Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Christopher Hemmer's "American Pendulum"

Christopher Hemmer is the Dean and a Professor of International Security Studies at the Air War College. He is the author of Which Lessons Matter? American Foreign Policy Decision Making in the Middle East, 1979–1987.

Hemmer applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, American Pendulum: Recurring Debates in U.S. Grand Strategy, and reported the following:
When I tell people that my book is about U.S. grand strategy, a typical response is, “I did not know we had one.” American Pendulum argues that such skepticism is often based on a misunderstanding of what grand strategy is and should be. Debates about America’s role or inconsistencies in its approach to different security issues should not automatically be seen as a result of strategic confusion or the lack of a grand strategy. The book examines four recurring debates in U.S. grand strategy (unilateralism versus multilateralism, defining the proper role of U.S. values in its foreign policy, prioritizing threats, and calculating whether time is on the side of the United States) and argues that U.S. foreign policy is most likely to go astray not when these debates are at their most pointed, but when the pendulum of the title swings too far in any one direction.

Page 99 grapples with Ronald Reagan’s approach to U.S. grand strategy, which provides an excellent example of the book’s overall themes. Attempting to capture Reagan’s strategy in a way that avoids the caricature of the left (that he was an amiable cipher who got lucky) and the hagiography of the right (that he was a staunch ideologue who proved the merits of conservative dogmatism), this chapter contends that it was more conciliatory parts of Reagan’s grand strategy, which were met with suspicion by those on the right, that deserve the most praise rather than the more confrontational and ideologically pure parts of Reagan’s program.

Tracing issues of continuity and change in American foreign policy is another theme and page 99 hits this, noting that the “Reagan” buildup started under Carter and that Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union reflected, but modified, earlier debates between proponents of rollback versus containment over whether time was on the side of the United States, arguing that Reagan took an “optimistic path to rollback” where “it was the advantages of the United States that made limited rollback possible, not its weaknesses that made rollback necessary.”

Finally, the frame for page 99 is John Lewis Gaddis’s distinction between symmetrical versus asymmetrical approaches to containment, which is also an accurate reflection of the impact that his unsurpassed Strategies of Containment had on me and on the overall study of U.S. grand strategy.
Learn more about American Pendulum at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue