The Return of Power Politics

Review: Michael Mandelbaum, 'Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era'

Russian tanks in the 2016 Victory Day Parade / AP

The conduct of U.S. foreign policy and the debate it has triggered in this presidential election year form the backdrop for Michael Mandelbaum’s timely and provocative Mission Failure.

Unlike policymakers and practitioners who are immersed in the daily process of advancing America’s interests overseas—some more successfully than others—academics such as Mandelbaum, a Johns Hopkins University professor, have the luxury of observing the policy process without having to defend it.

His book passes judgment on many aspects of U.S. foreign policy with a sure grasp of detail, and in doing so is anything but a paean to the brilliance of the foreign policy establishment over the past several decades, whether Democrat or Republican.

To the contrary, Mandelbaum acknowledges military successes while being highly critical of the nation’s political objectives overseas. He touts the 1991 Gulf War as a major military triumph, but sees the subsequent U.S. effort to intervene on behalf of the Kurds being persecuted by Saddam Hussein as a sea change in foreign policy.

To quote Mandelbaum, "The operation to rescue the Kurds represented a major change: Saddam’s attack on Kuwait threatened American interests; his assault on the Kurds affronted American values … Without announcing it, without debating it, without even fully realizing it, the goals of American foreign policy changed fundamentally."

Mandelbaum observes that the United States took on this new role simply because it could, and because no other country could stop it—an interpretation of U.S. policy motives that wouldn’t be out of place in Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

The consequences have been profound in his judgment. "The main focus of American foreign policy shifted from war to governance, from what other governments did beyond their borders to what they did within them."

On a more practical level, by taking its focus off what Mandelbaum deems most important, "the American role as the chief custodian of the benign international order," the United States achieved little more than an erosion of its own security interests.

The dichotomy between the "distraction" of nation building and more pressing core values may seem overdrawn to some. For example, the Clinton administration’s efforts to bring a touch of democracy to post-Cold War Russia, while unsuccessful, could have yielded substantial dividends for both nations, and may well have been worth the effort.

Whether or not one accepts Mandelbaum’s diagnosis that the United States has been too fixated on nation building over the past two decades, his policy prescription has the air of inevitability about it. The assertive foreign policies of Russia and China, backed in both nations by substantial military buildups, are compelling U.S. military officials to return to thinking about how to preserve America’s core interests.

It may not be Mandelbaum’s intention to argue that in foreign policy everything old is new again, but it is hard to view the events of the past few years, which he describes as "the restoration of power politics," without drawing that conclusion.