Daniel W. Drezner

You can’t generalize from George W. Bush

John Mearsheimer has the lead essay in the latest issue of The National Interest. Entitled "Imperial by Design," the main thesis is not going to shock anyone familiar with Mearsheimer’s theoretical and policy writings over the past two decades: The root cause of America’s troubles is that it adopted a flawed grand strategy after the ...

John Mearsheimer has the lead essay in the latest issue of The National Interest. Entitled "Imperial by Design," the main thesis is not going to shock anyone familiar with Mearsheimer’s theoretical and policy writings over the past two decades:

The root cause of America’s troubles is that it adopted a flawed grand strategy after the Cold War. From the Clinton administration on, the United States rejected [grand strategies of offshore balancing or selective engagement], instead pursuing global dominance, or what might alternatively be called global hegemony, which was not just doomed to fail, but likely to backfire in dangerous ways if it relied too heavily on military force to achieve its ambitious agenda.

The rest of the article details the flawed strategies pursued by the Clinton and Bush administrations, and then closes with this warning:

The United States needs a new grand strategy. Global dominance is a prescription for endless trouble — especially in its neoconservative variant. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is populated from top to bottom with liberal imperialists who remain committed to trying to govern the world, albeit with less emphasis on big-stick diplomacy and more emphasis on working with allies and international institutions. In effect, they want to bring back Bill Clinton’s grand strategy….

President Obama is making a serious mistake heading down this road. He should instead return to the grand strategy of offshore balancing, which has served this country well for most of its history and offers the best formula for dealing with the threats facing America — whether it be terrorism, nuclear proliferation or a traditional great-power rival.

Mearsheimer’s essay has drawn praise from others at FP, but I confess to finding it conceptually fuzzier than most of his other work.

He’s positing that a global dominance strategy doesn’t work, and that the post-Cold War era demonstrates that it doesn’t work. To demonstrate this, however, he focuses the overwhelming majority of the essay on the Bush administration. Fair enough, except that he’s arguing that Obama is copying Bill Clinton and not George W. Bush. Here is the entirety of Mearsheimer’s discussion of the Clinton period:

Bill Clinton was the first president to govern exclusively in the post-Cold War world, and his administration pursued global dominance from start to finish. Yet Clinton’s foreign-policy team was comprised of liberal imperialists; so, although the president and his lieutenants made clear that they were bent on ruling the world-blatantly reflected in former-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s well-known comment that "if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future"-they employed military force reluctantly and prudently. They may have been gung ho about pushing the unipolar moment onward and upward, but for all their enthusiasm, even these democracy promoters soon saw that nation building was no easy task.

During his first year in office, Clinton carelessly allowed the United States to get involved in nation building in Somalia. But when eighteen American soldiers were killed in a firefight in Mogadishu in October 1993 (famously rendered in Black Hawk Down), he immediately pulled U.S. troops out of the country. In fact, the administration was so spooked by the fiasco that it refused to intervene during the Rwandan genocide in the spring of 1994, even though the cost of doing so would have been small. Yes, Clinton did commit American forces to Haiti in September 1994 to help remove a brutal military regime, but he had to overcome significant congressional opposition and he went to great lengths to get a U.N. resolution supporting a multinational intervention force. Most of the American troops were out of Haiti by March 1996, and at no time was there a serious attempt at nation building.

Clinton did talk tough during the 1992 presidential campaign about using American power against Serbia to halt the fighting in Bosnia, but after taking office, he dragged his feet and only used airpower in 1995 to end the fighting. He went to war against Serbia for a second time in 1999 — this time over Kosovo — and once again would only rely on airpower, despite pressure to deploy ground forces from his NATO commander, General Wesley Clark, and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

By early 1998, the neoconservatives were pressuring Clinton to use military force to remove Saddam Hussein. The president endorsed the long-term goal of ousting the Iraqi leader, but he refused to go to war to make that happen. The United States under Bill Clinton was, as Richard Haass put it, a "reluctant sheriff." (emphasis added)

There are some factual errors in this account (Clinton did not pull out immediately after the Black Hawk Down incident — in fact, he bolstered U.S. forces and then withdrew six months later). More importantly, however, the policies described in this section suggest that Mearsheimer is going Vizzini on the phrase "global dominance." There’s very little in the quoted section that bears resemblance to the bolded statement — at best, it looks imperial by accident rather than design. That doesn’t sound like a global dominance strategy to me — and nowhere in this section does Mearsheimer describe the strategic costs that came with Clinton’s approach.

(Maybe one could argue that Clinton’s reluctant successes in Bosnia and Kosovo paradoxically bolstered Americans’ faith in the utility of force, and that this faith paved the way for neoconservatism to pursue a more militarized approach. But Mearsheimer doesn’t make that argument, and I don’t think it holds up terribly well).

Mearsheimer is warning us that Obama is trying to replicate Clinton’s grand strategy (though he offers minimal evidence to support this assertion). His implicit argument is that Clinton’s strategy was a disaster, but he provides no evidence to support this assertion, and I don’t think it’s obviously correct either.

Instead, Mearsheimer devotes page after page to chronicling the errors of the Bush administration’s grand strategy. Which is fine, but after the 5,476th evisceration of the neoconservative grand strategy, diminishing marginal returns do start to kick in. Bush 43’s errors of strategy, management and implementation are pretty sui generis, to the point where it’s dangerous to generalize from the Bush administration to the entire post-Cold War era.

Maybe offshore balancing is the right grand strategy to pursue, the Clintonian approach was blinkered, and Obama’s approach is flawed. These are good propositions to debate and argue. The tragedy of Mearsheimer’s "Imperial By Design" is that all of these points are asserted rather than argued.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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