As a historian by training, I’ve never lost sight of the value of the past in conceptualizing and executing U.S. foreign policy. History teaches humility, prudence, and realism and is a safeguard against what one historian described as the two principal transgressions of great powers who willfully ignore it: the sins of omniscience and omnipotence.
Throughout my nearly twenty-five years at the U.S. Department of State, where I focused on Middle Eastern issues, especially Arab-Israeli negotiations, the lessons of history were not always observed to say the least. The failures of the past should not be a prison that binds policymakers and breeds only risk-aversion. But neither can the United States afford to neglect mistakes that could provide teachable moments. When the State Department failed at war or peacemaking, both under Republican and Democratic administrations, it was almost always a result of seeing the world not the way it was but the way we wanted it to be. Indeed, we wrongly untethered our policies from the realities of the past, the limits of our own power, and the willfulness of smaller powers driven by their own geography and history. For the last dozen years at the Woodrow Wilson Center, I had the privilege of exploring many of these themes in writing books and articles on the Arab-Israeli negotiations and the history of the U.S. presidency and in programming public conversations on the central foreign policy issues of the day with wonderful colleagues.
I’m honored now to have the privilege of joining Carnegie where, together with another remarkable group of colleagues, I will have an opportunity to explore these themes further, specifically focusing on the challenges that confront U.S. foreign policy in the twenty-first century. In many respects, the United States has acted far too often as a kind of modern day Gulliver, wandering around in a world it does not understand well enough, bound by its own illusions and the policies of any number of smaller and larger powers whose interests are different from our own.
The Middle East may be exhibit A in this drama. But it also plays out on a much broader stage. The United States must learn to operate effectively in a multipolar world where it alone is no longer the dominant power, where a growing number of nationalistic and assertive powers are jealously guarding their independence. This is a world the United States can neither easily withdraw from nor transform. In this shifting international landscape, the United States will need to strike the right balance between excessive risk-aversion and readiness in choosing among what is likely to be, in most circumstances, a constrained set of policy options. Making that approach effective requires a clear and honest debate about the critical issues facing the United States; understanding the relationship between U.S. objectives and the means by which it may achieve them; defining and prioritizing U.S. national interests; and acknowledging that other nations with which it deals have legitimate interests as well and, in many cases, the power to achieve them despite American resistance.
Together with my Carnegie colleagues I am looking forward—through dialogue, debate, programming initiatives, scholarship, and interaction with Washington’s think tank and university community—to exploring these and other issues. There are few more important challenges today than helping debate and shape a prudent, realistic, and effective foreign policy for the United States. And Carnegie can continue to play a vital role in that effort.
Aaron David Miller can be reached at Aaron.Miller@ceip.org.