American Presidents in Diplomacy and War: Statecraft, Foreign Policy, and Leadership

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Release Date: 
November 1, 2023
University of Notre Dame Press
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American Presidents in Diplomacy and War is a tutorial on foreign policy 'realism' as the most effective approach to international politics.”

Thomas R. Parker, a lecturer in security studies at George Washington University, brings his 30 years of experience working at the White House, the Defense Department, the State Department, and the intelligence community to bear on this enlightening and insightful assessment of the foreign policy statecraft of several American presidents. American Presidents in Diplomacy and War is a tutorial on foreign policy “realism” as the most effective approach to international politics.

Parker uses case studies from the presidencies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, and Barack Obama to extol the virtues of prudence, experience, and guile in statespersons, and to show the dangers of moralism in foreign policy that is untethered to concrete national interests.

George Washington epitomized foreign policy realism both in his conduct as president where (with Alexander Hamilton’s encouragement) he skillfully navigated a neutral approach to the Franco-British global rivalry to the benefit of American interests, and in his Farewell Address to the nation, which stands even today as a beacon of foreign policy wisdom. Parker contrasts Washington’s realism with the more ideological approach of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—an approach that eschewed prudence and failed to match means to ends, resulting in the unnecessary War of 1812, which, as Parker notes, could have been disastrous for the nation had it not been for the greater European war that distracted the British war effort in North America. For Washington, though not for Jefferson and Madison, Parker writes, “American interests took precedence over nebulous ideals of solidarity among republics.”

Abraham Lincoln wins high marks from Parker for his forcefulness and determination as commander-in-chief during the Civil War, but equally for his deft diplomacy to restrain Britain and France from allying with the Confederacy. Lincoln displayed realism in the Trent affair, acceding to British demands to return captured Confederate envoys to Britain and France, and used the ideal of emancipation to appeal to British anti-slavery sentiment.

Theodore Roosevelt, notes Parker, shed his youthful interventionist tendencies and conducted foreign policy as president based on his keen appreciation of U.S. national interests and the global balance of power. Unfortunately, Roosevelt’s realism was followed by Woodrow Wilson’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy in the next decade, which helped set the stage for the emergence of communism and fascism and the horrific Second World War.

Parker’s assessment of Franklin Roosevelt suffers from a nostalgia for the four-term president who led the nation through the Great Depression and to victory in the Second World War. Parker notes FDR’s deceitfulness and Machiavellian nature and views them as positive “goods” in foreign policy—and they certainly can be. But FDR’s deceit stemmed from political cowardice in the 1930s that left the nation woefully unprepared for the coming war. Unlike Winston Churchill, FDR lacked the political courage to confront his nation’s political leaders and citizens with the brutal facts of international politics. And his foreign policy realism escaped him in dealing with Josef Stalin at the end of the war, setting the stage for the costly Cold War that followed.

Parker is rightfully critical of Harry Truman and the lead-up to, and conduct of, the Korean War, but here he also follows the conventional view that places inordinate blame for our failures in Korea on General Douglas MacArthur. To be sure, MacArthur made his share of mistakes and suffered from some character flaws, but Truman’s failure to fully support the Nationalists against the Communists in China preceded and set the stage for the war in Korea. And Parker at least understands that it was Truman and his advisers, not MacArthur, that made the “key mistakes” in Korea.

Perhaps the best-case study in the book is the chapter on President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. Parker praises the Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy that achieved the goals of saving Israel from defeat, persuading Egypt and Syria to make peace with the Jewish state, and lessening Soviet influence in the Middle East. Nixon and Kissinger were consummate realists whose every diplomatic move was designed to advance American interests and improve our geopolitical position in the world. Together, they approached foreign policy with what Parker describes as “tactical flexibility” and “strategic steadfastness.”

Those two qualities were mostly missing from the foreign policy of Jimmy Carter, who, Parker writes, approached the world with a “self-righteous, judgmental” attitude like his hero Woodrow Wilson. Parker assesses Carter’s handling of events in Iran in the late 1970s, when the realism of Nixon and Kissinger was replaced by an overly moralistic foreign policy that eschewed “power politics.” Parker compares the consequences of the fall of the Shah of Iran to the fall of the Bourbon Dynasty in late 18th-century France. “Just as the French Revolution plunged Europe into a quarter century of war, the fall of the shah resulted in a series of wars and the deaths if millions in the region.” Indeed, the current war in Gaza has its roots in the disastrous foreign policy of Jimmy Carter.

Parker’s final two chapters deal with President George H. W. Bush’s skillful diplomacy and leadership during the first Gulf War and President Barack Obama’s inexperienced approach to the events of the Arab Spring. Parker notes that Bush’s success and Obama’s failures were due in part to the former relying on the sage advice of experienced foreign policy practitioners (Brent Scowcroft, Robert Gates, Colin Powell) and the latter’s reliance on “young amateurs from his Senate office, his political campaign, or academia.” Bush himself was an experienced foreign policy hand, while Obama was clearly out of his depth, having been a Senator for a few years and a Chicago politico and community organizer.

What is missing from Parker’s book are chapters on, say, Dwight Eisenhower and his realism in the South China Sea in the mid-to-late 1950s that kept Mao’s communists from conquering Taiwan; or Lyndon Johnson’s lack of realism during the Vietnam War; or Ronald Reagan’s diplomacy in the 1980s that led to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War—the greatest foreign policy achievement of the second half of the 20th century; or George W. Bush’s crusade for democracy that led to the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps Parker will tackle those case studies in a second edition.