History has not ended yet, despite the strong notion that was heralded to this effect by the American political pundits in the aftermath of Cold War. Pragmatism that was suffused by realist considerations gradually gave way to a liberal conservative mentality hinged on beliefs of moral and political exceptionalism. Promulgation of universally good and desirable values of freedom, democracy, and individualism was enjoined by the Capitol Hill. Over time, the benevolent spread out of universal principles took a despotic hue, as legal recourse was taken to proclaim United States exceptionalism in the international politics.

If studied in retrospect, there is a pattern that can be used to discern the United States foreign policy developments after Cold War through two intellectual currents; the neo-conservatism, and realism. Both can be explained with the juxtaposition of analogies based on historical precedents that have become by-words for the contemporary foreign policy analysts.

After the remilitarization of Rhineland in 1936, an emboldened Adolf Hitler assumed that the resistance against his government by the international powers had waned. Despite Russia’s proposition to levy sanctions on Germany in the League of Nations, Britain’s Prime Minister, Mr. Stanley Baldwin refused to comply stating that the Germans were walking in “their own backyard”. Later on, ethnic Germans living in Sudetenland, the border area of Czechoslovakia, demanded a union with Germany in 1938, which the Czechs refused. On Adolf Hitler’s encouragement, Konrad Henlein, political leader of the Sudeten Nazis revolted against the Czech government. In Munich, Mr. Neville Chamberlain, elevated to British premiership after the resignation of Mr. Baldwin, concomitant with France’s approval, decided to agree to Hitler’s demand of the annexation of Sudetenland. Hostile conflict was thus discarded through the policy of deliberate concessions to a dictatorial power, which came to be known as appeasement. It should be noted that appeasement embodied the rationale of peace at any price, keeping in perspective the horrors of blatant belligerence in World War 1. These aspirations were short lived though as Germany invaded the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Munich became an imbued word in international politics depicting the West’s failure to respond. It also became associated with benevolent universalism; taking preventive measures to care for the world at large and saving human lives.

Another delineation sharply opposed to Munich is of Vietnam. The contours of containment drawn by Mr. George F. Kennan, US Chargé d’Affaires in Moscow elicited a policy response from Mr. Harry S. Truman, the President of the USA, in which he established that America would assist politically, militarily, and economically, all the democratic nations under threat from internal or external authoritarian forces. This orientation depicted a major perceptive shift of the US military and political establishment, signalling their readiness to involve themselves more in the world affairs. To pre-empt the spread of Communism, America initially embroiled itself in the Korean Wars and then engaged itself in Vietnam. Temporarily demarcated in two parts at 17th parallel, with Ho Chi Minh in control of Northern Vietnam and Ngo Dinh Diem in the South Vietnam, the calls for reunification failed to yield the desired result. The conflict escalated with the American support to the dictatorial government of South Vietnam to contain the advances of Northern Vietnamese. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was used as an opening to militarily intervene in Vietnam. What followed though can be aptly described as a failure. 58,220 US troops succumbed in the onslaught, although Washington kept on claiming that the war was being won. Unarmed Vietnamese and Cambodians became the collateral en masse due to the US hubris. Widespread ire drawn from the world resulted in United States’ retreat from Vietnam through the Paris Peace Accord. Vietnam hence teaches about the dangers of deliberate over reach. It weakens the fervour of incessant involvement. In contrast to the globalism of Munich, Vietnam is domestic in character. Intonations of Vietnam are associated with despondent ends, and using them as a lesson for policy making.

After the Cold War, the first crisis that was faced by the US establishment was the Iraqi invasion and take-over of Kuwaiti oil wells in August, 1990. It was noted with concern that Iraq had further planned to ingress in the territory of Saudi Arabia. Themes such as despotism of Mr. Saddam Hussain and the dismal human rights conditions of Middle East were brought under consideration to invoke Munich. The proverbial bald eagle swooped in and pushed the Iraqi invaders seamlessly out of Kuwait’s territory. Fascinated by the splendour of the American military might, a collective foreign policy consensus began to emerge among the civilian elites in Pentagon and the media that was dotted with strains of hubris and idealism.

Here, the American exceptionalism kicked in. As the sole superpower of the world, it was hypothesized that the US is now morally obliged for the preservation of the new world order and the spread out of democracy and freedom worldwide.

While the neoconservatives were mulling over America’s hegemonic role in the world, civil war erupted in Rwanda. In the 100 days of slaughter, around 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered by the members of the Hutu ethnic majority. The obliviousness of the world order infused with a sense of moral indignation among Americans weighed heavily on the Clinton administration.

The chant of Munich became frenzied once again during interventions in Balkans. Here the military intervention was sluggish, yet effective, in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999. The success here further moulded the paradigm of US establishment; military force came to be associated with humanitarian interventionism and maintenance of the world. Mr. Robert Kagan, a prominent neoconservative expounded, “Military strength alone will not avail, if we do not use it actively to maintain a world which both supports and rests on American hegemony.”

The leading intellectuals during this time also favoured the hawkish zeitgeist, much to the dismay of realist scholars like Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Schwarz and Brent Snowcroft, who urged the US not to get involved in the extra-territorial conflicts. Powell doctrine – derived mainly from the lessons learnt in Vietnam by Mr. Casper Weinberger (former Secretary of Defence) – emphasizing on clear and quick exit strategy concomitant to military intervention hinged on national interests, was rejected. Mr. Anthony Lake, the National Security Advisor of President Bill Clinton who railed for the need of exit strategies in humanitarian interventions was labelled ‘timid’.

Over extending Munich triggered the next intellectual cycle whose ghosts were believed to have been perfectly exorcised in the Balkans; Vietnam became the political discourse in the first decade of the 21st century. 9/11 happened, and America engaged herself in war with Afghanistan, and Iraq.

This phase is remarkable in the aspect that there was a belligerent overtone in the foreign policy of the United States. President George Bush’s coterie included neoconservatives who forcibly pushed for the democratisation of the world. A Freedom Agenda was designed to impress upon the international masses about the right of liberty, individualism, and the pros of democratic system. While earlier, American exceptionalism had a moral hue, now it was also accorded a broad legal pretext under the “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists” law. In the ten years following the Cold War, US had primarily relied on air power to neutralise the conflicts in Kuwait, Bosnia, and Kosovo, which was relegated to a secondary status in this phase. Land power became the main vector of US objectives in Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Alas, the myth of invincibility borne out of American involvement in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo received a jarring blow. American military machine was rendered powerless along with the idealism that went with it due to mutation of conflicts into protracted insurgencies which the realists were so apprehensive of. Complex factors such as sectarian bias, ethnicity, terrain, etc. largely brushed of earlier, now became paramount once again.
It was thought that the Taliban had been subjugated, but their resurgence and gradual takeover of Afghanistan depicts otherwise. Iraq was pacified likewise, but the governance failure unleashed a wave of inter communal atrocities that have led to the creation of terror groups like Islamic State, and the strengthening of Al-Qaeda. Now the world is more dangerous than it ever was.

Out of tragic ends, the echoes of Vietnam resound in the American intelligentsia. The tag of neo-conservatism – represented through Munich – has become a blotch among the intellectuals. As the challenges of the 21st century are multi-faceted and interlinked, vacillating on the nodal ends of quasi-isolationism and idealist interventionism would not work anymore. An able statesmanship is about standing on the brink without overstepping further. President-Elect Mr. Donald Trump, note this.

Talha Ibrahim

Talha Ibrahim

is the Director Academics at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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