John Judis reviews Stepan Sestanovich’s Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama in the new issue of The National Interest. He explains how Sestanovich divides up postwar presidents:
Maximalists want to increase the military budget; they want American power to shape the world, with or without allied backing, and are willing to risk war to get their way. Maximalists, Sestanovich writes, “assumed that international problems were highly susceptible to the vigorous use of American power.” Retrenchers, by contrast, believe that America must cut back its global reach either for budgetary reasons or because of opposition from other powers. They preach the limits of power. They think America needs to pay more attention to “nation building” at home than overseas.
Much of Judis’ review focuses on qualifying Sestanovich’s argument that the “maximalists” since WWII have been responsible for America’s greatest foreign policy successes. If anything, Judis is too willing to give the maximalists credit that they don’t really deserve, but he makes many of the right criticisms. The flaw in the maximalist approach is not only that they tend to prefer blunt and coercive tools to achieve their goals, which more often than not has undesirable and unforeseen consequences for the U.S. and other countries, but that they have the wrong goals from the start. As cheerleaders for the exercise of power, they are always trying to do things that should never be tried in the first place, and this often produces calamitous results for all involved. The danger of maximalists in office is that they are too prone to overconfidence and hubris, and they are far too dismissive of the risks and difficulties of their preferred policies. Because they have grand and usually unrealistic ambitions, they also expose the U.S. to greater risk and greater harm than could ever be justified by the benefits that they promise (and which they regularly fail to deliver).
So-called “retrenchers” may have less that they can boast about, and there may be fewer specific achievements that they can claim as their own, but that is almost always because they are consumed with repairing and minimizing the damage done by their maximalist predecessors. Maximalists and retrenchers both make mistakes, but maximalists have a record of committing extraordinary, extremely costly, and unnecessary blunders that cost the U.S. far more than any reversals that result from retrenchment.