By Richard N. Haass. (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1997. 148 pp. $24.95.)
George Kennan's "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" has been called the most influential article of the twentieth century.(1) Never before or since has a single essay so symbolized a long-term geopolitical strategy - in this case, containment, Kennan's prescription for countering the Soviet threat. Though Kennan himself later had second thoughts, the ideas he presented in that article served as the basis for U.S. diplomatic, military, and economic policy for fifty years.
Containment was elegant. It described the essential features of the world and then presented a policy that logically followed. Moreover, it seems in retrospect to have worked exactly as predicted. Kennan having set the standard, it was only natural that after the Soviet Union collapsed foreign policy pundits of all views would offer their own "unified field theory" describing the post-Cold War era and prescribing a grand policy for dealing with it. Thus, we have in effect been watching the running of the George Kennan Sweepstakes. Alas, almost ten years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, no horse has yet proved a winner.
The Clinton administration had its entry in the starting gate when it arrived in office and called for a strategy of "engagement and enlargement."(2) Reduced to essentials, the policy argued that the United States needed to be deeply involved in world politics. U.S. troops would carry out missions ranging from fighting regional wars to peacekeeping to nation-building. To the maximum degree possible, U.S. leaders would work through organizations such as the United Nations, and seek international treaties to solve problems such as proliferation.
The theory supporting engagement and enlargement went as follows. The United States, although the most powerful country, was not all-powerful, hence it needed assistance. The way to meet this need was to support international institutions, e.g., organizations such as the United Nations and international treaties for economic integration and arms control. If it followed this plan of "engagement," the United States could "enlarge" the circle of democratic regimes and market economies. Peace and prosperity would ensue.
What a difference a few years make. Administration officials still say they favor engagement and enlargement, but they are a bit defensive about it. One can understand. Events in the mid-1990s made it clear that engagement could be entanglement, and that enlargement of democracy and market economics was anything but inevitable. Somalia demonstrated the hazards of deploying U.S. military forces (especially for noncombat objectives). Bosnian Serbs exposed the weakness of the United Nations when they overran UN "safe zones." Recent difficulties with Iraq and China showed how hard it can be to enforce international conventions designed to limit proliferation.
These setbacks are partly why many grand policies offered as alternatives to "engagement and enlargement" call for the United States to be less engaged. Most also argue that the United States has limited ability to enlarge the circle of market economies and democracies and little obligation to try. Two of the books reviewed here fit this description. They differ mainly in the degree to which they argue that the United States ought to be disengaged and in the sophistication of the strategies they offer as alternatives.
Eric Nordlinger, who died in 1994 shortly before completing his book, was a professor at Brown and an associate at Harvard's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies. He made no bones about it: Nordlinger did not just reject "engagement and enlargement," he favored isolationism.
Many people consider isolationism a default ideology for people who really do not care about foreign affairs. According to this thinking, isolationists are willing to leave the rest of the …