Ark of the Liberties: America and the World

October 23, 2008

Introduction

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good afternoon. It's a special pleasure for me to introduce my friend, Ted Widmer. Ted will be discussing his new book, Ark of the Liberties. It is a book about the intellectual roots of American foreign policy and America's role in the world.

Ted and I first met several years ago when our mutual friend, the late James Chace, suggested that we ought to get together. As some of you may have experienced, James had a special knack for forging relationships. He was really a genius in the art of friendship. For me the case went in the usual way: "Joel, call Ted." And of course I did. And of course Ted accepted the call.

Now, James was never casual or careless when it came to making connections. One had to meet certain unspecified standards and have certain not-exactly-self-evident qualities. But I'm sure when he suggested that Ted and I get together it was an easy decision for him.

Both Ted and I are from New England, with cold salt water in the veins. Places like Cambridge, Gloucester, and Marblehead, Massachusetts, hold a very special place for us. There is no local lore that we don't find interesting. Maritime history is tops, even better if it is a sea yarn from the 17th or 18th century. Ted and I share an affinity for the great historians of early American history, many of them also with an affinity for the rocky soil and coastline of New England.

We were the unfashionable guys in graduate school who enjoyed old dog-eared copies of books like Perry Miller's Errand into the Wilderness or F.O. Matthiessen's The American Renaissance or Van Wyck Brooks's The Flowering of New England. When I think of Ted's work, I'm reminded that these historians wrote history with a literary flair, with a feel for adventure, drama, and wonder. It's no coincidence that Samuel Eliot Morrison, the great maritime historian, wrote a book in 1946 called History As a Literary Art: An Appeal to Young Historians. Ted, you weren't even close to being born yet, but I'm sure this was a book he had in mind for someone like you.

With the recent passing of Arthur Schlesinger, the art of great narrative history of this type is passing to a new generation. Arthur used to use the phrase "long-ball hitters" when referring to those few who could deliver history and political commentary at this level. I know that when he was looking at the younger crowd he had Ted in mind.

Ted is now Director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He took that post after serving as the C.V. Starr Professor of American History at Washington College in Chesterton, Maryland. Prior to these academic posts, Ted was a foreign policy speechwriter for President Bill Clinton during the second term of the Clinton Administration.

The theme of American exceptionalism is at the heart of much of the work of the Carnegie Council; so much of our identity is wrapped around our self-conception of America as a moral nation. I can think of no better person to help us understand this story, the myth and the reality, than Ted Widmer.

Ted, thank you very much for agreeing to speak to us this evening.

 

Remarks

TED WIDMER: Thank you so much, Joel. That was a very generous introduction.

I was on the receiving end of exactly the same phone call from James. "Call Joel" was the call I got. I have enjoyed our interactions. It is a great pleasure to come back here.

I was going to remember James for a minute too. I assume many of you knew James Chace. He and Arthur, whom you also mentioned, were in a way two of the guiding spirits for me of this book project. They were people who combined wonderfully well history and politics, history and foreign policy, current events. Those are things that do not always go together seamlessly. They did it brilliantly well. It's very hard to combine the two. I wanted very much to do it. I had books by them and articles by them constantly on the shelf before me as I was undertaking this project.

I wrote eulogies of both of them. It is a difficult thing to write a eulogy, but I eulogized each of them in different places.

As I was coming here, I remembered a quotation that I put in my brief essay about James by Thucydides. I assure you I'm not very familiar with the work of Thucyclides, but I somehow had this scrap of paper. The quote was, "We must not cultivate too wide a gap between our scholars and our warriors, because otherwise our wars will be fought by"—I'm forgetting the word—"ignoramuses and our colleges will be taught by cowards." It's something like that. It helps to remember the quote when you set it out.

Anyway, that is who James was. He was obviously a progressive thinker and on the liberal side in many areas, and yet believed that the use of force was profoundly important and that we shouldn't shy away from this subject, as people on the Left often do.

Arthur Schlesinger obviously felt the same way, and he was very outspoken during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, and wrote a quite good book around that time.

So I had their example in front of me as I was doing this. I'm sorry they weren't here to see the final product, but in a way they are here.

I suppose I should begin with an announcement. My wardrobe tonight did not cost $150,000. I'm pretty sure it didn't cost $150. It might not have cost $15.

I also want to thank Joel publicly for a thought he gave me, which he said mildly in conversation to me. I thought a long time about it. I ultimately thought it was true, although it did not feel true to me ten years ago. He said he felt that the foreign policies of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush were not in the end all that different from each other. When you were in the Clinton Administration, anything Republican felt pretty different. There was a more or less constant ground war between Republicans and Democrats in the 1990s. I was there in the second term, when things were really quite raw.

And yet, now that Clinton is fading into history—or has faded into history—it is clear to me that those two administrations did connect in some important ways. Somalia was a bipartisan difficulty—maybe disaster—but both George H.W. Bush and Clinton were involved in Somalia. The end of the Cold War was something that each president dealt with, and I think each president dealt with pretty well, although that is certainly up for debate, and I'm sure there will be debate.

But the true break came in 2000, with the election of George W. Bush. He had less in common with his father than the Clinton Administration did.

So I tucked that thought innocently into my book. No one has picked up on it. I thought I might be attacked by Right or Left, and in fact I wasn't. It's near the end, and maybe no one actually read all the way to the end of my book. But it was a good thought, and I attribute it to Joel.

So now I am in this interstitial area of wondering was my time in the White House current events or history. I guess I am really more in the history world now. I probably was even then. I was an extremely obscure young historian teaching 19th century U.S. history when I was recruited to be a speechwriter. So the whole time I was in the White House it was through this double lens of experiencing things as they were happening in a low-ranking, not a high-ranking, role as a speechwriter, but then thinking about how it all fit into American history also. I am always seeing things through this double lens.

On the way down from Providence today, in The New York Times there must have been five articles that I thought screamed out for historical analysis, including not one, but two, op-eds about the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. Good articles, but each said that if we had stayed, if we had committed more resources to a war in the Middle East, we would have had a better final result, which is an absurd notion. There was no historical challenge offered. Whether you're Republican or Democrat, pouring more Marines into Lebanon I don't think was the solution we were all looking for in 1983.

There was an article on Azerbaijan, a fascinating article on where Azerbaijan fits into the Central Asian picture, and the great vulnerability of this tiny nation between Iran and Russia. I remember going to Istanbul in 1999 for a quite remarkable visit with Bill Clinton that really cemented the U.S.-Turkish friendship, which was one of the most important friendships. I'm not sure how strong it is now. One of the key announcements of that visit of four days or so was that this pipeline was going to go forward from Azerbaijan, the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, that was going to deliver oil from Central Asia around Russia to the West. Now that pipeline is incredibly vulnerable and may not even come into existence. We'll see. But again, I was thinking of my own personal experience, now almost a decade ago, and thinking again history and current events are so interesting together.

That was the goal with this book, to give Americans a bit more of a sense of the deep background to our foreign policy—not just World War II to the present, or Vietnam to the present, which is what most history and foreign policy is, but to go back to the founding of the country, and even earlier—I mean 1776 is well into the story of Europeans in North America. I wanted to take it back into the earlier 18th, and even the 17th, centuries, and, God forbid, I even did a little bit of the 16th century.

My job is quite far removed from current events. The library in question specializes in the earliest literature of the encounter, from Columbus to about 1800. So they don't understand why I talk about foreign policy, and often in foreign policy audiences no one knows why I'm talking about Columbus. And yet I think we are the products, we are the inheritors, of a single history that is fascinating and endlessly rich and supports arguments on the Left as well as the Right.

So I wanted to tell this story, and I wanted to bring out the concept that for much of our history we have not been terribly ready for the great challenges that we blundered into or that we sought, and that American foreign policy has been extremely difficult for most of these three, four, five centuries, wherever you want to date the beginning of American history to.

I was given extra incentive. I wanted to write a book like this anyway. But I was disgruntled, as I'm sure many people here were, in the early years of the Bush Administration. As a recent practitioner of foreign policy, as a low-ranking speechwriter, I just was appalled by how bad much of the early Bush foreign policy was, before 9/11—the renouncing of treaties and the mindless rush to national missile defense as the cure to everything.

There was a headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion that I loved from around that time that I meant to bring. It was the day of the inaugural. It said: "Bush to Nation: Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is at an End." That now appears rather prophetic.

But this feeling intensified. I actually thought the speeches he gave after 9/11 were quite moving, and I thought, like many people, that it was important to come together. But then there was this creeping unease, and then disgust, with the war in Iraq, that we knew for about six months before it happened that it was going to happen.

I published an op-ed, my first op-ed I ever published, in The New York Times on August 15, 2002, saying: Where is the Democratic Senate opposition? There was a great tradition in this country of Senators like Mike Mansfield or J. William Fulbright standing up, opposing a president—a Republican or a Democratic president. Where is that tradition? It has disappeared.

I thought it was a decent op-ed. No one read it because it was the day Brent Scowcroft's op-ed in The Wall Street Journal appeared saying something similar actually: What's going on? Are we going to war with Iraq?

War came. We now know that it has not been a success. I'm not sure what the end result will be. I don't think anyone in this room knows. I know it won't be victory, the word we hear in the public marketplace all the time. It probably won't be a Holocaust either. There is a book by David Frum, called An End to Evil. He says it's either going to be victory or Holocaust. I can fairly confidently assure you that it will be neither of these results. It will be something unpleasant and unresolved but satisfying to all parties, and we'll just forget that it ever happened, except that we'll never forget that it happened.

So I wanted to think about how this war happened, and I wanted to take it back as far as possible. I became fixated on a special verbal tic of President Bush's, which is that we are doing all of these things for democracy, or for liberty, or for freedom—all of these words that are very important words to us, and meaningful to us on the Left as well as the Right.

I had an interest in finding rhetoric from previous presidents saying that we were doing something for liberty. We all know that very good things have been done in the name of liberty. Franklin Roosevelt spoke beautifully about the four freedoms, and Lincoln of course. But there is no shortage of mistakes that were created by presidents promising liberty.

By the way, that was never the first reason we went in. It was about the third. I think the first was weapons of mass destruction, and then the hunt for al-Qaeda in Iraq, and then promoting liberty was the catchall third one.

So I undertook this project, which turned out to be more enormous than I understood. I should have understood, because I have spent a lot of time teaching American history. But you can go very far back looking for the origin of this tradition.

I spent a lot of time with the Puritans in the 17th century and found a lot of rhetoric there fascinating. As Joel said, I read a lot of Perry Miller as an undergraduate. There were a lot of dog-eared paperbacks available in bookstores in Harvard Square. No one was reading it. I don't know why I found it fascinating. It still crackles with a certain intellectual excitement. I mean he was a good writer. Whatever you think about his conclusions, he wrote well, which you cannot say about most academic historians since then.

So I looked back and I found passages in John Winthrop very interesting, the "city upon a hill," which Reagan improved to "the shining city on a hill." There was no "shining" in the original Winthrop.

I once, by the way, saw what I believe is the closest thing to "the shining city on a hill" that I'll ever see. I was in western Nicaragua with President Clinton. He loved to go to remote locations. He would do the necessary urban visit and speak with the leaders of the country and then go out for a kind of working meeting with the head of an NGO. In this case, I think it was heads of native Nicaraguan peoples. There was a very tall dry, dusty hill that we were assembled at the foot of. There was a blinding shining light at the top of the hill, and I was curious what it was.

I walked up this hill. As I got closer, I realized it was a Porta-potty. I wanted to know what it was. I looked closer, and there was a photocopied piece of paper Scotch-taped to the door. It said "Reserved for the President of the United States." No one went up there. I just saw it. So that was pretty close.

I took the story from the Puritans, who I think are very important. We tend to be anti-Puritan in general. Whenever you hear "the Puritans did this," it's usually the H.L. Mencken logic that a Puritan is someone who somewhere can't fall asleep for fear someone is having a good time. In fact, they were very important to all traditions in American history, the liberal as well as the conservative tradition.

I tried to take the story from them forward, and to do it in short, readable chapters. That is not easy to do, and I'm not sure that I succeeded. I mean it's really hard to go through 400 years of history in a book that is under 400 pages long. But I tried.

I spent a bit of time on the Great Awakening, which I think is the crucial step anterior to the American Revolution. We always think, in our mania to come to terms with the Founders, that they were these forward-thinking people who invented the modern United States.

I recently heard a conservative pundit on TV saying, "The Founding Fathers defined modern capitalism; that's what they were all about." That's ridiculous. They didn't know what capitalism was. Adam Smith was writing in 1776, but Jefferson thought it would be small freehold farmers and hated New York City. There was no consensus that capitalism was going to emerge the way it did.

But I got interested in the Founders looking backwards, and what was their inheritance, and how did Adams receive the Puritans, how did he think about the Puritans growing up. He did write in some interesting ways about the expected Protestant millennium and how the world was eventually going to all convert to the way of thinking that Americans held, which was not republican political theory—by republican I mean a republic—but it was a kind of Protestant society run by well-educated ministers all of whom had attended Harvard University. Arthur and James might have liked that vision of the world, but that's not quite how it turned out.

And then, I spent a lot of time with the early 19th century and the middle of the 19th century, saying: Well, now you've created the United States, and it is a very large challenge to work a foreign policy, to be this intensely idealistic nation that has never existed, no nation like it has ever existed, with vague and quite dramatic political aspirations but no clear idea about governance, a very small working government. There was hardly any foreign policy of any kind. I think the State Department under Thomas Jefferson had 22 employees—and constant calls even then that we had a bloated foreign policy establishment, that these 22 were driving the country bankrupt and we needed to recall our foreign envoys—and this odd dysfunctionality of a country that was claiming to reform all of humanity and couldn't even get its act together to send an ambassador to Paris, and how that story worked itself out over the 19th century.

And these occasional hiccups, like manifest destiny, which suddenly led to very strong acts of foreign policy, namely the invasion of Mexico, which is an episode in our foreign policy that we don't know very well. They know it quite well in Mexico. If you go to Mexico City, there are a number of museums dedicated to the "North American intervention," which is what they usually call it. They know it was a war that they lost against a superior military basically. But we barely know of it at all. We don't feel badly about it. We don't even know it happened basically. We just think it's like the second Louisiana Purchase, that we just inherited a lot of land because someone couldn't handle it.

I talk about Lincoln's quite profound response to Mexico, how alienated he was. He only had one term as a congressman from Illinois, still not very well known. Our best-known president by far, and we still don't know this about him, or many people don't, that he served in Congress from 1846-1848, that he was horrified by this war, and that he gave a speech attacking President James Polk, daring him to point to the spot where the act of bloodshed had happened that Polk said had happened. It's exactly like the Tonkin Gulf incident, just about exactly. I usually resist the temptation to compare one century to another, but very similar. The president saying "this horrible thing has happened, American blood has to be shed, we have to go to war," and no one can remember quite where the incident happened.

Lincoln talked about this in a very angry speech and said, "Where is the spot?" He was voted out of office and called "Spotty Lincoln" for a long time after that, and pointed at as a sort of irrational liberal, kind of antiwar person.

He was a very advanced foreign policy thinker in his way and said something that might be the key sentence of the entire book. Around 1855, he wrote a letter to a friend and said: "If we're going to talk about freedom and not do anything about it, I'd rather live in Russia, where at least they're quite comfortable with their despotism. They don't say anything about freedom and they don't give you freedom. Here it's the constant falling short that drives me crazy." It's that tension that I was fascinated with.

I wouldn't quite say it was an angry book. I've gotten in some trouble on the Left—quite a lot actually—as well as the Right, because I'm pro American. I think this is a great story and we have done far more good in our history in the global picture than harm. And yet, to say that we are more good than bad but that we always screw up is guaranteed to alienate everyone on the Left and the Right, which I seem to have done.

From Lincoln I continue the story. I spend some time with important late-19th-century thinkers.

William Seward, whom we don't hear about too much, had a very sophisticated foreign policy, the first global—maybe John Quincy Adams is the first, but Seward was a very significant successor to Adams, the other great 19th century Secretary of State.

I have a sentence or two about Andrew Carnegie, you'll be happy to know, a very important policy thinker, and who gave the money for the Palace of Peace in The Hague. How horrified right-wing Republicans would be to know that we actually built the building where the international tribunals in The Hague are, that it's an American idea.

World War I—I wrote about Theodore Roosevelt first and then Woodrow Wilson in one chapter about the two of them. They are endlessly fascinating. Bill Clinton loved Theodore Roosevelt, to my surprise, and had a painting of him in the Oval Office.

But I was interested in resurrecting Wilson a bit, because he only is put down on the Left and the Right. The Left is afraid to defend him, for a variety of reasons. He's vulnerable to charges of racism—correctly vulnerable; he's not very progressive on that point. He is vulnerable on the Right to charges of wishy-washy internationalism, not very well thought out, although you almost couldn't have a more textbook case of Wilsonian rhetoric than George W. Bush from about 2004 to 2006—not going in, when it was all about hard power and these weapons; but then, when they disappeared, it was suddenly all about making the world safe for democracy. Although Bush rejects the Wilsonian label, nevertheless I do think it fits him in some ways.

In spite of all that, just being a bit of a contrarian, I wanted to say: Hold it for a second. Wilson is fascinating. He takes the United States into the world picture far more aggressively than Theodore Roosevelt ever does. The two-dimensional story is always that Teddy Roosevelt was blunt and active and understood power, and Wilson was weak and intellectual and hesitated and pontificated. But who sent 2 million men into a very dire conflict in Europe in 1917, and who more or less led the conclave of the world's leaders to define a new and better world in the aftermath of this calamity? Wilson.

Roosevelt had some very interesting successes, but Wilson left a bigger mark on European and global history, I think, than Theodore Roosevelt ever did. So, without quite saying we need to return to Wilson, I just say he's complicated; we need to spend a little more time thinking about who he truly was.

Then, FDR is for me, after Lincoln, the great hero of the book. I think he got it right in a way that no president before or since has. He was fortunate. Presidents can't control their time in history; they work with the time they are given. But he was confronted by a great global calamity that called out for American help in a way that no calamity previously ever had, and he rose brilliantly to the occasion.

I try to make this story a little bit new again by going more deeply than I think is the norm into Roosevelt the anti-colonialist, and to say that he really did three great revolutions in his life, not two. He defeated poverty (we know that), and he defeated Hitler (we know that), but he also defeated this world view that was about 200 years old, which was personified by the man who is usually understood to be his best friend, Winston Churchill, which led to very deep divisions between Churchill and Roosevelt.

He articulated his idea of the future of the world very clearly, which actually became the future of the world, this post-colonial world with a United Nations at its center and a series of international institutions that would arbitrate finances. The UN conferences were beginning to happen while Roosevelt was alive, these other ones, like food and aviation, in 1943 and 1944, one of which was in Hot Springs, Arkansas, I think the Food Conference. I've always wondered if Clinton, Hot Springs—I don't think there is a connection, but I used to wonder about that. So I tried to make the story of FDR new again.

Then I resolve it with three chapters on the Cold War, which is not an easy period for anyone to talk about. For me it was especially difficult because I was running out of time; I had to finish this book quickly. The Cold War I think is tough. It's tough whether you're a liberal or a conservative.

I think it's honest to say that neither side got it quite right, that terrible things were done in the name of national security imperatives. The United States government lost control of itself in some important ways. Presidents didn't know what operatives were doing often in the black world of the CIA and other agencies.

Episodes like Iran and Guatemala, in 1953 and 1954, were very important setbacks to U.S. foreign policy, at a time when things were generally going quite well. There was clearly an adversary that needed to be fought against, but these things did not need to be done.

I go into these episodes, but not at length, which is difficult, because they warrent deep exploration. But I wanted to proceed expeditiously towards the end of the story. And I do think these were bipartisan problems. Those two things I just mentioned happened under Eisenhower, but there were trends under Truman, and Kennedy certainly was fascinated by espionage and commando raids and that sort of thing.

The biggest disaster of the entire Cold War is Vietnam, which is more a Democratic disaster than a Republican, although it too is a bipartisan disaster. So I tried to be open to both sides in these three chapters.

Reagan, whom I spent most of my twenties, I guess, feeling a distrust of, I gave a more elevated account of, a higher ranking to, than I expected. I think much of his foreign policy was flawed, especially Iran-Contra, which was an unambiguous disaster by any standard. It was terrible in the Middle East. It was terrible in Central America. It involved extremely unscrupulous agents, drug dealers running money, going around Congress illegally, going around ambassadors. It was a complete violation of the way U.S. foreign policy was set up to run.

But I do think Reagan's way of speaking was important to large populations around the world. He was a gifted orator. Even if it's easy to say, as I occasionally do, that "freedom" was just a buzzword, that he didn't quite mean it, nevertheless people behind the Iron Curtain loved Reagan's speeches, especially the "tear down this wall." That was a very important speech not too long before the wall did get torn down.

Just as an aside, when Clinton went to China in 1998, we really wanted him to go to the Great Wall of China and say, "President Jiang, tear down this wall." That was a running joke among the speechwriters. Fortunately, that did not get out at the time, but now I am able to tell the story.

Reagan's way of speaking did give hope to people, and I think that is something that is very important for American presidents to do.

At the same time, it is terribly important not to over-promise what we can do. I tried to say that in moments like 1956 in Hungary, we really failed to deliver the support that we were strongly hinting we would deliver through Voice of America radio transmissions into Budapest. We gave hopes to people that we would come to their defense. We couldn't. It was militarily impossible. Was it the correct decision not to invade? Yes, it was. But it was a mistake to give people hope that we couldn't support.

I think—this hadn't happened yet when I was writing—in Georgia it was a textbook example of the same thing, almost the only outdoor speech that George Bush has ever given in a foreign country. This I have paid attention to, because this was usually the speech I was assigned as a speechwriter. The really serious, thoughtful foreign policy speech to a parliament I would not get. The kind of "rah rah" speech to a big foreign crowd in an open center of a city, that's the one I would get, with some humor and some history, things that the other speechwriters didn't think were so important but which I loved.

And so as George W. Bush began his presidency, I began to think: Where are the open-air Kennedy/Reagan kinds of outdoor speeches? There weren't any.

The only one that I think he ever gave was in 2005 (1995 sic) in Tblisi, Georgia, to a huge crowd, 100,000 people. He said, "Freedom is on the march from the Caspian to the Caucasus." It was a nice day for George W. Bush. And yet, if you read that speech again, it gave a strong impression that freedom was literally on the march, that U.S. troops were encircling the Soviet Union. I was appalled at the Russian invasion of Georgia, but I did think there was a link that was not picked up in the media between the speech of 2005 and what happened last August.

So it is a book that goes very quickly through all of American history, plus some that people don't think even is American history, the stuff at the very beginning, of how Europeans thought this was a new world, that we could fix all of the world's problems in this brand-new world.

I do take it up to the Bush presidency, with a pretty strident final epilogue, which in retrospect may be jarring. It's a mostly dispassionate historical narrative until 2001, and then it gets a little emotional, saying we really have screwed up in this presidency. That changes the tone a little bit, which you shouldn't do as a writer. But I think in the future that is most likely the judgment that history will render. We'll see.

We are at this fascinating moment where we are almost certainly going to enter a very different, very new time in our history. You're not supposed to say this, but it looks strongly like Barack Obama will be the next president. I said this at an event in Providence, Rhode Island, and everyone got very angry at me. These were all liberals. There are only liberals in Providence, Rhode Island. They just can't believe it's going to happen. It is going to happen. I believe Obama is going to win.

So we will have to be comfortable as Democrats with the wielding of power. I am a little worried about an over-correction in the opposite direction, that there will be Democrats who will not intervene meaningfully or say the strong things that we still need to say as the United States of America. At the same time, I think we need a correction in the way most of the world's peoples think about America, and I think his election will do that.

So it's a time when history is in the air. I don't know the final verdict on the George W. Bush Administration. I think it will be pretty negative, but I don't know.

So history and foreign policy, I'll always be caught a little bit in the twilight between these two areas. I'm sure many of you think about them too. I would welcome all of your questions.

 

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: As you look at the long course of American foreign policy, the role of the military in foreign policy has been throughout that history minimal for the most part. But since World War II, I think it has become really the dominant force in foreign policy. Some of us hope that with a President Obama that there is some possibility of shifting away from that—not back to the old days when the military was very weak, but to give more emphasis to diplomacy in foreign policy and to reduce the centrality of the military. Would you just comment on what you think the possibility of that is?

TED WIDMER: I think it's likely to happen to a degree. He has already said he values diplomacy, so we will see an empowered State Department and fewer private operations run out of various parts of the White House.

I don't know if the military will be significantly reduced in size, because I think that's now pretty much a permanent fact of American political life. But I think, interestingly, the military would love to not be sent to so many places. I think there is support for Obama in the U.S. military because they are worn out, they're exhausted. We've got two wars we're in the middle of. If a third one were to come along, which could happen, they'd really be strung out. So I think there is significant support for Obama quietly inside the U.S. military.

I'm not sure politically it's viable that a Democratic president can just reduce our fighting strength by a huge amount, because they're so afraid of criticism from the Right, but I do think we will go through diplomatic channels much more than we have.

I have to say, after having criticized Bush a lot in what I said, I think he already started the correction. It was too late, but the last two years have been much better than the first five years. Condi Rice is a pretty strong Secretary of State. We are in a moment of diplomacy. It's just way better than it was at the beginning.

There has been rapprochement with Europe generally, and the calling of the financial conference is reaching out to other powers. He declared a lot of the Pacific Ocean off limits for development. So there has been a Bush II that's interesting. It just hasn't been a very robust Bush II, and it was a little late in coming.

QUESTION: In the formulation of a carefully articulated foreign policy, do you feel that that alone is a more significant influence on the success of an administration, as opposed to the force of personality and leadership? For example, just to give you a hypothetical, had Bill Clinton pursued the exact same policies as George W. Bush had in the last four years, do you think there would have been a very material difference in the outcome?

TED WIDMER:
You mean if Clinton had invaded Iraq? I think we would have been in as bad shape. But I don't think Clinton ever would have invaded Iraq. I just can't imagine that he would.

He certainly committed to low-level military action against Saddam Hussein on many occasions. There was more or less constant bombing of Iraq for the entire Clinton Administration. It just wasn't as dramatic as what happened in 2003.

But I think had Clinton gone to war, it would have turned out more or less exactly the same way. I don't think it would have turned out very well. I don't think Clinton was a better military leader than Bush, but I don't think he was a worse one either. I think when he did commit to military power it turned out pretty well.

This is something that neither liberals nor conservatives ever like to talk about, but there were unambiguous failures at the very beginning of Clinton's foreign policy. The "Black Hawk Down" incident happened on his watch in Somalia. And that Haiti episode wasn't very good, where the ship turned around, although the second time it went back, it did what it was supposed to do.

But then, the Balkans, Bosnia, I think, after some dithering, which was very bipartisan, and the Republicans were generally against intervention in Bosnia, there was a pretty impressive diplomatic and military solution that ended the bloodshed in Bosnia.

And then Kosovo—no one likes to say it was a success. It was an ugly little conflict. But no Americans were killed in combat—I think one died in an accident—and we succeeded in preventing atrocities in Kosovo. We didn't succeed in a long-term solution. In fact, I think you might be able to argue—and there are probably Russian people here who know this better than I do—that the recent recognition of Kosovo might have been another incentive to Russia to invade Georgia this summer.

So I don't think Clinton militarily was better, but I think he chose his moments well. He was following the Powell Doctrine a lot more than Powell was able to in this Administration. He was only going in when there was a very strong chance of winning, which he was criticized for a lot—"Where are the ground troops?" And yet, we did pretty well in those two episodes.

JOEL ROSENTHAL:
Ted, I want to introduce a theme that I know is important to the book in terms of the concept of liberty, the freedom agenda, and so on, and one of President Bush's contributions was to bring God into the equation, the idea being that liberty is a gift of our Creator. I wonder if you could just say a little bit about how that figured in the book, the religious aspects as specifically related to the theme of liberty and freedom.

TED WIDMER:
I was very encouraged. This morning someone sent me an email with a transcript of an interview that Sarah Palin had done with James Dobson. She said she is absolutely convinced that God has arranged the election on November 4th and we are going to get the president God wants. I thought: "Well, thank God. I was a little worried."

It's huge, and it's hard to pinpoint. One thing I found interesting about Wilson is that Wilson is rather comfortable with evangelical language. So it's not only on the Right. It has been on the Right recently.

Reagan began this trend, although Reagan, fascinatingly, was not a very religious person. He was divorced and he didn't go to church and wasn't very comfortable talking about the Bible. In his speech for the Statute of Liberty Centennial, he talked about the Quakers and their city on a hill. Quakers were the people who were getting hanged by the Puritans. But Reagan liked saying the word "God" and saying "God bless America."

That led to George W. Bush, who is comfortable. Whatever else you want to say about him, he is a sincere evangelical and has said on many occasions that he feels God was behind all of this, behind his presidency and behind Iraq.

I found it troubling at the time. But I think it is important, as someone on the progressive side, to realize that this too is a bipartisan tradition, that liberals have blundered in this area. The person at the beginning of the 20th century who was most comfortable talking about God was William Jennings Bryan, who ran as a Democrat and failed to win. He was Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State. Democrats were at that time the party of rural people and poor people and evangelicals.

I don't see American history as two forces always in conflict. I see this swirling, these double helixes. It's always interesting. You have to pick your moment and then pull it all apart.

The Puritans, as I said earlier, were not simplistically liberal or conservative. They were complicated people who can be claimed by both sides.

QUESTION: I was curious. You said that one of your big concerns is that maybe the Democrats won't have the fortitude to speak out forcefully in the world when we need to. I'm thinking about the past eight years, and specifically recently, when we had the Georgian situation and we did have President Bush and Condoleezza Rice reprimanding Russia about how inappropriate it was to invade a sovereign nation, when in fact maybe that's what we did ourselves.

I'm wondering, if you put on that historian's hat and that historical lens, what can we do and what have we done in the past to restore our credibility in the world so that, when we do speak out, others will listen?

TED WIDMER:
That's a great question and not easily answered. But I think to return to the true wellsprings of our greatness, which is being a leader of international alliances, not being weak and imprisoned by them and not rejecting them out of hand, but taking a strong leadership within international alliances, whether it's NATO or the UN, and convening conferences. We were chockablock with conferences in the mid and late 1940s. Now we need financial regulation also. But for a new president to come in and convene a series of Breton Woods-type conferences would, I think, be very impressive.

Bush famously came in and just disdained the ABM Treaty [Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty] and sent a clear picture to everyone that he wasn't interested in the UN or alliances.

I think, to come back a bit, what I tried to say in this book is our historical posture for 150 years was that we were against standing armies, to go back to your question about the military; we were against despots; we were against monarchy just generally, wherever it was; we were against large countries invading small countries.

Almost this phrase didn't exist, but if there had been a non-aligned bloc in the 19th century—like in the 1950s the countries that were neither with Russia nor the United States called themselves the non-aligned bloc—and we were the equivalent of the head of that, the leader of the small countries, articulating basic human rights and ideas about how governments work, and if we could get more into the nuts and bolts of government and help people run elections—the way Jimmy Carter still goes out—and bring people here to Washington.

I hope we don't get too far away from the tradition of the president going to visit foreign peoples of the world. I know it's very difficult. One of my pet peeves is the destruction of our beautiful old embassies in capital cities and the creation of these ugly concrete monoliths 20 miles outside of city centers with barbed wire around them. At the same time, that's sort of a liberal nostalgic thing to say. There are real security concerns.

So can a Barack Obama just go travel to Berlin—well, he did go to Berlin—but to Delhi and give a huge speech to a million people? I hope so, because I think that would be great.

We're not only great theorists of democracy, we're great salesmen. We are a nation of salesmen. I think to get back into the talking about what it is—now the people who talk best about it are Tony Blair and non-Americans. I think in many ways we've become the powerful country with the huge army that doesn't like to explain its actions. We need a very clear explanation of why we do things to get people back on our side again.

QUESTION:
Could you comment on the impact of our fiscal crisis on our foreign policy, and also whether or not, because of the Bush policies vis-à-vis Russia, we are entering into another Cold War?

TED WIDMER: Great question.

I think there is no doubt that there will be a strong impact on our foreign policy. Wars are expensive. I think I saw recently—we see different estimates for the cost of Iraq, but I saw one that was $700 billion, which is an interesting figure. It would be nice to have that $700 billion right now. It increases the urgency of getting our troops and all our people out of those countries.

I hope it will not diminish the chances of an enhanced diplomatic presence around the world, including things like the Voice of America and cultural diplomacy, soft power, because I believe strongly in that.

But actually I have to say George Bush did not quite reduce that. He restored the U.S. link to UNESCO and tried some cultural diplomacy initiatives, but they were rather transparently right wing, and I think they were not that persuasive.

I think we will be far less inclined to become engaged in foreign policy adventures unilaterally. We may do the same thing with other coalitions, but it is very, very expensive to have a unilateral intervention in a distant foreign country.

I don't know how economically we will move forward. I'm not an economic historian. I'm a little worried that for Barack Obama, should he be elected, this will be the defining problem of his first four years and there will be no foreign policy, which would be a shame. But that's how life happens.

Woodrow Wilson, who was a very deep historian of domestic democracy, said it would be the height of ironies if I was later remembered as a foreign policy president. He had no training in foreign policy whatsoever.

I think the economy is going to be the first problem of the next president, but I hope Obama can make that trip to Delhi and to Sri Lanka and to Indonesia just because I think it would send such an amazing picture to the world.

JOEL ROSENTHAL:
We have time for one more.

TED WIDMER: I forgot your Cold War question, but maybe I'll try to work it into this one.

QUESTION:
This is a follow-on to the last two excellent questions and your response. I want to compliment you for a wonderful chronological survey. It is often said that historians are just living in the past, but you bring this up to the present.

TED WIDMER: Thank you.

QUESTIONER: Now I'd like you to think in the future tense. Let me frame my question this way. Arthur Schlesinger in his The Cycles of American History was fond of quoting—I'm an academic, so you have to forgive this—a cliometrician. These are the people who like to study history quantitatively. The person whom he was enamored with in diplomatic history was Frank Klingberg's mood theory. This mood theory argues that domestic public opinion in the United States has a lot to do as an underpinning for the future of any president's foreign policy, and specifically he traces a 20-to-25-year pendular cycle between waves of isolationism and internationalism. I know you're familiar with the work.

Ironically, here we are at this point in time. This has been a very periodic cyclical swing. If you extrapolate the trend line, we should be entering a new period of what Kingberg called introversion, rather than an extrovert, phase of American foreign policy—or call it what it really is, isolationism or withdrawal. In that context, what do you see for the future?

TED WIDMER:
I actually don't know that theory. I'm flattered that you said I did, but in fact I don't. I'm horrified, because I announce at one point with a lot of excitement my theory that exactly this happens, that we shift from one extreme to another. I didn't know someone had expressed that theory 50 years earlier. That's one of the few old paperbacks I didn't buy.

But I think it's absolutely true. It's going to be an interesting time, because I think in some ways we're going towards internationalism in our diplomacy, but we are probably going away from it in our actual use of hard force.

This past administration was the opposite. They shied away deeply from the comfort of talking about the exchange of ambassadors, the nuts and bolts of foreign policy—treaties, conferences—but they had no hesitation to send U.S. troops into action.

We need to harmonize those two aspects of what it is to be international. Then I hope we do stay international. It's a great time to think deeply about things like the G8 and the UN and NATO and what they are and what they are not. Something like the G8 probably ought to be expanded.

To answer your question, I think Russia flexed its muscles very impressively in Georgia and showed everyone that it can do whatever it wants to in its sphere of the world, that we have no power to stop them.

They could have just occupied Georgia and we would have had no power to do anything, which throws into serious question what it is to be a NATO member. Do we want Georgia in NATO? I would say no we don't, because we can't defend Georgia.

But I don't think Russia is clearly embarked on world domination either. Today, again—I saw so much in today's New York Times—they voiced their support for a continuing U.S. presence in Iraq, which is so brilliant on their part, because it keeps us tied down. But it sounds sort of pro-American. I think they're not anti-American necessarily.

I think they want to be engaged. They are making huge amounts of money in Europe. They are supplying a lot of gas to Europe. Europe likes it. Europe doesn't want to be at war with Russia. Russia doesn't want to be at war with Europe.

So it's a moment where the United States could step up and say, "This will be the way the world works now for the next 25 years, and we're going to give Russia an enhanced position in the G8 and respect Russia's new economic and military power. We are going to give China an enhanced role. But they will be locked into a world system that we are the leader of, that we'll think about," because we've been thinking about it for a lot longer than they have. They have been thinking about their own situation for a long time, but they haven't been thinking about the international world of alliances and the UN with quite the intensity that Americans have for a long time.

So I think there is room for interesting new thoughts—not radical, but just improvements over the current arrangement. Maybe a series of conferences like the ones that led to the UN. The G8 and the Security Council, the Permanent Five, could perhaps be expanded—I'm not quite sure; that's very complicated—but it does seem a little bit disproportional now, 60 years later, that two out of the five are in Western Europe,and India perhaps.

John McCain had the idea of the League of Democracy. I did not especially like that idea because it excluded Russia and China. I think they should be included. But I think some new thinking could be very useful over the next couple years.

JOEL ROSENTHAL:
On that note, Ted, thank you very much.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less