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Is the Devil to Blame for American Foreign Policy?

As Halloween approaches, here is a title to consider: Theories of International Relations and Zombies. It’s a funny new book by Daniel Drezner, a scholar of international political economy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. In it he asks, mock-seriously, how leading academic interpreters of war and diplomacy might respond to a completely novel problem—like the threat to global security posed by the “undead.”

In writing about flesh-eating zombies, Drezner has, believe it or not, plenty of company these days. The role of the supernatural in foreign policy—a freak theme no more—has gone completely mainstream. In just the last few months, I count at least four other books in this burgeoning new genre. And they’re not presented in Drezner’s what-if mode, either. They have real-world questions in mind. How and why does America succumb to fits of madness in its relations with other countries? Why does it so often overreach and overreact?

The answer, these books tell us, seems to lie in altered states of consciousness—messianic enchantment, demonic possession, divine mission, what have you. Zombies, in other words, are no mere hypothetical threat. They’re all around us—and may have been running things for a long time.

Each of the authors in the supernatural school has his distinctive take on America’s derangements, but they are linked by important common themes. Peter Beinart’s book, The Icarus Syndrome carries the subtitle A History of American Hubris, the special delusion that mortals can act like gods and get away with it. His story is shot through with references to the boy in Greek mythology whose father built him wings made of wax, only to discover that they melted when he got too close to the sun.

In Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan, Derek Leebaert gives the theme a different twist. He traces what ails us to “magical thinking”—the kind of irrationality that makes primitive peoples expect a good harvest if the witch-doctor blesses their fields. Or military success if our intentions are pure enough.

William Pfaff is also interested in varieties of religious experience. His new book, The Irony of Manifest Destiny, claims that most of America (he exempts parts of the northeast) simply missed out on the European Enlightenment. This fact, he thinks, leads naturally to a faith-based foreign policy.

And that’s how Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz see things too. In The Chosen Peoples (which is about both America and Israel), they explain that a country specially endowed by its Creator will not easily escape black-and-white moralism in dealing with the rest of the world. (The Manichaean tradition, Gitlin wrote recently in a post for Entanglements, is strong enough in America “to make an anti-Manichaean think of vampires.”) 

Now I’ve got no problem with sweeping interpretations of our history. American foreign policy demands a large canvas. And most of these books do have something interesting to say. Yet the cumulative picture they paint can actually make it harder to understand either our successes or our failures.

For the supernaturalists, our policy regularly takes a wrong turn because of collective irrationality and rabid, arrogant moralizing. We have a national susceptibility to these traits (whether in the elite or the public) that gives a leg up to liars and con-men. Our debates are always tilted in favor of those who want to do more and against those who want to do less. In these circumstances it’s hard to be part of what one author calls “the vital center of calm, reasonable, evidence-based thought.”

There’s no doubt that the right way to understand American foreign policy, past or present, is to try to disentangle the debates between those who push for more and those who push for less. But it’s not right to think that, when the latter lose out, it’s because dark forces from another world have put their thumb on the scales.

Take a couple of the figures who always loom large in these discussions, George Kennan and Colin Powell. They’re familiar heroes of prudence and moderation—Kennan, because he helped devise the strategy of “containment” and yet was still able to see that the war in Vietnam was a bad idea; Powell, because he was chairman of the joint chiefs in the first Iraq war but could tell that the second one was bound to be a mess. Were these guys marginalized because they wisely saw disaster looming and refused to drink the madmen’s Kool-Aid?

Not really. Their differences with prevailing policy were much more fundamental. Having coined the term “containment,” Kennan then opposed the policies that were part of turning it from a strategic concept into a political reality—the formation of NATO, the creation of West Germany, the peace treaty with Japan, and so on. He wasn’t listened to on Vietnam because he was seen—correctly, I would argue—as having been wrong on almost every major issue of American foreign policy since the Marshall Plan. As for Powell, it was not easy to exercise much influence in the internal debates over the second Iraq war when all your colleagues in the Administration knew that you had opposed the first one too.

These heroes, in short, were not just opposed to failure. They were, in a real sense, opposed to success. There’s a lesson here that the supernaturalist books ignore. They are clearly right that it’s hard to be an advocate of doing less in American foreign policy. But they’re not right about the reasons. It’s not, as Senator Arthur Vandenberg advised Truman, that policymakers are so good at “scaring hell out of the American people.” Nor is it that Americans cannot accept compromise, prefer self-delusion to self-awareness, are absolutist in their faith, and may not have heard of the Enlightenment.

The main reason is different. A strategy that systematically chooses to do less rather than more may well avoid big mistakes. But it will also—inevitably, in fact—sacrifice some of the most significant achievements of American foreign policy. Given the large global role that the United States has played for decades, it may also—at least until other countries learn to adjust—sacrifice some elements of international order.

Some people will like that kind of change, others won’t. It’s a debate we need to have. But let’s not pretend that there are only two sides, normal people and the possessed.

Stephen Sestanovich is Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.