Timothy Lynch’s highly accessible monograph “In the Shadow of the Cold War: American Foreign Policy from George Bush Sr. to Donald Trump” is lucidly written and extensively well-researched. Anyone looking for a basic overview of contemporary American foreign policy could do far worse than reading this book.
I picked up Lynch’s work expecting to vehemently disagree. “How could anyone argue American foreign policy is a success?”, I wondered. Admittedly, I am left still wondering. Despite his clarity, I remain unconvinced by Lynch’s claim there is “more evidence of success than failure” in American foreign policy. His stance on military interventionism comes to mind. Conceding that Iraq, Libya and Syria are disasters, Lynch suggests that American restraint, not militarism, is to blame. Had America deployed more troops for longer, these countries would not be in such a Hobbesian condition. Such a counterfactual ignores the available evidence – troop surges generally fail to stem long-term violence, as ISIS surely attests. Iraq also depleted American soft power, something Lynch fails to mention.
That being said, disagreement is no reason to not read this book. I came away with a much deeper appreciation for the intractable nature of the myriad problems facing American presidents. Is it fair to criticise Obama for failing to end the war in Afghanistan? I no longer think so – ending a war is harder than starting one. Obama faced the choice between a troop surge or a resurgent Taliban. In the same circumstances, it is hard to see another president acting differently, no matter how “progressive”.
One major source of agreement is Lynch’s argument that American foreign policy is characterised by a high degree of continuity. Republican or Democrat, American presidents argue over means not ends. Moreover, it is not always the case that Democratic presidents favour more peaceful means. Obama’s presidency is accurately described as a “third Bush term”, a far cry from the “hope and change” his supporters voted for. Obama actually retained Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, for his first term.
Even accounting for some level of continuity, Obama’s penchant for extrajudicial killings via drone strikes stands out. Obama killed more terrorists in just one year in office than Bush did in eight. Obama’s Director of the CIA, David Petraeus, pioneered a program whereby drone strikes would target large gatherings, thereby guaranteeing an increase in innocent civilian and non-combatant deaths. Obama’s response? Yes we can.
After all this, what is it that makes American foreign policy a success? In the Shadow of the Cold War’s biggest weakness is it fails to deliver on this question. Attempts are made, but they are wholly unsatisfactory. Lynch points to the endurance of America’s Cold War institutions, its outsized share of global GDP, and a vast array of alliances. If such features constitute success, fair enough.
But Lynch is missing an important counterfactual here: could America have handled its post-Cold War hegemony better? Absolutely. In just two decades, we have gone from the end of history to the likely end of American democracy. It’s hard to believe that without foreign wars, NATO expansionism and predatory global capitalism through middle-class devouring trade deals, that we would still be in the dire straits we are in today. On that count, American foreign policy has failed.