Several years ago, Thomas H. Henriksen, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, decided to undertake an ambitious project: He set out to describe U.S. foreign policy in the nearly two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Determined to wade through the rush of complex events to see if there were discernible patterns in U.S. policies, Henriksen also wanted to assess what lessons these years could provide for the future. Henriksen’s account, “American Power After the Berlin Wall,” was recently published and has garnered praise as a creative and ambitious work of contemporary history.
In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Henriksen said it was challenging to sort through the raft of events since the end of the Cold War, weigh their relative importance, and try to see clear patterns that can inform and instruct policymakers and students of history.
“I found that there was no book that dealt in a comprehensive way with what has happened since the Berlin Wall. There was nothing tying it together, and I kept thinking that there needs to be,” he explained. “This is a 20-year period in American history. There has probably been no other 20-year period in American history that hasn’t been overanalyzed. But writing this book was hard because I was the first one.”
A senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the U.S. Joint Special Operations University, Henriksen is also a trustee of the George C. Marshall Foundation. He specializes in U.S. foreign policy, defense issues and counterterrorism, and has written or edited 12 books and monographs as well as numerous articles. Henriksen received a bachelor’s degree from the Virginia Military Institute and master’s and doctorate degrees from Michigan State University.
Friendly and soft-spoken, Henriksen works in a book-cluttered office on Stanford University’s campus. He believes that U.S. power was profoundly transformed by the fall of the Soviet Union, and since the demise of this fierce, nearly 70-year rivalry, the United States has struggled to find its way in an unfamiliar and complicated world.
Henriksen describes the post-Iron Curtain period as a tumultuous time. Rather than peace and tranquility, there has been war and dislocation. In response to this often chaotic world, the United States has dispatched everything from diplomats and soldiers to bombers and relief ships.
The administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush each confronted unique problems during their times in power. The first Bush, according to Henriksen, performed well in ending the Cold War and waging the first Gulf War. “I think Bush [Sr.] did a magnificent job in handling the collapse of the Soviet Union. He didn’t overplay his hand.”
Clinton, meanwhile, faced complex political and humanitarian challenges in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo. “Clinton was a little slow in dealing with Bosnia, but when he got involved, he did a pretty good job. He got better over time,” said Henriksen, who also credits Clinton for understanding the challenges and opportunities created by globalization.
The current President Bush began with a domestic focus and modestly declared foreign policy intentions, but his presidency has been largely consumed by the war on terrorism and Iraq.
Henriksen said it’s helpful to examine U.S. foreign policy since 1989 through the prism of American interventions around the world. The United States has confronted and responded to myriad challenges ranging from rogue states to failed nations to terrorist attacks to humanitarian tragedies to insurgencies and wars.
“We have done interventions in the past many times, especially in our sphere of influence such as the Caribbean. We’ve done them fairly frequently—and not just to spread democracy, but to stabilize things, to bring calm. Great powers worry about stability. They want change sometimes—but slowly, moderately, and in ways that serve their interests. No great power wants too much excitement on its borders,” he said.
According to Henriksen, the initial forays to promote democracy abroad went well in Panama, Haiti, Bosnia, Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Bolstered by these victories, possessing matchless military power and then shaken by 9/11, the United States decided to launch much more ambitious military interventions in Afghanistan and eventually Iraq.
On Afghanistan, Henriksen believes the Bush administration was surprised by how smoothly the military operation there went and was also encouraged by Afghanistan’s fledgling experience with democracy. “There was a feeling that democracy would solve all problems,” he said.
But that clearly has not been the case in Iraq, where Henriksen points out important lessons to be learned from the U.S. struggles in that war-torn nation. He noted that prior to the U.S. invasion in Iraq, the initial plan was to deploy 700,000 troops, but ultimately the United States only went in with 137,000 troops—a decision that has proven ill-advised. “It takes more troops to police an area than to knock out a foreign army,” Henriksen said.
Although it remains unclear how Iraq will turn out, Henriksen, like many other scholars, believes the situation does not look encouraging.
“Right now it looks pretty bleak, a strategic blunder. There have been some positives: We got rid of Saddam Hussein, and we know pretty conclusively there aren’t weapons of mass destruction there. But it’s a war we might have been able to avoid. We may have uncorked regional problems between Shiites and Sunnis that were brewing since 1979. It’s going to tie the U.S. down for a long time.”
Henriksen said the American misadventure in Iraq also raises broader questions about the U.S. government’s new focus on trying to transplant democracy to the Middle East.
“I do think democracy will come to the Middle East, but it will take time and it’s not just holding elections. It’s about other institutions such as free speech. And a foreign occupation force is not the best way to try to spread democracy. Spreading democracy by bayonet doesn’t work,” he said.
“The Middle East is different,” he added. “There is resentment of the infidels—the Christians, the Jews—who come in and take over sacred Islamic territory. I don’t think invading a country and occupying it is a viable strategy against radical Islam. It won’t work. We have to find another strategy.”
That strategy, he said, should involve supporting moderate elements in key countries; working closely with local governments; forging strong alliances; developing better intelligence capabilities; encouraging economic development in the region; becoming more knowledgeable about Islam; training more Arabic speakers; setting a new energy policy to make the United States less reliant on Middle East oil; and learning the art of patience.
“We can’t over-engineer things. We will probably lose some countries to radical Islam, but we need to cultivate and support moderate elements of Islam to help Islam return to a great faith religion,” Henriksen argued.
“It will be a long struggle to spread democracy and to defeat terrorism,” he admitted. “It’s not going to be easy. It is going to be hard to get right. Democracy is important, but getting young men in Islamic nations employed might be just as important.”
And although terrorism is a serious threat to the United States, Henriksen is convinced that it will eventually fade as the dominant issue in U.S. foreign policy.
“These religious wars and these fanaticisms do recede. People burn out. Things change. The younger generation will not go along with all of the ideas of the older generation,” he said. “I don’t think terrorism will be the dominant paradigm forever. Terrorism will be a concern, especially if terrorists get nuclear weapons, but we can’t let this consume us.”
Moreover, Henriksen stressed that the United States doesn’t have to invade, occupy and rebuild civic institutions in response to every threat. Instead, the nation should resume its historic role as a symbol of hope and an example of democracy. This means U.S. leaders should speak out for liberty and human rights—containing and deterring in some cases, sanctioning and isolating in others, and bombing and launching missile strikes in still others.
“By husbanding our strength, backing our friends, proclaiming an anti-jihadi message, tracking down terrorists, and keeping faith with humanitarian and democratic values—while avoiding massive military occupations to export democratic governance—America will prevail over Islamic extremism and see democracy sprout from its own roots across the Middle East.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.