A Monumental Quest for America's Heroes
October-December 2017
By: John Delury

 Green argues that this incoherence – America’s inability to integrate “all instruments of national power” in the service of an overarching grand strategy – stemmed from a disadvantage inherent in a democratic society competing against an autocracy. Fortunately, FDR guided the American people out of their isolationism, although it took the external shock of Pearl Harbor to unify the country behind the war effort. Green gives high marks to FDR’s inner circle of military and political advisers – heirs to Mahan, as it were. “These men, operating under Roosevelt’s giant shadow, would debate and conduct grand strategy from 1941 to 1945 with an organizational efficiency and focus that the country had never known before.”

FDR’s tragic mistake was that he “kept his geopolitical plans vague,” leaving a void that Cold War leaders, starting with Harry Truman, scrambled to fill. Only with the advent of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did a statesman-strategist duo on the intellectual order of Teddy Roosevelt and Mahan appear on the scene. But Kissinger, for all his tactical genius, belongs to the “continentalist” tradition, stretching back to Harold Mackinder, which overemphasizes the role of China in America’s Asia strategy. Green prefers the “Mahanist” maritime approach, anchored in Japan, and thus his favored Cold War strategist is American George Kennan. He argues, in fact, that the Nixon Doctrine was rooted in Kennan’s offshore strategy of avoiding getting bogged down on the Asian continent. Nixon recognized that the balance of power in Asia was at a tipping point (the mark of a good strategic thinker), and made the proper adjustments, painful as they were.

Green frames the Cold War in terms of the rise of the Soviet Union, which, like defining the 19th century in terms of the rise of the United States, raises problematic historical questions that he never fully addresses. Soviet expansion into the Asia-Pacific is the central premise of the section, yet Green only briefly mentions Moscow’s increased military spending in the late 1970s (by way of criticizing the Carter administration for defense spending cuts), and then in a single paragraph tallies increases in the Soviet Pacific Fleet under the leadership of Admiral Sergey Gorshkov.

Green heralds US President Ronald Reagan and his secretary of state, George Schultz, as the next heroic duo who rose to meet this Soviet challenge. Reagan and Schultz fully articulate the three prongs of American strategy – promoting trade, defending democracy and spending on defense – used to stop a rival hegemon. Green is rather generous in his interpretation of Reagan as a champion of democracy in Asia, excusing his embrace of South Korean dictator Chun Doo-hwan and playing down his fondness for Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Instead, Green celebrates Reagan’s “unbounded faith in the power of democratic values” and derides “critics on the left” who fail to explain how it would have been possible to stop communist expansion without backing strongmen.

The final section of the book is framed, uncontroversially enough, by the rise of China. The chapters on Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush do not leave as strong an impression, in the latter case perhaps as a result of the author’s effort to write objectively about events in which he was directly involved. The narrative picks back up on President Barack Obama, credited for being “the first president to endorse what was essentially an Asia-first policy.” But Obama does not make it onto the A-list of Asia strategists. His “pivot” to Asia signaled the correct strategic intent: a desire to shift America’s strategic center of gravity from the endless quagmires of the Middle East to the relentless dynamism of the Asia-Pacific. But, Green argues, the administration failed to deliver. “The conceptualization and implementation of the pivot were piecemeal, inconsistent, and poorly coordinated.”

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