Richard A. Melanson. American Foreign Policy Since the Vietnam War: The Search for Consensus from Nixon to Clinton. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000. x + 339 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7656-0273-2.
Reviewed by Michael Sherry (Department of History, Northwestern University)
Published on H-Diplo (July, 2000)
Synthesis, President by President
Synthetic work of the sort Richard Melanson offers in American Foreign Policy Since the Vietnam War (its Third Edition, the only one I've read) has been falling out of favor in the discipline for years now, all the more so when it works, as his account does, within a single nation's boundaries and makes presidential administrations its organizing device. As I well know, it's especially hard to do persuasive synthesis of very contemporary history, about which everyone can claim a voice and offer a contrary view. Even within diplomatic history, a field that probably remains more receptive to synthesis than many others, certain areas of keen recent or longstanding interest -- economic policy, gender, race, nationalism, post-coloniality -- poorly accommodate synthesis, particularly of a more conventional sort. The discipline's skepticism toward synthesis takes many forms (not all noted here). Some historians mistrust the intellectual (and gender) politics they see at work in the construction of "master narratives"; others simply find it unconvincing to reduce burgeoning scholarship to summary statement; still others value synthesis but want it to take fresh focus and despair of its current practice. Yet more than many historians admit, they still rely on synthesis, if only for the obvious reason that they can't read all the specialized literature in a single field -- much less in many, at a time when historians increasingly cross fields and decline to identify themselves with only one.
Melanson's book shows some of the continuing value and pitfalls of synthesis. It features fussy tacking back and forth (words like "nonetheless" and "however" follow closely on each other), considerable repetition, and lots of enumerated lists of foreign policy objectives for various administrations; the book often reads like a position paper by a foreign policy expert rather than a history of foreign policy. Nonetheless, it is mostly quite readable and occasionally witty or snappy in its insights: Richard Nixon "internalized the Manichean cosmos of the high Cold War," implying "that as the world had grown more diverse the domestic environment had assumed the characteristic of bipolarity" (p.70). His account of Ronald Reagan's "resuscitation of a Wilsonian internationalist grand design" (p.182) is especially detailed, thoughtful, and for an academic book, sympathetic, despite the barbs thrown Reagan's way. While sometimes labored, his accounts of foreign policy for each presidency (Ford's virtually excepted) are comprehensive, balanced, insightful, well informed by others' scholarship -- authoritative. That alone suffices to make this book valuable to historians of the period and the subject.
Like any synthesis, Melanson's must include and exclude. Like much of John Lewis Gaddis's work, American Foreign Policy pays careful attention to relationships between means and ends in grand strategy, and to continuities and discontinuities in those relationships (he notes, for example, that George Bush's final declarations on foreign policy "all bore striking resemblance to the Truman Doctrine of 1947" (p.218)). Like Gaddis, Melanson also pays little attention to the economic aims of foreign policy; he acknowledges that the dream "of America as a 'commercial republic'" was old and powerful, but allegedly "the Great Depression, World War II, and Cold War largely submerged it" (p.272), and only when it presumably resurfaced under Bill Clinton does Melanson pay much attention to it. Similarly, political convulsions over matters at the margins of formal foreign policy but deeply affecting it scarcely rate mention: like most students (and members) of the Clinton Administration, Melanson virtually erases the tumultuous 1993 gays-in-the-military issue, even though it did as much as the oft-cited health care fiasco to set the tone and politics of the Clinton presidency, and did so earlier and in an area far more proximate to foreign policy. Nonetheless, Melanson does assiduously seek, as his subtitle indicates, to explain how successive presidencies sought (with at best moderate success) to create or align with a national "consensus" for their policies, a consensus which, he recognizes, hinged as much on shifting cultural and social foundations as on explicit public and elite subscription to formal policy.
In the end, Melanson succeeds more at describing and tabulating American foreign policy than at explaining it--indeed, a table of each administration's salient features accompanies a final chapter that only summarizes what has proceeded it rather than grappling with the period as a whole. The micro-histories of successive administrations are excellent; the macro history is a bit of a puzzle. Powerful continuities ran through these administrations--not a president among them failed to see a hegemonic role in the world for the United States, despite substantial differences among them about means (economic or military, unilateral or collective) and ends (balance of power, human rights, economic globalization) and simply about the degree of hegemony sought. But those continuities get minimized in Melanson's president-by-president approach, and the discontinuities get noted more than explained.
The book's explanatory weakness derives in part from his tendency to invoke the Vietnam War as agent of change more than delve into it. He sees the war as disrupting (though hardly destroying) the Cold War course of American policy that proceeded it, but his before-and-after-Vietnam comparisons do little to explain what happened during the war itself to be so disruptive; starting his main account in 1969 with Nixon, rather than with Lyndon Johnson or John Kennedy, severely limits what he can do in this regard. Then too, the book pays relatively little attention to international and comparative contexts, and it thus makes changes that happened in US foreign policy seem largely driven by changes within the United States itself, albeit sometimes in reaction to external developments (frustration in Vietnam, collapse within the Soviet empire). He barely nods to the possibility that on a near-global scale after the 1960s national governments, not just that of the United States, found it increasingly difficult to sustain consensus for and continuity in their policies. Guilty in most of my own work of looking little beyond this nation's boundaries and mindful of how impossible it is to have synthetic work do everything, I'm reluctant to criticize Melanson much in this regard, but I can still wish he had done more.
What large change in American foreign policy in these three decades might Melanson have set out and explained? Melanson himself notes that "the salience of foreign policy issues for the public declined in the wake of Vietnam" (p.17). Indeed, hovering over his story of formal policy is the gradual, erratic, fitful, and (only) partial disinvestment of Americans from foreign policy. It is doubtful that most Americans -- even most scholars -- care as much about, and see the same grave stakes in, foreign policy as they once did, and by extension they probably care less about its history as well. The old investment episodically reemerges -- amid the Gulf and Kosovo wars, for example -- but lacks much continuity and foundational solidity when it does. Even at the ideological fringes (such as they are) of American politics, much of the fire seems banked, or simply gets little notice if still burning. Right-wing alarms about American moral and military weakness before the world no longer gain much of an audience, in part because right-wingers summoned far more indignation for moral weakness within the Clinton White House. Left academics' complaints about American hegemony and imperialism have been losing a public audience ever since American intervention in Vietnam wound down, and no longer even seem to engage other academics as robustly as they once did. A standard explanation for this declining investment is the Cold War's end, but as Melanson rightly notes, the decline began much earlier, "in the wake of Vietnam"; indeed, it arguably was a contributor to the Cold War's end as much as its product. Change in this context for American foreign policy seems more striking -- and harder to explain -- than change within policy itself, which, despite all the twists and turns Melanson charts, can often seem little changed in basic premises, rhetoric, and objectives.
In his opening pages, Melanson does offer useful observations about that declining "salience of foreign policy issues for the public," pointing among other things to proliferating lobbying and advocacy organizations and media outlets, and to a sort of benumbing cacophony of voices on foreign policy that has resulted. There's more to be said in explaining declining "salience" (which might include questioning how real the decline has been). Melanson has the skill and knowledge to tackle it more. He can turn an able third edition into an intellectually more ambitious fourth.
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Michael Sherry. Review of Melanson, Richard A., American Foreign Policy Since the Vietnam War: The Search for Consensus from Nixon to Clinton.
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