarily persuaded either; Bush famously did not win the popular vote in his first bid for the White House.)

Once in office, the perception of “arrogance without purpose” was compounded by the Bush Administration’s “ABC” approach – Anything But Clinton. The Bush Administration was skeptical of the inherited military leadership, disdainful of globalization (derided as “globaloney”), and its highly touted players (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Rice) were fighting amongst themselves. On the eve of 9/11, America and its leadership were still adrift.

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, America was adrift no longer, but galvanized and committed to taking the war to the enemy no matter the cost, no matter how far away.

However Goldgeier and Chollet contend the events of 9/11 are incorrectly described as the moment that “everything changed” as the continuity of issues and challenges of the preceding “11/9 world” endured and continue to shape debates and choices to this day.

The conclusion is legitimate, but also contestable. Such an assertion overlooks the manner in which these terrorist attacks were a catalyst for departures (good or bad) in grand strategy (pre-emption), national security structures (Department of Homeland Security, Director of National Intelligence), and military doctrine (counterinsurgency, security and stabilization).

Moreover, 9/11 did decide intra-party debates, some decisively and some not so decisively. The Bush Administration opted for neo-conservative principles, espoused by observers such as Robert Kagan and William Kristol, by increasing defense budgets and committing the nation to democracy promotion worldwide. The Democratic Party, decidedly opposed to Bush after the 2000 election crisis, was more hospitable to anti-Clinton forces and subsequent party leaders reflected the anti-war and anti-free trade postures of its leftist base. The shift was dramatically underscored in 2006 by when anti-war forces rallied to defeat incumbent Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore’s running mate only six years earlier, in the primary election. (Lieberman won re-election as an independent Democrat and has since endorsed the presumptive GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain.)

Furthermore, Goldgeier and Chollet could have explored a little further whether bracketing the period from 11/9/89 to 9/11/01 was appropriate. Certainly a number of challenges preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall. America’s uneven relationship with Islamic fundamentalism began earlier, when Iranian extremists seized US hostages in 1979 and the US began to support the Afghan mujahedin against invading Soviet forces in the 1980s. President Nixon presciently recognized the importance of a rising China in 1971 and famously opened the relationship in 1972, leading to successive presidents courting the rising giant. Paul Bracken has written persuasively about the “post-Vasco da Gama era” whereby the West is to be eclipsed by a rising Asia.

Finally, Goldgeier and Chollet do not question why the belief the post-Cold War world would entail less demands on America was so universally accepted. Goldgeier and Chollet identify the role played by Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis as well as the competing alternatives posited by the Bush State and Defense Departments at the end of the administration’s term. Similarly, Charles Krauthammer’s influential “unipolar moment” article is noted, but Goldgeier and Chollet do not apply the same perspective with which they readily perceive the continuity of challenges before and after 9/11.

If the conventional wisdom can be challenged that “everything changed” after a cataclysm like 9/11, why not similarly challenge the notion that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall would reduce the demands on American power. The existence of the Soviet Union and a bipolar world certainly simplified American national security planning, but more importantly it amounted to a rare successful division of labor in international security. Ethnic separatism and collapsing states occurred during the Cold War, except the Americans and Soviets were responsible for their respective spheres. The worms did not come out as former Secretary of State Madeline Albright alleged; the other exterminator simply collapsed on the job.

On August 7, 2008, Russia invaded Georgia to protect the pro-Russian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

08/10/08 Fox News Sunday Transcripts, William Kristol: “The precedent -- if Russia gets away with this, the precedent will be awful. And this is a very big moment, I think, for Russia to invade a neighboring nation.”

Failing to appreciate this lapse on the part of policymakers during the 1990s undermines what are key insights offered by the book.

Goldgeier and Chollet recount how Clinton successfully expanded the realm of foreign affairs to include global economic matters and transnational challenges. Moreover, Goldgeier and Chollet map how the increasing confidence Clinton brought from his successes in these areas resulted in the proposition of the “indispensable nation.” While the concept culminated the Administration’s search for an easy reference point, the coinciding inability to translate it into a purposeful strategy going forward intimated a perilous corollary that Goldgeier and Chollet fail to pursue.

As the world’s sole superpower, the United States retained tremendous freedom of action, but lacked a clear purpose. With the easy division of labor with the Soviets now gone, America foundered from crisis to crisis, all the while professing its best intentions.

Unfortunately, a gap exists between how America perceives itself and how other nations perceive America; even worse, America is usually unaware of this gap.1 In a rapidly globalizing world where national leaders lament the erosion of their capacity to govern within their own borders, American attempts to alternately uphold “values” or “interests” constitute a significant danger to the long-standing Westphalian system of state sovereignty.

Moreover, when there is a lack of consensus within the American foreign policy-making elite as to how American hegemony can be legitimized --

During the modern interwar years, Republican and Democrats tussled over how America’s actions would gain legitimacy in the eyes of the world or whether it already had enough to do what it wanted. Liberals tended to favor cooperation – both to maximize legitimacy and spread the costs – while conservatives were more focused on maintaining America’s freedom of action and preserving its power. PG 325

-- states around the world, especially former foes, will become increasingly concerned about their sovereignty and integrity and the intents of a so-called indispensable nation.

Russia, a onetime superpower now humbled, but a nation also historically paranoid about foreign intentions, nervously watches America renege on pledges to not expand the NATO alliance into its former sphere of influence and intervene on the side of Kosovar separatists without the sanction of the United Nations. With the aerial war against Kosovo and ground invasion in the name of Iraqi regime change, Russia observes not the beneficence of American values and interest, but the exercise of hegemonic power at the expense of a nation’s sovereignty.

Accordingly, the Russian leadership, facing many Kosovos within its borders and Iraqs on its borders, abandons the pretense of modernizing according to Western prescriptions and centralizes all political and economic power within its own small cadre. Seizing on another legacy of the Cold War era, the West’s dangerous reliance on imported petroleum, Russia capitalizes on its petroleum riches and emerges as an energy superpower and is readily prepared to use its valuable oil supplies to bring pressure on former satellites and European countries alike.

When the time is right, Russia finally strikes a blow to ratify its re-emergence as a regional power – and in the very same manner America has exercised power since the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Goldgeier and Chollet obviously could not have commented on the Russian invasion of Georgia, but, as former national security officials during the Clinton Administration and astute observers of Eurasian affairs, they probably would have provided an assessment of the situation in similar terms.)

Russia claims the South Ossetians and Abkhazians are being oppressed by the Republic of Georgia and invades to protect their fellow countrymen. In the background is the Russian desire to depose Mikheil Saakashvili, the outspokenly pro-Western president eager to add the Caucasus nation to the NATO alliance. In short, a Russian equivalent to American action in Kosovo and Iraq in one shot.

American protests do not deter the Russians and American leverage is limited because of commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, dissension within America rages as some observers question whether America possesses the moral authority to confront Russia in the crisis given its actions in Kosovo and Iraq.2 In light of remarks like that of William Kristol’s above, Goldgeier and Chollet would probably accurate in characterizing them as representative of a mindset trapped in the 11/9 world…

08/11/08 Voice of America: Amidst the crisis, the Republic of Georgia asked the People’s Republic of China to intercede and assist in mediating the crisis.

To date, the American response has been limited to denunciations of Russian aggression, warnings that Russia will be expelled from the Group of Eight and denied the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, and deploying a humanitarian relief to Georgia. America cannot rattle a saber committed elsewhere and its condemnation is just rhetoric as the unipolar moment has passed.

With the emergence of a multipolar world no longer a prediction but a reality, Georgia did what is only natural. It appealed to the other major poles in the international system as the above news report indicated.

In conclusion, Goldgeier and Chollet’s work is a valuable addition to the assessment of recent American foreign policy, one already amplified by recent events.

To note, Goldgeier and Chollet discuss American diplomat and neoconservative Robert Kagan in reference to his advocacy of a muscular “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy during the Nineties, but unfortunately did not cite his most recent work, The Return of History and the End of Dreams3, an obvious nod and counterpoint to Fukuyama’s thesis. Nonetheless, Kagan surveys the current international security environment and concluded a competition between democratic capitalism and authoritarian mercantilism would emerge shortly, due in part to American hegemony, its consequences for state sovereignty, and the threat it would pose to autocracies like Russia and China.

In contrast, insightful strategists, such as Dr. Thomas Barnett, formerly with DOD’s Office of Force Transformation, posited alternative possibilities for the US in a globalizing world, where growing Russian and Chinese capabilities could complement American power. In The Pentagon’s New Map, Dr. Barnett identified how the “gap” of underdeveloped states posed a challenge for Old Core (US, Europe) and New Core (China, Russia, India, Brazil) states alike and opportunities for collaboration should be sought.

The debate over the course of American foreign policy will obviously continue.


1 Accordingly, there are several consequences -- one virtuous and two problematic. First, the virtue. This lack of self-awareness permits American professed “exceptionalism” to be (somewhat) digestible by other states. Foreign populations witness the US promotion of democracy in their nation and see not avarice but altruism on behalf of their well-being. Conversely, problems arise when the exact opposite is observed – when we consider ourselves altruistic, we are accused of avarice. And then even worse, we do not realize our own lack of self-awareness makes us very unpredictable, a posture that runs a very close second to revolutionary state in terms of threats to international stability. These insights are laid out in Robert Kagan’s masterful history of pre-world power America, Dangerous Nation: America's Foreign Policy from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century.

2 The merit of this point is of course outweighed by the glaring contrast of a democratic Georgia vis-à-vis a Serbian dictatorship guilty of ethnic cleansing and an Iraqi authoritarian state that had invaded two of its neighbors and massacred hundreds of thousands of its own citizens.

3 While The Return of History was published shortly before America Between The Wars, Kagan previewed his conclusions in an essay of the same name in the August / September 2007 issue of Policy Review.

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