You are on page 1of 16

International Studies Quarterly (2007) 51, 779794

Constructing Foreign Policy Crises: Interpretive Leadership in the Cold War and War on Terrorism
Wesley W. Widmaier St. Josephs University
Over the past century, crises have often driven shifts in U.S. foreign policy, as a liberal tradition has been permissive of varying tendencies to isolationism, pragmatism, or a crusading internationalism. While materialist analyses emphasize the impacts of crises on the capabilities of state and societal agents, they obscure the role of agents in interpreting crises. In this paper, I therefore offer a constructivist analysis, stressing the role of presidential rhetoric in the construction of crises as events which legitimate shifts between variants of the American liberal tradition and denitions of the national interest. I specically examine interpretations of the Cold War and War on Terror offered in the March 1947 Truman Doctrine speech and September 2001 Bush Doctrine speech. Truman and Bush each reinterpreted international challenges as pertaining to ways of life, transforming security and partisan debates in ways that delegitimated isolationism. In sum, this analysis highlights the enduring traditions and mass understandings which can themselves constrain elite debates.

At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of lifeHarry S. Truman, March 12, 1946. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terroristsGeorge W. Bush, September 20, 2001.

Scholars of foreign policy have increasingly recognized the importance of major wars and crises in driving sudden transformations of state interests (Gilpin 1981; Gourevitch 1986; Ikenberry 2001).1 Such events, as they alter the terms of debate, reshape national interests. For example, in the interwar years prior to World War II, U.S. foreign policy was characterized by an exceptionalist isolationism, as the U.S. refrained from acting as either a balancer or a hegemon. In contrast, in the post-World War II period, U.S. foreign policy shifted from an isolationist to a more internationalist stance, as concerns for the balance of power eventually yielded to a crusading liberal idealism. Similarly, in a later set of interwar yearsbetween the Cold War and War on Terrorisolationist views reemerged, particularly in congressional opposition to U.S. involvement in

1 Several colleagues took the time to comment on this paper, including Lisa A. Baglione, Mark Blyth, Jeff Chwieroth, Bruce Cronin, David V. Edwards, James K. Galbraith, Rodney Bruce Hall, Colin Hay, Janice Bially Mattern, Steve Poe, Leonard Seabrooke, and Alexander Wendt. The usual disclaimers apply.

2007 International Studies Association. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK.

1 780

Constructing Foreign Policy Crises

regional conicts in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo.2 These isolationist leanings were again abandoned following the September 11, 2001 attacks, as the Bush administration shifted to a more crusading liberalism. Yet, in neither case were these policy shifts dictated inevitably by the material conditions of the moment. Consider what might have followed from a presidential construction of the 9 11 attacks that stressed the singular responsibility of Bin Laden. In such a context, the U.S. might have pursued a targeted assault on al Qaeda as opposed to the crusading course ultimately adopted in Iraq. In light of this scope for varying constructions of eventsand, indeed, the material disparity between the Cold War-era Soviet superpower and the loose al Qaeda terrorist networkit becomes more necessary for scholars to examine the ways in which agents interpret events rather than simply react to them. In this paper, I therefore offer a constructivist analysis of such critical junctures or tipping points in U.S. foreign policy (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998:895896), emphasizing the impact of agent practices in debates over the meaning of wars and crises (Blyth 2002, 2003; Widmaier 2004). First, this provides an alternative to materialist approaches that treat state and societal interests as exogenously given. Such approaches are incomplete to the extent that material incentives do not speak for themselves, but must instead be interpreted. In contrast, this approach highlights the intersubjective understandings that sustain particular denitions of national interests or beliefs about how to meet needs (Wendt 1999:130). Second, as argued in the capstone piece of this symposium, this framework provides an alternative to extant constructivist perspectives which highlight top-down socialization at the expense of the mass context. In the theoretical section of this piece, I more fully develop these insights, stressing the respective importance of intersubjective structures and institutionalized practices in explaining shifting denitions of U.S. interests. In terms of intersubjective forces, I argue that an unstable American liberal tradition has been constitutive of three shifting denitions of the national interest, encompassing: (1) an exceptionalist isolationism that justies insulating the U.S. from corrupting foreign inuences; (2) a pragmatic realism that denes the national interest in terms of power; and (3) an absolutist or crusading internationalism that denes Americas mission in terms of spreading the blessings of liberty. In terms of institutionalized practices, I argue that this instability is exacerbated by a recurring reliance on the presidential construction of crises to focus debate. This exacerbates the volatility of the liberal tradition, driving shifts from policy overreaction to neglect. In subsequent empirical sections, I address the construction of the Cold War by President Truman in his Truman Doctrine address, and the construction of the War on Terrorism by President Bush in his post-September 11 discourses. Each leader recast international relations as revolving around ways of life in a manner that transformed security and partisan interests, and legitimated arguable crusading overreactions in the Vietnam War and Iraq invasion. I conclude by addressing theoretical and policy implications, highlighting consequences for elite-centered approaches and suggesting that reliance on the construction of crises may exacerbate policy instability. Materialist Approaches to State and Societal Interests Prevailing materialist approaches downplay the extent to which national interests are inuenced by social forces. They cast ideological debates as causing, at most,
2 While Kull and Destler (1999:9-15) argue against the myth of the 1990s new isolationism, they concede that post-Cold War debates were often dominated by isolationist themes, and cite poll data showing pluralities and substantial minorities (of 3035%) in support of isolationist positions. One need not argue that the new isolationism was dominant to recognize its inuence.

Wesley W. Widmaier


deviations from central tendencies to act on the basis of exogenously given interests. Perhaps most prominently, realists of varied stripes cast the international distribution of capabilities as the key constraint on foreign policy (Waltz 1979; Gilpin 1981). They argue that states dene their interests in terms of power (Morgenthau 1948:5), pursuing what Krasner (1978:15) terms aims that [have] some materially identiable benet for society as a whole. Major wars in this light appear as sudden manifestations of underlying shifts in the distribution of capabilities. However, such materialist analyses can be criticized by constructivists as insufcient for two reasons. First, since material incentives are indeterminate and the distribution of power is often ambiguous, agents can interpret identical material changes in a range of fashions. Second, the same intersubjective understandings which guide interpretations of material shifts can also constitute varying state interests. The U.S. is particularly important in this regard, given the weight of its liberal tradition in sustaining varying denitions of the national interest. To address these concerns, a range of supplemental materialist analyses have been offered to highlight the intervening domestic structures that mediate systemic shifts. For example, from a more societal vantage, Snyder (1991:17; 49) offers a theory of coalition logrolling and coalition ideology to explain the construction of myths which lead states to pursue unduly aggressive foreign policies. Snyder argues that coalitional agents drive policy as they engage in legislative logrolling, trading favors so that each group gets what it wants most while costs are diffused to society, and as they harness the states propaganda resources to obscure their parochial interests. Eventually, these ideas take on lives of their own among a pliant mass public. However, Snyders domestic shift offers no fundamental solution to basic theoretical problems of uncertainty regarding incentives and variation in interests. Snyder still fails to specify what counts as a major threat and how coalitional groups come to dene their interests. The above objections to materialist arguments therefore remain relevant: Like state agents, societal agents have no a priori interests outside an interpretive setting. On the one hand, imperialists might oppose expansionary policies for potentially aggrandizing the state and jeopardizing economic liberties. On the other hand, they might equally favor such policies to broaden their economic reach and inuence. As in the systemic context, neither societal nor state agents can respond to material changes until they have interpreted them. Similarly, from a more ideational vantage, scholars like Peter Haas (1992), Fred Kaplan (1991), and G. John Ikenberry (1992) highlight the role of epistemic communities or like-minded elites in shaping policies. Such arguments accord with those of scholars like Geoffrey Garrett and Barry Weingast (Garrett and Weingast 1993) who treat ideas as focal points that are strategically constructed by exogenously constituted agents. In the foreign policy context, such insights have been applied to examine the inuence of post-World War II liberals in the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the RAND defense intellectuals who shaped 1950s-era debates over nuclear strategy, the Trilateral Commission of the early 1970s, the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) of the later 1970s, and the neoconservative Project for the New American Century of more recent years. To be sure, members of such groups have often played key roles as intellectuals in government and as public gures shaping mass views. However, given the range of possible elite views, it remains unclear why any particular group triumphs at any given point. As with coalitional arguments, this oversight highlights the need to situate elite views in a larger setting. For, as Seabrooke (2007) argues, the opening of legitimacy gaps between mass discourses and elite beliefs can generate pressures to change. From such a vantage, elites might not shape public views so much as intersubjective contexts and mass attitudes can vary in ways that provide support for specic elites. For example, the

1 782

Constructing Foreign Policy Crises

rise of neoconservatives, which reected in part the concern of elites (e.g., Straussians) for the ostensible moral relativism of the 1960s, should not be isolated from the emergence of similar reaction to the excesses of the sixties across U.S. society, as well as the associated rise of the religious right as a political force. Put broadly, one might argue that the ideas of Paul Wolfowitz had to harmonize with the culture of Midland, Texas before nding expression in the rhetoric of George W. Bush. This importance of the larger social context was recognized by no less a gure than Hans Morgenthau. As Michael C. Williams (2005:325326) has noted, Morgenthau offered a critique of liberalism that equally warned on the one hand of a technocratic or narrowly pluralistic liberal-democracy and on the other, that a reaction against these dilemmas, especially in a situation exacerbated by high levels of insecurity or international tensions, would lead liberal democracies to overreactions. In such a context, patriotism would risk becoming identied with a bellicose nationalism [and] virtue with an aggressive internationalism... To the extent that such intersubjective changes have outweighed any corresponding material shifts and driven policy changesoften between Morgenthaus alternatives of technocratic reserve and crusading overreachit becomes more necessary to foreground shifting views of liberalism and their implications for denitions of the national interest. The following section develops such an approach, highlighting rst the effects of a liberal tradition on varying denitions of U.S. interests and then the role of presidential rhetoric in constructing crises which legitimate their transformations. Consructivism: Intersubjective Understandings and the Construction of Crises
Intersubjective Understandings and National Interests

The framework employed in this effort draws insights from constructivist approaches to the study of international politics. These stress the role of intersubjective understandingssustained through interactionin giving meaning to incentives and interests. Such understandings are intersubjective in the sense that they persist even in the absence of subjective belief and have a collective permanence. They matter because agents cannot make efcient use of information or employ all available information in forming expectations, but rather face a fundamental constraint of uncertainty. Uncertainty is not simply subjective doubt regarding the likelihood of a particular event, but instead is a more pervasive constraint which limits the ability of agents to form any meaningful estimate of future trends regarding such factors as the distribution of power. Keynes 3 (Keynes 1937: 214) argued that this notion of uncertainty pertains to matters about which there is no scientic basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know. He argued further that agents constrained by uncertainty would necessarily rely on socially constructed conventionsakin to constructivists intersubjective understandings or, in this effort, to the foreign policy traditions that have persistently shaped U.S. interests. Such understandings, applied to the foreign policy setting, matter as they give meaning to material incentives and as they are internalized by state and societal agents, reshaping even domestic interests (Blyth 2002). In the U.S. setting, a liberal tradition, which broadly places a stress on the autonomy of the individual, is potentially constitutive of three general denitions of the national interest. This tradition can justify either an exceptionalist isolationism (to preserve a rugged individualism), a pragmatic internationalism characterized by attempts at stabilizing the balance of power or economic forces (reecting a liberal faith in the primacy of rational behavior over primordial motivations), or a crusading internationalism (to provide others with the blessings of liberty). Owing to the

Wesley W. Widmaier


tensions between these variants as described below, the liberal tradition can be seen as the unstable element at the core of shifting denitions of the U.S. national interest. Taking each in turn, exceptionalist isolationism was dominant through much of the 19th Century. This view was rooted in a perception of the international system as an amoral realm that threatened Americas liberal character, whether by necessitating a strengthened state that might erode domestic liberties or via more direct ideological contamination.3 Reecting this view, John Quincy Adams urged that America not venture abroad, in search of monsters to destroy lest she become the dictatress of the world and no longer the ruler of her own spirit. In the 1920s, Warren Harding justied retreat into isolationist normalcy on the grounds that internationalism would risk menac[ing] the health of the republic in Old World contagionan appropriate metaphor in the context of the great inuenzaand Herbert Hoover explicitly cast European ideas as threats to American rugged individualism (Hartz 1955:297). In the 1950s, even as Republicans like Senator Robert Taft supported an aggressive Cold War stance, their concerns for domestic liberties inspired warnings that a militarized U.S. risked becoming a garrison state (Sanders 1983:57). In their more extreme variants, these concerns reect what Hofstadter (1965) termed a paranoid style in American politics, which casts liberalism as threatened by intertwined external and internal threats. However, exceptionalist isolationism has its limits, and can evolve into its alternative variants. First, insular pride in liberalism can yield to crusading on behalf of liberalism. For example, explaining the turn-of-the-century New Imperialism, historian Selig Adler (1957:20) argued that the United States strange lunge away from Europe and toward Asia represented a desire to both ee the old world and recreate the new. In another manner, isolationist policies can evolve in more pragmatic fashions. For example, while Washington and Hamilton stressed the need to avoid European entanglements, their reasoning drew primarily upon balance of power-oriented insights. In a draft of his Farewell Address, Washington stressed the extent to which nations act on basic interests, for their own benet, and not for the benet of others, and ventured that shifts in the balance of power might eventually enable a more activist foreign policy.4 Secondly, in this light, a pragmatic liberalism casts the international system as one characterized by competition among rival states that dene their interests in terms of power. Louis Hartz (1955:5;10) attributed this pragmatic tendency to an egalitarian strain which impedes understanding of those who were not born equal. Hartz elaborated that pragmatism feeds itself on the Lockian settlement. It is only when you take your ethics for granted that all problems emerge as problems of technique. This view has been often favored by elites who may be skeptical of popular inuences, and was particularly important in the context of late-1950s early-1960s dominance of the wise men (Isaacson and Thomas 1986) and best and brightest (Halberstam 1969) who, as Daniel Bell (1960:11) put it, feared the mass tendency to convert concrete issues into policy problems [and] to color them with moral fervor and high emotional charge. Ironically, the vulnerability of the pragmatic ideology to popular criticism and rejection stems from a frequent dismissal of mass views as themselves too ideological, and so spurs recourse to exceptionalist or crusading alternatives.

3 This view justies isolation not on the basis of a pragmatic appraisal of the balance of powerwhich was the basis for the isolationism of Washington and Hamiltonbut rather on the grounds that internationalist policies might threaten American individualism. 4 Washingtons First Draft for an Address, enclosed in his Letter of May 15, 1796, to Hamilton http:// 4

1 784

Constructing Foreign Policy Crises

This third conceptualization of the national interest, a crusading liberalism, entails attempts to encourage the liberalization and democratization of other states. This involves a more extroverted commitment to American liberalism, one in which the U.S. seeks to transcend power politics by exporting its liberal philosophy. However, crusading liberalism often leaves U.S. policymakers incapable of recognizing the deeper ethnic and nationalist conicts which divide peoples and states, and to overestimate transformative possibilities. Consider Woodrow Wilsons faith that democracy and national self-determination overcome ethnic, religious, and national tensions. To again draw on Hartz (1955:295), he argued that Wilson failed to anticipate upheavals that were impending in Europe in part due to the fact that the concept of social upheaval was alien to the American mind. Indeed, when such crusading missions founder on the shoals of ethnic, religious and national tensions, they can eventually give rise to a frustration with those others who fail to appreciate U.S. efforts, justifying a reversion to sullen isolationism. Taken together, exceptionalist, pragmatist, and crusading liberalisms tendencies interact in ways so that their excesses can give rise to counter-reactions and reversions to one another. However, to the extent that these views might coexist at any given point, one must address how shifts from one to another occur, and more specically engage issues of agency, mass or elite pressures, and the inuence of the institutional context. The remainder of this theoretical section posits that the most important such transformative mechanism involves the presidential construction of crises.
Interpretive Leadership and the Construction of Crises: A Social Mechanism

With respect to the mechanisms that drive intersubjective change, constructivists assume that understandings and interests must be sustained or transformed by agents in an interactive, social context. In examining such practices, this effort specically highlights the importance of the social construction of crises, or events which are interpreted as justifying the redenition of understandings and interests. Such crises cannot, as argued above, be reduced in materialist fashion to exogenous shocks that alter the distribution of power. Nor, as varied constructivist and ideational scholars have argued, can they be cast as revealing unambiguous deciencies in policy paradigms to norm entrepreneurs or members of elite epistemic communities (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998:888). Such frameworks, particularly as they stress top-down socialization practices, may be misleading as they overrate the scope for elite agency: First, to the extent that intersubjective traditions have an encompassing or societal status, they often constrain elites themselves, suggesting that elites might be better seen as standing on the shoulders of mass movements than as guiding them. Furthermore, a focus on elite epistemic communities is limited to the extent that it concentrates on activities occurring in the lab and removed from formal institutional contexts. For example, institutional settings can shape interpretations of events as they promote particular deliberative practices, either encouraging rhetorical emphases on qualication and nuance oras in the on appeals to sentiment and emotion. Indeed, to make sense of the often crisis-driven shifts in U.S. interests, I highlight the consequences of a rhetorical presidency for policy debate (Tulis 1987). The emergence of a rhetorical presidency actually reects a transformation of deliberative norms, as the architects of the U.S. constitution set out to limit many of the rhetorical practices that now seem essential to presidential leadership. This reected their concern that popular leadership might devolve into demagoguery, or rhetoric based on appeals to sentiment rather than reason. However, such concerns began to erode in the late 19th Century as scholars like

Wesley W. Widmaier


Woodrow Wilson argued that the drawbacks of demagoguery were outweighed by the need for interpretive leadership (Tulis 1987:2629). Given this transformed institutional context, presidents have become expected to exercise interpretive leadership by dening threats and crises and by guiding societal discussions of events in ways that afrm some set of understandings. This involves reconciling one of these variants of liberalism with particular events of the day, constructing a narrative in which events justify a particular policy orientation. To be sure, in explaining narrative choices, a presidents use of one interpretation over another may reect the subjective preferences of coalitional or ideational supporters. Yet, presidential discourses may also endogenously reorient policy debate in a manner that transforms the interests of supporters and adversaries alike. For this reason, narrative choices cannot easily be reduced to any a priori incentives. Consider, for example, Trumans construction of the Cold War as an ideological struggle. This had the unintended consequence of undermining the long-run standing of the Democratic Party with respect to foreign policy, as the construction of the conict as a war for capitalism unexpectedly rebounded to Republican benet. The once-isolationist Republican Partys standing as the more enthusiastically pro-capitalist led it to become the more crusading anticommunist of the two parties. In this way, one cannot specify exogenous incentives to narrative choice because crisis-constructions can themselves be (re)constitutive of state and societal interests. Moreover, with respect to foreign policy change, what matters is less that presidents succeed or fail in any instance than the crisis-centered nature of debate itself, which generates shifts from neglect to overreaction. In the following sections, I apply this framework to show how Presidents Truman and Bush constructed crises in ways that legitimated transformations of state and partisan interests, contrasting for each pre-crisis tendencies toward isolationism with subsequent crusading liberalisms.5 Constructing the Creation: Toward Cold War Crusading Internationalism Into the early 20th Century, U.S. foreign policy remained broadly isolationist, as the U.S. made no sustained commitment to inuence global understandings (save by example, as the city on a hill), to establish global economic institutions (content to free ride on British hegemony), or to participate in European great-power politics. One of the rst major U.S. attempts at interventionits entry into World War Iended with Woodrow Wilsons failure to secure U.S. entry into the League of Nations and a retreat into isolationist normalcy. Through the 1920s, the U.S. remained aloof from the League, failed to act as any kind of stabilizing economic hegemon, and often pursued policies that undermined global recovery. Even into the early phases of European conict, U.S. tendencies to isolationism remained signicant, reected in the varied Neutrality Acts of the 1930s. Through this period, isolationists often drew upon narratives regarding U.S. participation in World War I, such as those offered in Senator Gerald P. Nyes merchant of death hearings, which cast internationalist nanciers as having encouraged U.S. entry in order to guarantee repayment of English loans. While support for isolationism apparently dissipated with the attack on Pearl Harbor (as onetime isolationist Senator Arthur Vandenberg put it, that day ended isolationism for any realist), there existed no
5 Methodologically speaking, this approach does not deny that material changes occur but rather highlights the discourses which frame material changes. Similarly, it does not entail an effort to demonstrate that particular crisisconstructions are correct so much as to identify the effects of crisis-constructions on interests. With respect to the choice of cases, the Truman Doctrine speech has been chosen, as opposed to such discourses as the Kennan long telegram because of its public nature. The Bush 9 20 speech and subsequent addresses had a similarly public resonance.

1 786

Constructing Foreign Policy Crises

guarantee that isolationist forces would not reassert themselves and force a postwar U.S. retreat from global engagement, as had occurred after the prior conict. Isolationist sentiment remained signicant in both parties after the war. Within the Democratic Party, reemergent isolationist progressives were led by Trumans Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace. Wallace openly denounced the policy of getting tough with Russia in a September 1946 Madison Square Garden speech, ultimately leading to his resignation from the administration.6 Within the Republican Party, isolationism intensied following gains in the 1946 congressional elections, which had been won on a platform calling for major tax cuts, reduced spending, and increased tariffs. In this context of victory, Republicans would cut Trumans 1947 budget by $3 billion and prevent U.S. entry into the incipient International Trade Organization. Onetime isolationist Republican Vandenberg warned that Republicans risked conveying the image of an Uncle Sam with a chip on each shoulder and both arms in a sling (Gaddis 1972:344 345). Nevertheless, Republican isolationists viewed early Cold War conicts less through a crusading lens of anticommunist imperatives than from an exceptionalist view, fearing the consequences of internationalism for scal responsibility and domestic liberties. In urging a more internationalist course, Truman ofcials recognized the need to counter isolationist narratives of the interwar period by arguing that prewar isolationism had undermined national interests in global engagement. For example, Secretary of State James Byrnes held in his September 1946 Stuttgart speech that the lesson of the interwar years was that, we live in one world, from which we cannot isolate ourselves. Byrnes offered a further economic argument as he appealed to a Keynesian lesson of the interwar period: Recovery would not occur through self-correcting deation, but would require instead that states cooperate to maintain global demand. Byrnes argued that Germany must be given a chance to export goods in order to import enough to make her economy self-sustaining.7 In Byrnes view, the roles of military balancer and economic hegemon could be mutually reinforcing, as economic recovery might limit Soviet gains. Nevertheless, the Republican takeover of Congress in the fall of 1946 suggested that such pragmatic arguments would be insufcient. Instead, it would require the presidential construction of a more immediate crisis to engender a break with isolationism, leading instead in a more crusading direction.
After the Creation: Security and Partisan Interests

Over early 1947, the Truman administration constructed such a threat, redening U.S. interests as defending neither military nor economic concerns, but rather the American way of life. This would legitimate a tripartite reconstruction of U.S. interests, advancing internationalist views in security and economic realms and even reconstituting the Republican Party in a way that would echo to its long-term benet. The catalyst to these efforts arrived on February 21, 1947, as the British government formally notied the U.S. State Department of its inability to provide further aid to Greece and Turkey. Recognizing the need to overcome isolationist resistance, President Truman, Secretary of State George Marshall, and Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson met with congressional leaders less than a week later to seek their support. However, the administrations
6 In this light, to the extent that electoral incentives might have counseled shoring up a progressive base, one might argue that administration policies seemed headed in a mistaken direction. Tensions between departing New Dealers like Wallace and Justice Hugo L. Black and incoming Truman appointees speak to the ambiguity of domestic incentives to foreign policy choices (Donovan 1977: 226). 7 Speech by James F. Byrnes, U.S. Secretary of State, Restatement of Policy on Germany, Stuttgart, 6 September, 1946;

Wesley W. Widmaier


initial arguments went badly, as Marshalls stress on the commercial and military importance of Greece and humanitarian concerns failed to sway Republican leaders, who questioned whether the U.S. was merely pulling British chestnuts out of the re. Acheson, sensing this, stepped in to suggest that the U.S. faced a more pervasive ideological threat. Later recalling that [t]his was my crisis I had nurtured it, Acheson (1969:219) argued that:
Soviet pressure on the Straits, on Iran and on northern Greece had brought the Balkans to the point where a highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open three continents to Soviet penetration. Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France, already threatened by the strongest domestic Communist policies in Western Europe.

The Republican leaders responded positively to this broadened construction. They also insisted that, should the president want to ensure passage, that he go before Congress, and by extension, the American people, to present his case. While in a common, perhaps apocryphal, telling, Vandenberg is said to have even urged Truman to scare the hell out of the American people (Isaacson and Thomas 1986:395) Vandenberg is more formally recalled as having promised the President, if you will say that to the [C]ongress and the country, I will support you and I believe that most of its members will do the same (Acheson 1969:219). To be sure, some administration gures like White House aide George Elsey and George Kennan warned in pragmatic fashion that the administration was overselling the threat. Elsey argued that the Greek challenge paled in contrast to earlier Soviet provocations, suggesting that the situation in Greece is relatively abstract; there have been other instancesIran, for examplewhere the occasion more adequately justied such a speech. Similarly, while Kennan supported the provision of U.S. aid, he argued against situating it in the framework of a universal policy rather than addressed to a specic set of circumstances (Gaddis 1972:350351). Despite these pragmatic objections, in a March 12, 1947 nationally broadcast address, Truman reframed U.S. foreign policy as confronting a universalized, ideological challenge. He constructed a stark picture of an unbridgeable divide, arguing that, at the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life, with one based upon the will of the majority and the other upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. Not only was the struggle over basic ways of life, but it was also one in which even small losses could have global consequences. Truman paralleled Achesons rhetoric in arguing that, if Greece and Turkey fell, the effect will be far reaching to the West as well as to the East. Having sketched this picture, Truman concluded by pronouncing his doctrine, that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. Trumans construction of the Cold War as a civilizational struggle ironically also transformed partisan interests, as Republicans such as Senator Robert Taft shifted from supporting isolationism to criticizing heretofore-more-internationalist Democrats as being soft on the subject of Communism (McCullough 1992:539). Indeed, just as policy makers like Kennan had warned, the Truman speech had placed the threat to Greece in a universal framework, over-committing the administration. In this setting, even gures central to the establishment of the Truman Doctrine would be denounced for treasonous impulses. For example, Representative Richard Nixon criticized Acheson and Truman for

1 788

Constructing Foreign Policy Crises

being traitors to the high principles in which many of the nations Democrats believe, and Senator Taft attacked Achesons pro-Communist group in the State Department (Clifford and Holbrooke 1991:141142). Senator Joseph McCarthy went so far as to question Secretary of Defense George Marshalls patriotism, a charge that Marshalls former aide Dwight Eisenhower refused to repudiate (McCullough 1992:910912). Truman in this way proved incapable of controlling the political effects of his own rhetoric. Instead, Trumans rhetoric initiated a kind of demagogic competition between the parties. For example, while Acheson had sought in earlier debatesover the postwar British loan and the White Paper on the loss of Chinato strike a measured stance, he would increasingly favor the construction of ever more dramatic crises to demonstrate anticommunist credentials and justify more assertive policies. Acheson (1969:374375) came to the view that the task of those seeking policy support is not that of the writer of a doctoral thesis, and that qualication must give way to simplicity of statement, nicety and nuance to bluntness, almost brutality, in carrying home a point. Over the remainder of the Truman era, such bluntness would be most evident in a National Security Council report, NSC-68, which constructed a crisis of Soviet expansionism, arguing that the Soviet Union was animated by a new fanatic faith and seeking to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world. It afrmed the existence of terrifying weapons of mass destruction, and warned that every individual faces the ever-present possibility of annihilation.8 Regarding this rhetoric, Acheson (1969:374375) wrote, If we made our points clearer than truth, we did not differ from most educators, and could hardly do otherwise. Moreover, this rhetoric reveals the extent to which mass discourses had themselves fed back on elites, as NSC-68 can be seen as an elite-directed version of the Truman Doctrine address. Acheson later conceded that it had been drafted to bludgeon the mass mind of top government, and overcome resistance from Truman, Congress, and others concerned for scal austerity. These rhetorical dynamics would continue into the 1960s through debates over the existence of missile gaps and the meaning of Sputnik, as Democrats remained affected by criticisms from the late 1940s. For example, Lyndon Johnson saw a revived Right as a far greater threat to his presidency than the Left, warning George Ball of the great beast of the right (Dallek 1998:380). Near the end of his life, Johnson afrmed that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness from the day that the Communists took over in China, that the loss of China had played a larger role in the rise of Joe McCarthy, and that all these problems, taken together, were chickenshit compared with what might happen if we lost Vietnam (Kearns 1976:252253). While the Vietnam War stood as the denitive crisis of the late Cold War, and successive presidents would in turn argue for varying lessons of Vietnam in justifying their policies (Isacoff and Widmaier 2003), only the end of the Cold War removed the underlying ideological rationale for crusading internationalism. In its subsequent absence, a tentative reemergence of isolationism would become evident, only being reversed in September 2001. Constructing the War on Terror: Toward a Liberal Crusade Through the early post-Cold War era, neither the George H.W. Bush nor the Clinton administration succeeded in articulating any popularly accessible set of principles to guide U.S. foreign policy, as the period witnessed the increasing inuence of a new isolationism. Despite its success in overseeing the end of
8 NSC-68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security nsc-hst/nsc-68-1.htm.

Wesley W. Widmaier


the Cold War, the Bush administration failed to give concrete policy meaning to its calls for a New World Order. Likewise, the Clinton administration came to power not only professing its idealistic commitment to support democratization and economic liberalization, but also pragmatically arguing for the need to limit U.S. commitments. Reecting this hybrid approach, Clintons National Security Advisor Anthony Lake would characterize himself as a pragmatic Neo-Wilsonian (Harris 2005:108). To be sure, in a process itself driven by crises in Somalia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia, the Clinton administration moved toward a gradually more assertive direction. However, it often found itself hemmed in by post-Cold War intersubjective constraints. For example, Clinton offered one of the clearest defenses of an increasingly assertive view in a February 1999 speech prior to the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo. He argued for a reconciliation of U.S. values and interests, conceding that, we should not do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.9 Yet, ultimately, this doctrine failed to attract either popular or congressional support, something Clinton himself recognized: In discussing U.S. policy toward Russia, he lamented to aide Strobe Talbott that, Youve still got to be able to crystallize complexity in a way people get right away. Clinton continued, The operative problem of the moment is that a bunch of smart people havent been able to come up with a new slogan, and saying there arent any good slogans isnt a slogan either We can litanize and analyze all we want, but until people can say it in a few words were sunk (Talbott 2002: 133134). Fundamentallyin the absence of an ideological threat and given increasing anti-government sentimentsupport for the assertive state that might carry out a crusading policy remained qualied through the 1990s. In this absence of mass resonance, congressional Republicans criticized the Clinton administration for permitting a too ready use of force where vital interests were not at stake, denouncing U.S. involvement in the Kosovo conict. Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles called NATOs pre-War proposal to the Serbs a very arrogant agreement that really caused this thing to escalate. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay argued that Clinton ought to open up negotiations and come to some sort of diplomatic end. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott implored Clinton to give peace a chance and urged him to resolve the conict with words, not weapons (Saletan 1999). Perhaps most strikingly, in April 1999 a Democratic resolution to support the air war failed in the Republican-controlled House on a tie vote of 213213, with Democrats voting 18126 to support the war and Republicans voting 18731 against it. Had Republicans simply wished to score points in a partisan sense, they might havefollowing Senator John McCaincriticized the administrations tactical decisions, such as its initial renunciation of the use of ground forces.10 In this light, isolationist criticisms cannot simply be reduced to domestic calculations, but rather reected a tentative reemergence of exceptionalist isolationism. Isolationist views gained further prominence in the 2000 election campaign, as candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore engaged these issues in their second presidential debate.11 In one exchange, Gore responded to accusations regarding the purported failings of nation building by drawing a parallel with the
9 10

Remarks by the President on Foreign Policy, February 26, 1999; On the debate over the use of ground forces, see Daalder and OHanlon (Daalder and OHanlon 2000: 130

11 The resurgence of isolationism was apparent in the early 2000 primaries, as the Bush campaign sought to persuade Patrick Buchanan to remain in the party despite his America First position.

1 790

Constructing Foreign Policy Crises

Truman policies, asking, [W]hat did we do in the late 1940s and 1950s and 1960s? We were nation-building. Bush countered: Im not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, This is the way its got to be, harkening back to an exceptionalist view of the U.S. as an exemplar. Bush more specically cited the Somalia intervention as an instance where the Clinton administration had redened an original humanitarian mission to encompass nation-building.12 Bush adviser Condoleezza Rice would later underline this view, arguing that the military cannot do anything decisive in these humanitarian crises, and calling for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Bosnia. Once in ofce, the Bush administration withdrew from active participation in a host of contexts, including the Middle East peace process, efforts to dispose of Russian nuclear materials, the establishment of an international criminal court, and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, among other agreements. However, as suggested above, liberalism is an unstable compound, and the Bush administration would soon shift to a more aggressive internationalism, propelled in no small part by presidential rhetoric.
Post-9 11 Interests: From Exceptionalism to a Renewed Crusade

In the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C., the Bush administration shifted to advocate an increasingly crusading internationalism. One can actually trace the evolution of its public discourses from a brief focus on Al Qaeda, to an increasing stress on those states that might support groups like Al Qaeda, to the potential need for preemptive attacks on such states, to its specic focus on Iraq, andafter the failure to locate weapons of mass destructionto a renewed emphasis on the promotion of democracy. On the very day of the attacks, President Bush took the rst steps in the development of an eventual Bush Doctrine, declaring that the U.S. would make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.13 This might still have remained a more narrowly dened policy, targeting those groups directly involved in the September 11 attacks. However, in his September 20 speech to Congress and the nation, Bush dened U.S. interests more broadly, casting bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda as heirs to all the murderous ideologies of the 20th Century and arguing that they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. Paralleling Trumans juxtaposition of alternative ways of life, President Bush denied the existence of any middle ground in the global struggle, declaring that
Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.14

The argumentwith its call for a focus on statesreceived more explicit expression in the January 2002 State of the Union Address. President Bush argued that the U.S. must seek to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction, identifying Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as being part of an axis of evil which could
12 Second Presidential Debate between Gov. Bush and Vice President Gore, New York Times October, 12 2000, p. A22. 13 Statement by the President in His Address to the Nation, September 11, 2001; news/releases/2001/09/20010911-16.html. 14 President Bushs address to a Joint Session of Congress, September 20, 2001; news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html.

Wesley W. Widmaier


provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred.15 In a further discursive move, having identied these states, the administration shifted to make the case for a preemptive strike: In its 2002 National Security Strategy, it argued that, the greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves. It then declared that to forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the U.S. would if necessary, act preemptively.16 This analysis was reinforced by a narrative of 9 11 as caused by a complacence regarding potential imminent threats. For example, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice stressed the dangers of terrorist attack and the use of weapons of mass destruction by rogue states, explicitly afrming, The lesson of September 11: Take care of threats early (Woodward 2002:350).17 These arguments would then be adapted to justify the administrations calls for an invasion of Iraq. In October 2002, Bush argued in a nationally televised address that Iraq had attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes and other equipment needed for gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Stressing the need to confront [Iraq] now, he argued that, facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the nal proofthe smoking gunthat could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.18 This crusading rhetoric had a pervasive inuence on subsequent debates, as Kennan-styled pragmatists like Brent Scowcroft and James A. Baker conceded that Iraqs potential WMDs comprised a threat to vital interests, contesting only the means by which the U.S. mightmultilaterally or unilaterallyconfront this threat. Former George H.W. Bush administration National Security Adviser Scowcroft cast Hussein as a pragmatic power hungry survivor who could be contained, and urged the administration to work through the U.N. to force the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq. However, Scowcroft also conceded that if Hussein failed to comply, that would provide the casus belli we really dont have right now (Mann 2004:337). In September 2002, President Bush seemed to offer a temporary victory to the pragmatists, announcing that the U.S. would seek a resolution in the Security Council. Yet, given the realities of the calendar, going to the U.N. was not a signicant concession, as preparations for invasion remained ongoing. More importantly, gures like Scowcroft had endorsed the view that Iraqs potential control of weapons of mass destruction justied preemptive action. While dissenting over the means to address an Iraqi threat, Scowcroft conceded its existence and the need to eliminate it as a legitimate end of U.S. policy. Subsequently, given the failure to locate weapons of mass destruction, the administrations neoconservative-styled emphasis on democratization would only increase. This rhetorical intensication could be seen most clearly in Bushs second inaugural address, in which he cast democracy promotion as the core purpose of U.S. foreign policy. Evoking religious symbolism, Bush argued that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. Paralleling Truman, Bush concluded that it is the policy of the United States to seek and support
15 President George W. Bush, The Presidents State of the Union Address, January 29, 2002; http:// 16 The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (September 2002); nss.pdf; p. 15. 17 Vice President Cheney argued privately that If theres a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our responseIts not about our analysis, or nding a preponderance of evidence (Suskind 2006:62). 18 Remarks by the President on Iraq, Cincinnati Museum Center - Cincinnati Union Terminal Cincinnati, Ohio, October 7, 2002;

1 792

Constructing Foreign Policy Crises

the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.19 Indeed, in a nal parallel with the Truman era, the quasi-religious manner in which Bush justied this democratizing mission had notable domestic implications, once again enabling a leapfrogging of internationalist Democrats by crusading Republicans. Just as the Truman construction of the Cold War as a ght against an anti-capitalist ideology had overcome postwar Republican isolationism, so the Bush construction of the War on Terror as having divine overtones incited support among Americans of faith who had exhibited a prior wariness to Clinton-era internationalism.20 In sum, the Truman and Bush transformations each reected the combined inuences of a volatile liberal tradition and a reliance on presidential rhetoric that facilitated large-scale redenitions of state and even partisan interests. In the context of disparate material threats, intersubjective structures and institutionalized practices engendered substantial rhetorical and policy continuities. Conclusion: Theoretical and Policy Implications This constructivist analysis offers important insights into the transformation of state interests, suggesting that such changes cannot be reduced to material shifts, but rather stem from the interpretation of such shifts. The material differences between the post-Cold War and War on Terror settings only strengthens these claims regarding the importance of the social practices employed in the construction of crises. While the Truman administration faced a militarily powerful state rival, the Bush administration faced a loosely organized network of unafliated terrorists. Nevertheless, each drew on enduring aspects of a liberal tradition to legitimate similarly crusading policies. Just as Truman redened the Cold War to justify the early construction of the Cold War alliances, Bush interpreted the September 2001 attacks as legitimating a more open-ended War on Terrorism. These constructions also reshaped partisan interests. In each period, congressional Republicans abandoned isolationism and leapfrogged Democrats to support an often more-crusading internationalism. Finally, the broad and pervasive nature of these intersubjective shifts suggests that more is going on at moments of change than efforts by norm entrepreneurs to reshape mass attitudes. Instead, intersubjective structures may themselves constrain elite debates, as reected in the common fates of the Kennans of the 1940s and the Scowcrofts of the early 21st Century. This constructivist analysis also highlights the implications of reliance on the construction of crises for policy stability. While crises are socially constructed as what leaders make of them, they may also come to exceed leaders controlas with the Truman administration in its domestic relationsand impede adjustmentas eventually befell the U.S. in Vietnam. Frequent resort to popular appeals to legitimate major change may lead to an atrophy of mechanisms to enable gradual reform. The result may be a policy process driven by accelerating cycles of reaction and counter-reaction, as crises are constructed in terms of the abovementioned varying isolationist, pragmatist, and crusading internationalist traditions. For examplethough this issue exceeds the scope of this paperone may see a counter-reaction to frustrations in Iraq spur a revived isolationism of sorts, as was the case after Vietnam. In this way, thinking with crises risks impeding policy nuance.

19 George W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address January 20, 2005; speeches/gwbushsecondinaugural.htm. 20 For more on religious rhetoric and the construction of wars as crusades, see Alkopher (2005).

Wesley W. Widmaier


These arguments, nally, have implications for broader IR theory debates. For example, the ability to reconstruct threats over time has implications for international cooperation, particularly to the extent that systemic understandings are vulnerable to ongoing reinterpretation in subsequent crises. Indeed, although Wendt (2003:523) has argued that collective memory of what anarchy was like before collective security might stabilize an eventual world state, this analysis suggests that the constructed nature of conicts may render collective memory a dubious institutional foundation. Just as domestic policy may be plagued by tendencies to reaction and counter-reaction, so the international consensus underlying any global state may be vulnerable to sudden interpretive reconstruction. Fears of relative losses may matter less than temptations to rhetorical excess, as material structures appear less signicant than the intersubjective and institutional contexts of debate. References
Acheson, Dean. (1969) Present at the Creation. New York: Norton. Adler, Selig. (1957) The Isolationist Impulse: Its Twentieth-Century Reaction. New York: Abelard-Shuman. Alkopher, Tal Dingott. (2005) The Social (and Religious) Meanings that Constitute War: The Crusades as Realpolitik vs. Socialpolitik. International Studies Quarterly 49(4): 715737. Bell, Daniel. (1960) The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Blyth, Mark. (2002) Great Transformations: Economic Ideas and Institutional Change in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Blyth, Mark. (2003) Structures Do Not Come With an Instruction Sheet: Interests, Ideas and Progress in Political Science. Perspectives on Politics 1(4): 695706. Clifford, Clark, with Richard Holbrooke. (1991) Counsel to the President: A Memoir. New York: Doubleday. Daalder, Ivo H., and Michael E. OHanlon. (2000) Winning Ugly: NATOs War to Save Kosovo. Washington: Brookings Institution Press. Dallek, Robert. (1998) Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson. New York: Oxford University Press. Donovan, Robert J. (1977) Conict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. Finnemore, Martha, and Kathryn Sikkink. (1998) International Norm Dynamics and Political Change. International Organization 52(4): 887917. Gaddis, John Lewis. (1972) The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947. New York: Columbia University Press. Garrett, Geoffrey, and Barry R. Weingast. (1993) Ideas, Interests, and Institutions: Constructing the European Communitys Internal Market. In Ideas and Foreign Policy: Beliefs, Institutions and Political Change, edited by J. Goldstein and R. Keohane. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Gilpin, Robert. (1981) War and Change in World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Gourevitch, Peter. (1986) Politics in Hard Times: Comparative Responses to International Economic Crises. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. Haas, Peter M. (1992) Epistemic Communities and International Policy Coordination. International Organization 46(1): 135. Halberstam, David. (1969) The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House. Harris, John. (2005) The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House. New York: Random House. Hartz, Louis. (1955) The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co. Hofstadter, Richard. (1965) The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. New York: Knopf. Ikenberry, G. John. (1992) A World Economy Restored: Expert Consensus and the Anglo-American Postwar Settlement. International Organization 46(1): 289321. Ikenberry, G. John. (2001) After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Isaacson, Walter, and Evan Thomas. (1986) The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. New York: Simon and Schuster. Isacoff, Jonathan, and Wesley W. Widmaier. (2003) Systemic Interpretations and the National Interest: Presidential Lessons of Vietnam. International Relations 7(2): 175193.

1 794

Constructing Foreign Policy Crises

Kaplan, Fred. (1991) The Wizards of Armageddon. Stanford University Press. Kearns, Doris. (1976) Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. New York: Harper and Row. Keynes, John Maynard. (1937) The General Theory of Employment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 51(2): 209233. Krasner, Stephen D. (1978) Defending the National Interest: Raw Material Investments and U.S. Foreign Policy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Kull, Steven, and I. M. Destler. (1999) Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism. Washington: Brookings. Mann, James. (2004) Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bushs War Cabinet. New York: Viking. McCullough, David. (1992) Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster. Morgenthau, Hans J. (1948) Politics among Nations. New York: Knopf. Saletan, William. (1999) Yankee Go Home, Whos Leading the Anti-War Movement? Congressional Republicans. Available at (Accessed May 7, 2007). Sanders, Jerry W. (1983) Peddlers of Crisis: The Committee on the Present Danger and the Politics of Containment. Boston MA: South End Press. Seabrooke, Leonard. (2007) Legitimacy Gaps in the World Economy: Explaining the Sources of the IMFs Legitimacy Crisis. International Politics 44(2-3): 250268. Snyder, Jack. (1991) Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Suskind, Ron. (2006) The One Percent Doctrine. New York: Simon and Schuster. Talbott, Strobe. (2002) The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy. New York: Random House. Tulis, Jeffrey K. (1987) The Rhetorical Presidency. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Waltz, Kenneth. (1979) Theory of International Politics. New York: McGraw-Hill. Wendt, Alexander. (1999) Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Wendt, Alexander. (2003) Why a World State is Inevitable. European Journal of International Relations 9(4): 491542. Widmaier, Wesley W. (2004) The Social Construction of the Impossible Trinity: The Intersubjective Bases of Monetary Cooperation. International Studies Quarterly 48(2): 433453. Williams, Michael C. (2005) What Is the National Interest? The Neoconservative Challenge in IR Theory. European Journal of International Relations 11(3): 307337. Woodward, Bob. (2002) Bush at War. New York: Simon and Schuster.