With Daisy Banks at FiveBooks, he discussed his top books on the rise and fall of America. One of the titles:
A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War by Melvyn P LefflerRead about another book on the list.
Tell me about Melvyn Leffler’s book – A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War.
This book is really going back to the seeds of the Cold War and what Leffler sees as the tragedy of the Cold War. He asks the very important question: was the Cold War actually avoidable? He looks at whether there were moments between 1946 and the early 50s when we could have stepped back from the brink and had some kind of modus vivendi with the Soviet Union instead of having this confrontation.
Leffler, as a revisionist historian, finds some of the seeds of the conflict in the evolving world view of the Truman administration, where America’s new sense of its own relative power in the world, mixed with a sense of Messianic crusading, culminated in the Truman Doctrine in 1947. Leffler asks the question, that as tyrannical and dangerous as Stalin was in his own region, was he ultimately an old power tsar who could be accommodated with classical spheres of influence rather than having a global struggle? He tests out this idea that the revolutionary tyrant at home actually was a tsar abroad and could be lived with, and that Stalin, in a very cold and calculating way, was someone you could do business with.
This particularly centres in the debate about whether or not to commit to containing Communism everywhere all the time, and also how realistic it was that America and the Soviet Union could have negotiated a mutual withdrawal from Germany and left a buffer zone between them.
This, of course, throws up lots of moral issues about whether America was prepared to operate like that.
Oh it does, and part of the difficulty of foreign policy is that you have to hold your nose and compromise with all sorts of regimes. The Allies had, after all, been dealing with Stalin during World War II from 1941, in order to defeat something that we thought was even worse – Hitler. So foreign policy is difficult because it involves that moral compromise. Leffler poses the question whether dealing with and accommodating Stalin would have been better for the world than this terrifying new conflict with the potential for World War III, and, with catastrophic ventures like the Afghan War, Vietnam, Cambodia and Chile, how the trillions of dollars that America sunk into it could have been spent on more productive things. So the morality question is a very interesting one and very difficult. Sometimes the most immoral thing you can do as a great power is be at war with other great powers, and it is better to compromise around that with a negotiated and imperfect peace.
Do you begin to see this time as the fall of America?
In a way I do, because it takes on a role as the guardian of world order that ultimately is exhausting, although in some ways it is the making of America. It emerges from World War II as the biggest power, the biggest financier and creditor, the centre of dynamism and intellectual achievement and scientific innovation. It is also the military superpower with global reach. But in other ways America was being drawn into this imperial temptation, which means it chooses to shoulder burdens on others’ behalf. Every time there is a crisis America is increasingly expected to solve it. Also, I think it is dangerous because becoming an empire makes it harder to be a republic. It results in things like the rise of an imperial presidency, which becomes less balanced with the constitution and the erosion of civil liberties. There is this coarsening of domestic policies and weakening of the economy, which are things that damage what is meant to be the constitutional identity of the country – so it is a very mixed bag.