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American Déjà Vu

U.S. Foreign Policy Has Been Determined by an Enduring Laziness and Complacency

By Nick J. Danby, Contributing Opinion Writer
Nick J. Danby ‘20 is a History concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

In our daily lives, much has changed in the past 20 years. Instead of streaming a movie on Netflix or Amazon Prime, you would drive to Blockbuster to rent — heaven forbid — a VHS! In 1999, if you had a cellphone you probably played Snake on your Nokia device. Now, you can play thousands of games while texting your friends and calling your parents.

Despite these monumental cultural changes, some things are eerily similar. Such indistinguishable change plagues American foreign policy.

Twenty years ago, if you picked up the November/December 1999 issue of Foreign Affairs, to get an annual subscription, you would have read the following headlines: “The Fall Guy: Washington’s Self-Defeating Assault on the U.N.”; “Understanding Taiwan: Bridging the Perception Gap”; “The Taliban: Exporting Extremism”; and “Saving NATO’s Foundation.” Had titles been reprinted in this month’s edition of Foreign Affairs, few would have noticed the difference.

The similarities, however, extend beyond 20 years. Last week marked the 40th anniversary of the 1979 hostage crisis, where Iranian protesters seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Shortly after the hostage crisis, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called America “the Great Satan, the wounded snake” as Iranians in the crowd shouted, “Death to America.” Four decades later, the rhetoric remains unchanged. This week, the commander of the Iranian army, General Abdolrahim Mousavi, stood in front of the American embassy, known as the “U.S. Den of Espionage” and called the U.S. a “scorpion.”

Actions from both sides remain unchanged. The U.S. and Iran continue to antagonize each other, except for a temporary respite in 2015, when both sides signed the nuclear deal. But now, that rapprochement is all but dead. While Iran is far from innocent, the U.S. could have done a better job handling this adversary by reframing its assumptions and strategies. It should realistically appraise the Iranian threat. As Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon recently noted, “[i]n balance-of-power terms, Washington’s obsession with Tehran is absurd” since the U.S. overwhelms Iran on nearly all military metrics.

Knowing that Iran lacks the revisionist vigor from 40 years ago, Washington should seek constructive engagement and negotiation with Tehran as it has done with Moscow in the 1980s and countless other “evil empires” and ruthless regimes. If the U.S. wants to stop Iran’s nuclear program while promoting Gulf stability, the Trump team should stop relying on a “maximum pressure” strategy that is based on Peter Schweizer’s 1994 book Victory, which argues that Reagan’s “maximum pressure” ended the Soviet Union. Especially since Trump’s approach to Iran “has little in common with the carefully calibrated approach… Reagan actually took toward the Soviet Union.”

This past Saturday also marked 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell, which “ushered in the end of communism and national reunification” and signaled the end of the Soviet Union. At the time, President George H.W. Bush had discussed a “New World Order” where the “nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony.” His national security adviser, General Brent Scowcroft, envisioned a global system that was built “out of the collapse of the US-Soviet antagonisms.” In short, the fall of the wall signified a victory for liberal democracy. This triumph has been short-lived.

Even though the Soviet collapse signaled America’s “unipolar moment,” unlike in 1945, when the U.S. sought to restructure geopolitical institutions to build a world order of peace and prosperity, the post-1989 America just assumed the rest of the world would naturally fall in line with the ongoing order. Except it did not. Putin’s revanchist Russia has reignited East-West tensions, Britain has separated itself with Brexit, authoritarianism is on the rise in Europe and elsewhere, and the United States keeps looking inward.

Since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy has been driven by complacency. We either fail to develop a strategy — and just assume everything will work out — as with Europe. Or, we just re-apply some old Cold War strategy that doesn’t quite apply, as with Iran. This laziness has obstructed peace and the creation of a world order similar to one the elder Bush had envisioned.

Change for the sake of change is not always good, but when our foreign policy relies on the same methods, assumptions, and strategies — with few positive results — then it is time to reinvent our foreign policy. A mentor once told me that each person only has two good ideas in their professional career — I hope a country has a few more than two.

But perhaps not. I, too, am part of the problem. As I wrote this column, which criticizes America’s unimaginative foreign policy, I stumbled upon an article in that same November 1999 issue of Foreign Affairs by Johns Hopkins Professor Robert W. Tucker. In it, Tucker writes that “the world has changed profoundly… Americans remain tied to a past that has become largely irrelevant, prisoners of ideas and policies developed in the long encounter with the Soviet Union.” Little has changed in U.S.-Iranian relations since 1979. Europe today shares many similarities with Europe from 1989. And, through it all, criticisms of U.S. foreign policy in 1999 are nearly identical to the criticism I am offering today. We can all do better.

Nick J. Danby ‘20 is a History concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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