Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Maximalist: America in the world from Truman to Obama

Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama
by Stephen SestanovichSetanovich - Maximalist

There’s a certain formula for current books on global politics today. Assert an argument about the nature of change (generally along the lines of the US decline, rise of others, yadda yadda), then recount the history of the Cold War and decades since, cherry picking your way through those events which support your thesis, and wrap up with a small conclusion chapter that has some policy recommendations.

Like most authors, it is that last chapter which is hardest. For many it’s perhaps unnecessary, they are not here to advise governments but to shape thinking. In this case however the difficulty in the last chapter is a telling blow.

The author argues that there is a clear cycle to US foreign policy, between Maximalist and Retrenchment approaches (I.e. go big, or go home). There’s merit to this, indeed I often think one of the most under-rated aspects of democratic government’s capacity is their cyclical, self-correcting nature.

Yet Sestanovich can’t quite make up his mind which approach is the right one. You get the sense he strongly prefers Maximalist governments, but he’s too honest to properly condemn Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter or Obama for their moments of pause and re-conceptualisation.

As such, this book is left with a reasonably good historical over-view, but the take away is somewhat confused. Like another (much better) book on recent geopolitics politics (‘Still ours to lead’ by Bruce Jones) I suspect the title does more harm than good to readers of this book.

Thus, his is a solid over view of US foreign policy and strategies, though not quite as strong on the Cold War strategic aspect as Gaddis’s ‘Strategies of Containment’ nor as comprehensive on the governance structure as David Rothkopf’s ‘Running the World’ on the NSC. Nor as good on the modern international environment as the above mentioned Jones ‘Still ours to lead’ or any number of rise of China tomes.

Sometimes it’s worth reading these books just to refresh the history, know what the arguments of former policy makers are, and since it’s rather straight forward you’ll be able to skim through it in a day or two.You’ll enjoy it if you find yourself with access to a copy (perhaps a long flight ahead), but it’s unlikely one to make much of an impression.