Michael Mandelbaum, professor emeritus of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, spoke to a June 17th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the present and future of American policy in the Middle East, based on his latest book, The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower.
Mandelbaum's book covers the past-two-and-a-half centuries of American foreign policy "from 1765 to 2015, from the Stamp Act to the Iran deal." He examines the most notable events and personalities that shaped America's "twenty-five decades" of foreign policy, its "major controversies," and the policy themes manifested during that time span.
He said the three major continuities that occurred during the 253-year period of American foreign policy are: (1) the "ideological" promotion of American values of democracy "beyond its borders," with the aim of establishing peace between countries; (2) America's "unusually economic foreign policy" in which the U.S. used "economic instruments" to achieve its political goals; and (3) its conduct of a "democratic" foreign policy whereby "the public and public opinion have had an unusually large influence on the formation and implementation of American foreign policy."
As America's power increased relative to other countries, changes occurred over four time periods. From 1765 to 1865, the U.S. was a "weak power" as it focused on defending its independence to aid its North American expansion. The U.S. grew into a "great power" from 1865 to 1945, as shown by its simultaneous cooperation and competition with other great powers, while also carving out a "sphere of influence" encompassing Central Europe and the Eastern Pacific. Between 1945 to 1990, the U.S. superpower was in a global competition with the Soviet Union politically, economically, and militarily. Finally, from 1990 to 2015, as the world's "only hyperpower," America was at its most secure and unrivaled, with "maximal freedom of action" at home and abroad.
Asking "what does all this imply for American foreign policy in the Middle East going forward?," Mandelbaum said there are "three major implications."
First, "note that America has been more deeply engaged in the Middle East the more powerful it has become." America become engaged in the Middle East as a superpower, "but only in connection with its global rivalry with the Soviet Union and international communism." But "only in the age of the American hyperpower, the age of maximal power," he said, did the region become in some ways "central to American foreign policy," first with the two Persian Gulf wars, then with its "democracy initiative," and finally with the "preoccupation, some might say obsession, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
Currently, in its post-hyperpower phase, the U.S. is now "relatively less powerful" because of challenges in Europe and East Asia that have supplanted the Middle East as the centers of importance. This marks a return to "a basic pattern of American foreign policy" in that the Middle East "has always been only third in importance to the United States among the world's regions." Europe and East Asia "have always been and are in the present more important," because they contain the "greatest wealth and the source of the greatest threats to and for the United States."
Obama, Trump, and Biden, despite their "significant differences in policy," have each attempted to "lower America's profile in the region." Similarly, all have "shied away from confronting, indeed from threatening to use force against, Iran." Mandelbaum believes "the problem that successive American policies toward Iran and different administrations have had, is not that the government has not understood Iran but that ... it has not wished to understand Iran. It has not wished to understand the intense drive on the part of the Islamic Republic to dominate the Middle East."
A second pattern in the history of American foreign policy, paradoxically, "points tentatively in the opposite direction." "Repeatedly over 250 years," a dramatic event occurs, abroad or at home, that "galvanized" the public and "made the world seem suddenly more dangerous to Americans" and "generated the demand for a more robust foreign policy," sometimes including the use of force.
Such "great changes in American foreign policy come about in response to events in the middle of administrations," Mandelbaum said. An example was the sinking of the American battleship USS Maine, which stirred public opinion and led to 1898's Spanish-American war. When in 1915 a German submarine sank the British passenger liner Lusitania, Americans' view of Germany's role in World War I was "transformed," and the U.S. entered the conflict two years later. Finally, the September 11th, 2001 attacks in Washington and New York led the U.S. into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mandelbaum maintains that the U.S. countered the Soviet Union during the Cold War to confront the "universal ideology" of Marxism-Leninism. However, given the threat of Islamism, he said that because the U.S. is neither a sectarian nor a Muslim country, Islamism is an "ideology of the Muslim world," and it is not clear the U.S. government has the "credibility" to influence those "susceptible to the Islamic creed."
The potential for another "galvanizing event" in the Middle East lies in Iran's "acquisition of nuclear weapons." Despite the danger, he does not necessarily believe it will guarantee "a more robust American policy" for confrontation. If the Iranians "cross the nuclear threshold" stealthily, it will not deliver the sudden shock that in the past led to rousing public opinion. Even if the U.S. public reacts with shock to a nuclear Iran, Mandelbaum is concerned even that may not lead to confronting Iran with force. Quite the contrary, because nuclear weapons are "more forbidding" and the outcome of action is unknown with unimaginable repercussions, it could either lead U.S. foreign policy to be more "confrontational" or "have the opposite effect."
The third and final pattern of American foreign policy in the Middle East, in contrast to the "ideological" view, is the "realist" approach "identified with realpolitik," which "places at its center, not American values, but American power and interests." When the two approaches have been in conflict, U.S. governments usually pursue the realist approach, which Mandelbaum said creates "ambivalence and two-facedness," as evidenced by Biden's recent about-face regarding Saudi Arabia. Biden initially contrasted American values to those of Riyadh, shunning and criticizing its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Given the soaring U.S. energy crisis, the administration reversed course and is using America's need for oil as the main impetus for Biden's upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia.
Mandelbaum said an added effect of the "two competing traditions" influencing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is America's alignment of both approaches in "protecting its interests and advancing its values." That balance has garnered "deep public support" as shown by the "robust American support for Israel" because "Israel embodies American values and helps to defend American interests." Mandelbaum sees that support continuing regardless of the "vicissitudes of American foreign policy in the Middle East." He concluded by noting that of America's alliances are united in their opposition to aggression by Russia in Europe, China in East Asia, and Iran in the Middle East, but it remains to be seen what the next phase of America will be "after the era of the American hyperpower."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.