From the Retrenchment towards the Maximalism? --- Professor Stephen Sestanovich Talks on the America’s Foreign Policy Debate

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From the Retrenchment towards the Maximalism? --- Professor Stephen Sestanovich Talks on the America’s Foreign Policy Debate

November 11, 2015
The U.S. presidential primaries are currently in full swing, and one of the debate issues that attract observers from all over the world is the future of America’s foreign policy. As Professor Stephen Sestanovich explains in his book Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, the diplomatic direction of the U.S. will be undoubtedly influential for the future of the world.
 
Dr. Stephen Sestanovich, a former member of the U.S. state department, senior government foreign policy adviser and an expert on international diplomacy from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), spoke to a packed crowd in Beijing on November 5th. Professor Sestanovich introduced his book and discussed U.S. foreign policy and the upcoming presidential election. 
 
The talk was moderated by Reuters' Asia Specialist Correspondent and former Beijing bureau chief Benjamin Kang Lim, and took place at The Bookworm Bookstore in Beijing. The laid-back and cozy atmosphere in the salon made for an excellent backdrop for Professor Sestanovich’s book talk. 
 
Sestanovich began the talk by stating, “You can’t understand where we are in the debate about foreign policy and why we are having the kind of debate that we are having unless you understand where we are in the cycle of American foreign policy.” Professor Sestanovich then contextualized the presidential debates in the historical pattern of U.S. diplomacy by delivering the central thesis of his book. 
 
Unlike the consistency of Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, the claimed tenet of China’s diplomatic policy, their American counterparts, due to the cycle of new administrations, usually tend to produce foreign policy that is also cyclical. “You’ll discover if you look at presidents that came in that almost all of them think their predecessor is totally wrong,” said Dr. Sestanovich. The following recalibration and the search for new directions manifest themselves in two repeating modes: Maximalism and Retrenchment.  
 
The Maximalism model features “do more, think big” and the “pedal to the metal” kind of approach. The Retrenchment model, however, is represented by “do less, think harder” and “put on the brakes” approach. According to Professor Sestanovich, both of the policies run out of steam in the end. “It’s not a continuity,” he said. “It’s a continuing search to get it right.” What he detects over seventy years is an oscillation between presidents who have been “maximalist” in their approach to world affairs and those who have presided over periods of retrenchment.*
 
“Americans can never do things more than four years,” joked Dr. Sestanovich, followed by a probing question about the longevity of The Marshall Plan put to the audience, yet nobody provided the right answer, which was, unsurprisingly, 4 years! The nature of the American attention span may illustrate in part the reason of this kind of oscillation of American foreign policy, but more importantly, it unveils the undeniable existence and impacts rooted of this kind of periodical pattern which differs from any other country, ally or rival. In light of this, the necessity to scrutinize the upcoming American presidential election in the framework of the two modes is obvious. Maximalist offers a reminder that a nation as powerful as the United States will likely perpetuate its cycle of maximalism and retrenchment in presidential administrations to come.* 
 
“We get a particular kind of debate in the particular phase of retrenchment, that’s where we are now.” The long-time U.S. foreign policy adviser and observer told the audience. The night’s discourse was highlighted by the 9 traits of a retrenchment presidency given by Professor Sestanovich as a bonus delivered to the audience who were lucky to be there that night (as they are not elaborated on in his book). 
 
Among all of the 9 features given, the last one of retrenchment presidency is that compared to the maximalist’s not-so-interesting debates, the debate of retrenchment is really fun and lively, which can also be characterized as surging and conceptual, and the contents are about fundamental principles of U.S. foreign policy. “That’s where we are now,” emphasized Dr. Sestanovich. “Despite the mess and disorganization, we are having the debate.” This debate is where the “big questions” are being addressed---What should America’s role in the world be? What are the threats? On the defense budget: How ready should the United States be to use military force? How effective is the use of military force in solving problems? Where should American troops be stationed around the world? On ideology: What should the role of American values be? Especially with regards to human rights and democracy promotion. On trade:  in which Secretary Clinton is critical of the TPP (Even though she supported it when she was the Secretary of the State). There are different answers to these from different candidates. Issues as debatable and contentious as these are currently being debated in this political campaign. 
 
“Because we are in the second presidential term of retrenchment,” asserted the professor from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). “This makes you think that we are getting to the point in the retrenchment phase where people are dissatisfied and are ready to do more. They sense that the administration does not have the answer to all the new problems arisen.”
 
According to the cycle Professor Sestanovich discussed, it’s inferable that there could be a president elected in 2016 who takes a “maximalist” approach with regards to foreign policy. Evidence to support this can be found in the rather bellicose attitudes many presidential candidates have taken with regards to their own prospective plans for foreign policy. “(We are heading towards the ‘maximalism.’) That’s basically true,” however Dr. Sestanovich emphasized the unpredictability of the outcome. “But maybe we’re actually in a phase in the American history where those cycles won’t continue. The upswing will not be the way it has been before. That you might have a permanent or much longer retrenchment presidency.” 
 
However, much of the audience was concerned with regards to America’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy, and the potential consequences of a maximalist president continuing or even taking a harder stance in the Pacific. Indeed, the strategy of “Rebuilding American influence in Asia” initiated by the Obama government is a notable assertive position in an otherwise “retrenchment” presidency. “To reassure regional states, Obama promised that he would maintain a strong military presence in East Asia for the indefinite future.” As Sestanovich states in Maximalist, “The Pentagon budget might go down, as the president told the Australian parliament in 2011, but with one exception. ‘Reductions in U.S. defense spending will not---I repeat, will not come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.’” 
 
“China is one of the exceptions to the pattern that I described,” Professor Sestanovich told the worried audience, most of whom were Chinese. “Because maximalism and retrenchment tend to be responses to perceived big problems…main threats like terrorism.” Sestanovich discussed how the Obama administration’s “rebalancing” to Asia played the same role as Nixon’s retrenchment at the end of the Vietnam War. It is meant to act as proof that the United States was not, as Nixon put it, going “down the drain as a great power.” It provides an escape from the seeming futility of military ventures and is easier to afford.
 
Furthermore, as Sestanovich states, while the situation in the South Pacific may seem to be fierce now, even if a maximalist president takes office, China will scarcely be seen as the priority of the maximalism foreign policy.
 
“Don’t worry” the professor assured the audience repeatedly. “China ranks 11th on the ranking on what seems to the American people as a threat…For at least the last 45 years, how America has seen China is that, invariably, American presidents try to figure out how to take a cooperative relation and solve those problems within it.”
 
Dr. Sestanovich also shared his perspectives on questions related to U.S. citizen’s enmity against China, terrorism, soft power, history patterns, Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Russian policy towards China, the South China Sea, the likelihood for former president George W. Bush to apologize for the Iraq War etc. put forward by the audience from a wide span of nationalities.
 
This discussion is co-sponsored by Columbia Global Centers | East Asia, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), and CAA Beijing.
 
*Big Sticks by Tod Lindberg for Columbia Magazine
 
 
(Contributed by Jingwen Guo, Proofread by Tyler Browse, Photographs by Jingwen Guo)