Peter Trubowitz: Obama's Trench Warfare ... What the Forty-Fourth President Needs to Learn from Van Buren, Hoover and Nixon

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Peter Trubowitz is professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Politics and Strategy: Partisan Ambition and American Statecraft (Princeton University Press, 2011).

When former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was asked what might blow his government’s policy off course, he replied: “Events, dear boy, events.” Obama took office seeking to lighten America’s geopolitical footprint. But many foreign-policy experts now argue that the Arab uprisings are forcing the United States to adopt a neoconservative agenda of democratic regime change in the region—and some have certainly seen the Libyan mission as proof positive of that claim.

Yet if history is any guide, a policy of retrenchment will win out: when the United States does not face a serious geopolitical threat and the president’s party prefers to invest in domestic programs, presidents look for ways to scale back, not expand. Martin Van Buren was the first president to adopt a strategy of retrenchment. Shortly after he took office in 1837, the economy collapsed, forcing Van Buren to play catch up on the domestic front. In sharp contrast to his predecessor, Andrew Jackson, he pursued a foreign policy of restraint. Van Buren opposed territorial expansion and downsized the military, slashing the army’s budget by half and refusing to give the Navy new warships. When opportunities arose for the U.S. to extend its political control beyond its borders, as they did over Texas annexation and insurrection in British Canada, Van Buren rejectedthe pleas of special interests to expand the nation’s footprint. Instead of looking for ways to move foreign policy to the “front burner,” Van Buren did all he could to keep foreign policy on the “back burner.”

Van Buren’s situation was comparable to Herbert Hoover’s in the 1920s. Although an ardent internationalist, Hoover also pursued a strategy of retrenchment, scaling back commitments in Europe and Asia. Hoover reigned in military spending at a time when military spending accounted for more than half of the federal budget. In Latin America, he favored a lower political-military profile than Woodrow Wilson had, opting not to manipulate the many foreign crises that arose in the region during his presidency. Hoover relied less on the stick of military coercion and more on the carrot of economic investment, even if those efforts were tempered by his unflinching support for higher tariffs (Smoot-Hawley) on foreign goods.

Richard Nixon is also remembered for pursuing a strategy of retrenchment...

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