The Obama administration's search for a less costly, more "sustainable" foreign policy recalls previous presidents who wound down major wars, according to Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. In Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, Sestanovich argues that the most challenging phase of retrenchment comes after the United States has extricated itself from a stalemated conflict. Postwar cutbacks in the Pentagon budget usually last longer than the surge that preceded them, but political controversies over the direction of American foreign policy begin much sooner.
Sestanovich compares the current administration's strategy—from the Middle East to East Asia and elsewhere—with those of other retrenchment presidencies. He finds that Obama's predecessors presented their policies as a necessary corrective to overcommitment in order to win both public and Congressional support. But he warns that the perception of retrenchment often evolves from being seen as a strategy for averting decline of U.S. power to one "that accelerates, accepts, and even embraces it."
Drawing on memoirs, speeches, and declassified documents, Maximalist captures the fluctuation of American foreign policy, between maximalist overreaching and the underreaching in which retrenchments usually end. Sestanovich explores the personalities and decisions that produced each of these swings and offers new perspectives on crucial moments in American policy, from the Marshall Plan to Vietnam, from détente to the end of the Cold War, from September 11, 2001, through today's reduced commitments.
These frequent changes of direction have led many observers—presidents and experts alike—to yearn for greater continuity in American strategy. Maximalist comes to a different conclusion. Because policymakers so often guess wrong, the most important ingredient of decision-making has to be the ability to change course.
"Discontinuity," Sestanovich writes, "has been the source of our greatest success."