The History That Made the World Today
When Foreign Affairs published its first issue in 1922, the world was still reeling from the aftershocks of World War I. In 2022, the world is once again consumed by crises, including Russia’s war in Ukraine, a global pandemic, and American democracy under attack.
How did the events of the last century shape the geopolitical landscape today? And what are the forces that will drive the next? Please join Foreign Affairs Editor Daniel Kurtz-Phelan and leading scholars John Lewis Gaddis and Margaret MacMillan for a conversation offering historical perspective on this pivotal moment in world politics.
This discussion is part of our centennial event series, marking the 100th anniversary of Foreign Affairs.
“The New Cold War” by Hal Brands and John Lewis Gaddis
“Which Past Is Prologue?” by Margaret MacMillan
John Lewis Gaddis
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS is Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University and the author of On Grand Strategy.
MARGARET MACMILLAN is Professor of History at the University of Toronto, the Visiting Distinguished Historian at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of War: How Conflict Shaped Us.
DANIEL KURTZ-PHELAN is Editor of Foreign Affairs. He previously spent three years as Executive Editor of the magazine and served in the U.S. State Department, including as a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thanks, and welcome all to the latest of our events marking Foreign Affairs’ 100th birthday. I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan. I’m the editor of Foreign Affairs.
Let me start with some bad news. Frank Fukuyama had a last-minute incident that prevented him from making it today. So we will miss him, but the good news from my selfish perspective, at least, is that I was feeling quite daunted by the prospect of having to confine my conversation with three truly towering figures in the field to just thirty minutes. So part of me is relieved to have just two guests, especially because the two guests that we do have are probably the two greatest living historians of diplomacy and foreign policy alive today. So really thrilled to have both of them with us.
How history could shape our understanding of the present, how decisionmakers should integrate history and historical lessons into policy decisions they face today is a thorny and treacherous topic, as all of you know. But one thing that characterizes each of the guests we have today is that they take on that challenge with unique subtly and insight. And that’s in part because both of them base that effort and those insights on truly groundbreaking work on the history of the 20th century and on diplomacy and foreign policy through that period. But they also do feel some sense of obligation, I think, to bring that understanding to the present, as they’ve both done in Foreign Affairs in the last year or two.
First, we have John Lewis Gaddis. He is the Robert A. Lovett professor of military and naval history at Yale University. He is the author of a shelf of important books for the field, the most recent of those is called On Grand Strategy. But I would also note his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of George Kennan as well as Strategies of Containment, which is probably the definitive book on Cold War grand strategy. And then there are many others that would be worth mentioning if we had time. And then we also have Margaret MacMillan. She is an emeritus professor of history of Oxford and at the University of Toronto. She has her own shelf of books. The most recent of them is War: How Conflict Shaped Us. But she’s also written two of what I think are the most riveting accounts of diplomacy and foreign policymaking. One is Nixon and Mao, about the opening to China. And the second is Paris 1919 about the end of World War I and the Versailles Conference.
One other reason why these two stand out is that they both write beautifully on top of—or, perhaps, in spite of—being such important scholars. Nixon and Mao and Paris 1919 and Kennan were probably the three books that I held up as models when I was writing my own book of post-World War II and early Cold War narrative history. And while I cannot achieve to have met that standard, they really are a demonstration that gripping narrative writing can also be full of historical revelations and insights. And that’s also true, I think, in the work they’ve both done for Foreign Affairs. John’s first piece was, I believe, in 1974. It was a look back at the Truman doctrine. And his most recent piece is from 2021. It was co-authored with Hal Brands. And it was called The New Cold War. Margaret’s most recent piece was a few months ago. It was called Leadership at War and looked at the contrasting approaches to leadership of Putin and Zelensky in the first weeks of the war in Ukraine. And she wrote a wonderful essay in 2020 called Which Past is Prologue?
John and Margaret, thank you so much for being here.
MACMILLAN: Thank you.
GADDIS: Pleasure to be here.
KURTZ-PHELAN: John, let me start with you because you’ve done so much work thinking about how we bring history into policy and into grand strategy. And as you’ve cautioned many times, there are good ways to do that and bad ways to do that. There are risks that come with it. But thinking at a broad level, what is the right way to bring history into decisions now? What is the right way to bring it into our understanding of the present? And how do we avoid the pitfalls that come with that effort?
GADDIS: Well, there are all kinds of pitfalls, Dan, because policymakers have other things than history on their mind. They’re confronting crises, as we know. And they spend most of their time on that. But when then do think about history, I think they think about it in terms of periods, topics. World War I, the Cold War, the Civil War. There’s a kind of a compartmentalization in how busy people think about history, which I think is somewhat misleading because history does not occur in compartments. History is a stream. History is actually maybe several streams intersecting with one another. And so the effects of one conflict never completely leave you. As Margaret’s book suggests, conflict made us. History makes us.
And so some awareness of how leftovers, hangovers from one period can affect what’s going on in this period. Just to mention one example, which I suspect we’ll come back to. The whole question of the formation of NATO in the Cold War, and the beneficial effects that NATO is almost universally seen to have had in the Cold War. Those lessons spilled over into the post-Cold War period. And so without very much thought given to the matter, the assumption was that NATO would continue to have stabilizing effects on international relations. But nobody quite thought about what would happen if you continued to expand NATO in the direction of the Russians, or what would happen if the Russians reverted to the kind of leader they’ve had throughout most of their history—a nervous autocrat.
And here we are today with a new crisis, a dangerous crisis, perhaps a point of punctuation in history. I think we will say the post-Cold War era began in 1991, has just ended with the invasion of Ukraine. And we will be into something else. But what we are into now is still going to be the product of the Cold War. And that, in turn, of course, was the product of the World War. And so everything traces back ultimately, as you’ve heard me say before, Dan, to the Big Bang.
KURTZ-PHELAN: We will—we will certainly return to some of those questions about where we are now, and to NATO expansion as well. But, Margaret, I want to linger first on some of those more historically distant incidents, and to draw you out on the extent to which we should see meaningful lessons or parallels, perhaps scary parallels, in them. And let’s start with the runup for World War I. This has been often cited, certainly in recent months since the war in Ukraine started, even going back further as people have looked at the array of powers and anxieties and tensions today; there is often a warning that we are at a moment just like the one in 1914. To what extent do you see that parallel is there? And to the extent it is true, what lessons should we draw from it?
MACMILLAN: I think as long as we don’t see the parallel as an exact one, we can learn from it. The danger in looking back to history, of course, is that we tend to look too much for lessons. We want something that will give us clear guidance for the present and the future. And that can become a trap. You know, the use of analogies in thinking about the world can help us think about it but can also become a trap because we then start to think about the world in a certain way.
And I think with the First World War, because it provides the foundation so much—for so much of international relations. And so much international relations theory actually looks back at the First World War and tries to understand how it came about. What I think it can do is give us a warning. Give us a warning that things might go badly wrong when we’re not expecting it. Give us a warning that we need to look out for things that perhaps we aren’t taking seriously enough. The example of the expansion of NATO, I think, is a really good one that we, I think, didn’t recognize enough how it might be seen from the other side, how it might be perceived from Russia, particularly, as John Gaddis said, when you have a neurotic dictator in charge. I’m not quoting you exactly, but, you know, someone who is uncertain and unsure of his own position in Russian society, and Russia’s position in the world.
And so I think we should use history with caution. But I think we need it because it can open our imaginations. It can open our minds to possibilities. And it can help us, I think, which is very important, to formulate questions. And so with the period before the First World War, we can look at this extremely powerful, self-confident, apparently, continent of Europe, which dominated most of the world. And one of the big questions, of course, why did it go so badly wrong? Why did it stumble into war in 1914? What should they have been looking at, at the time? And what might we learn from that?
And I think what we perhaps can learn from the First World War is the power of ideas, the power of emotions. You know, a lot of Europeans thought it simply wasn’t rational to have another war in 1914. They thought Europe had moved beyond it. And I think a lot of the Western world had thought that as well, until the war in Ukraine started. This wasn’t something we were going to do again. It just didn’t make sense. And I think we need to take into account things that are very difficult to measure. And perhaps that’s what looking at the origins of the First World War can do.
And I think it can also remind us that sometimes people in positions of great power make mistakes. And I think it’s still possible the First World War could have been avoided. I don’t think it was inevitable. And I think we should be really careful when we look at the First World War and look at our own situation. And understand how easily mistakes and misassumptions, and assumptions about what the other side is up to can be made.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah, your point about the assumption of rationalism that we often bring to these discussions is particularly resonate when I think back to some of the arguments we were all having in the run-up to the war in Ukraine. And many of us in the West just struggling to understand how this could look rational from Putin’s perspective. But, Margaret, let me stick with you and jump forward to history a bit later on. Two of probably the most abused analogies today are Versailles and Munich. And they point in somewhat different directions.
You know, Versailles is often held up as an example of why not to be overly punitive in punishing our enemies, and not taking into account some of those emotional factors that you cited. And Munich is, of course, the example of why appeasement is so dangerous. To what extent do you see those analogies as useful or dangerous in debates about policy now? And, to pick up on some of the points you made about the use and dangers of analogies in your last answer, how should we incorporate those two analogies, those two historical episodes into analysis now?
MACMILLAN: I think we should think about them, but not assume that they are set. I mean, I think one of the things that is still very much debated is what the treaties at the end of the First World War meant. What did the Paris peace settlements actually mean? And was it possible? And I think increasingly historians are arguing that it was possible that a lasting peace could have been built, that the League of Nations could have been a useful international organization. And it was, in some ways. And I think we are looking much more at the 1920s and saying: You know, it wasn’t foreordained that Europe would go to war. A number of things had to happen to make that possible.
And I think it’s always dangerous to assume that things moved inexorably towards a final conclusion. There was a lot of hope in the mid-1920s, right up until 1929, that the world was getting better. It was more stable. Germany was coming back into the international order. Soviet Russia was beginning to, in its own fitful way, take part in the international order. And so I think there was a possibility of peace then. And I think one of the things that it reminds us is just how difficult it is to make peace, and how people who make war don’t spent enough time thinking about how they make the peace that comes at the end of the war.
The Munich analogy—you know, again, I think we’re rethinking it. And it’s a matter of much debate. But I think a lot of people would argue—are arguing at the moment that it wasn’t a bad attempt in itself. It was just that the Western powers trusted Hitler much too long. They misunderstood the nature of the man and the nature of his will, I think it was a very strong will, to go to war. I mean, I think he was determined on war, and they didn’t really understand that. I mean, after Munich, Hitler was actually very angry and felt it was his greatest defeat and was horrified that the German people seemed to welcome the avoidance of war. He gave orders to Goebbels that he must really get to work and stir up a proper warlike spirit among the Germans.
And so I think Munich—there’s nothing wrong with trying to understand your enemy, and deal with your enemy, and try to, if you can, accommodate your enemy’s concerns. In a way, I think that’s what containment was about. You know, we call it containment, but in some ways it was an element of appeasement as well. So I think, you know, again, it’s the danger of analogies. They can be very helpful, but when you get too rigid and when you simply apply it like the sort of cookie cutter, and say this is just like Munich, or this is just the period at the end of the Second World War, or this is just like the First World War, then we get into trouble.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. I’m often struck in hearing the ways that these things are invoked in policy conversations at how crude an understanding policymakers often have of the events that kind of—you know, debate among historians becomes much more—much more complicated than the mythologies that these incidents hold. That policymakers are stuck in a kind of crude almost, you know, the middle school level version of them.
John, jumping ahead to containment, which Margaret mentioned, you know, there’s been endless conversation in the last few years about whether we are or are not in a new cold war, whether calling the relationship with China, and to probably a lesser degree with Russia, calling it a cold war is, in fact, useful or misleading. You and Hal Brands wrote in FA last year that we should move past this debate and start to learn what lessons we can, instead of getting caught in this kind of, you know, semantic battle about whether this is exactly like or unlikely the Soviet-American clash. As you look at the lessons for American policy and American strategy through the Cold War, what would you pull out that would be especially relevant to decision-making now?
GADDIS: Well, I would, first of all, build on what Margaret was saying in response to your last question, Dan. In a way, you can see containment as a balancing act between the temptations of vengeance, a hard peace, on the one hand, and those of appeasement, of rational response to legitimate grievances, on the other hand. I think Kennan saw those as extremes to be avoided and saw policy as somehow balancing, walking that tightrope. And I think the idea of containment was that it was neither war nor appeasement, but it was a long strategy that sought to take advantage of other forces that were there—not the least of which was the passage of time, which would itself be an ally. Because ultimately, he believed, the internal contradictions in the Soviet system would cause the Russians themselves to see the logic of accommodation rather than confrontation with the West.
And I think that insight that history is more often a balancing act, a tightrope-walking act, than one thing or another is very useful for students. Because they want to have clear understandings. I think they have to respond on the exam and say: The Versailles settlement was terrible. Or they have to say: Appeasement in Munich was futile. But in life, they will have to make hard choices between these things. Things won’t be that simple. And to the extent that we in our writings or in our classrooms can get them to think in terms of the balance between these things, I think that’s very useful.
That’s why I have found in recent years great fun in teaching a seminar on foxes and hedgehogs, building on Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between these animals. The Fox knowing many things, the hedgehog knowing one thing. Which one should you, the student, try to be? And there is no good answer for that. But there’s enough interest in the question that we can spend the whole semester going through history discussing this, applying it in situations in the past. And if, at the end of the semester, I leave my students puzzled, then I’ve achieved what I was trying to do.
KURTZ-PHELAN: John, one really fascinating note in the essay that you and Hal wrote was about the way historical memory shapes the approach of policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere to confronting these current problems. And when we look at the Cold War, one thing that you stress is that many of the decisionmakers who were crafting containment and other policies, and carrying out diplomacy during those years, were really shaped by a memory of the wars, and were—you know, brought that—brought that knowledge and that very personal, visceral feel for what that war was like, and what the stakes were to what became a fairly successful American policy through the Cold War. The people carrying out policy now are, you know, of a different generation. You know, I certainly fall into this category. The memory is much more of the post-Cold War. It’s not shaped in the same way. To what extent does that worry you? Does that shape the way you see American policy being made now?
GADDIS: Well, I think it’s inescapable, Dan, because if we don’t rely on the past, what else do we have for guidance? What other compass setting do we have, other than the past? And there’s not much. So the question is, which pasts do we consult? Do we consult the most recent? Or the most traumatic? Or the most triumphant past? Or do we expand the horizon and go back further and think more broadly? And maybe go back as far as, oh—as we try to do in the Grand Strategy piece, go back even as far as the ancient world, Thucydides, and draw lessons from that, and things in in between?
Cherry picking? Yes, it is cherry picking, but it’s cherry picking with a purpose, because you are looking for a series of situations which exemplify this need to balance this impossibility of finding final answers with the need to live with the discomfort of uncertainty and manage it. And I think that’s what we really ought to be aiming for in our policymakers, as well as our students—some of whom will become policymakers in due course.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Margaret, you have written probably the definitive book about the opening to China, your book Nixon and Mao, and the moment when the U.S. capitalized on the Sino-Soviet split to make China a partner in opposing the Soviet Union in early 1970s. We’re now at the fifty-year mark from that visit and that diplomacy by Nixon and Kissinger. But also, perhaps more powerfully, at a moment when those dynamics seem to be going into reverse, when China and Russia are converging again, when we are facing both of them as a—if not a unified bloc, as two challengers. What, when you look back at the lessons of Nixon and Kissinger, what should we take from that episode that you think is useful today?
MACMILLAN: Both Nixon and Kissinger were concerned about the position of the United States in the world, I think as a result of Vietnam. And they were looking for ways to make the United States a pivotal power again, and to balance, as John Gaddis said, between protecting the interests of the United States, but trying to work both with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, and seeing a possibility to not play off one against another, but to use the opening to China as a way to put pressure on the Soviet Union, which was being difficult, for example, about a number of things, including arms control.
And so I think what they did was take a step that was, I think, important. I think they expected quite a lot of from it, but I think they were not unrealistic. And they moved, I think, very cautiously. I mean, I think it’s an act of real statesmanship. And I—you know, when I wrote the book I changed my view of President Nixon, who I tended to think of as—in terms of Watergate and, you know, Tricky Dick. And I realized that he was someone—he had a great sense of history. And I hope that the United States, which, again, is a pivotal power, still is a pivotal power, will have leadership capable of doing that again.
One thing, it seems to me, that the war in Ukraine has done—I know we may come to it in a minute—but it has actually put Russia in a much weaker position. Not just in its relationship to the West, but it has made it much more dependent on China. And how the United States is going to manage that new relationship I think will be important. How it’s going to keep in some way on terms with both countries.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Mmm hmm. Is there any one kind of key insight or principle that Kissinger and Nixon brought to this that you think could at least—obviously, the analogy is not perfect—but you think could help policymakers today think through this problem?
MACMILLAN: They tried as much as they could to know whom they were dealing with. And in the case of both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, that was very difficult. Because both were very closed societies, China even more than the Soviet Union was. But they tried, I think, to—as much as they could—to understand the perspective that was seen from both Beijing and Moscow. And I do think that’s important. You know, that you, of course, have your own interests.
But I think you have to try and understand what the other side is afraid of, what they’re thinking, in what ways can you reach them. And I think they wisely didn’t expect too much. I mean, it was a great moment. But they understood, I think, the relationship would take a long time to develop. They were not unrealistic about a sudden, warm friendship between China and the United States. I think they recognized the importance of diplomacy, and of nurturing and maintaining relationships.
GADDIS: I think the other thing, and it’s very important in that situation, is that they were not trying to change those countries. There was no effort to turn the Soviet Union into a democracy or China into a democracy. That was not on the agenda. They prized stability and balance over crusading. And that has been a huge dilemma, as we know, for American foreign policy, which has slid back and forth over the years between these two approaches, these two ultimate goals.
And it seems to me one of the really significant issues that’s going to come up as we study the post-Cold War era is to what extent did democracy promotion—well-intentioned efforts at democracy promotion—to what extent did these cause unanticipated problems that have something to do with where we are today? Putin says they did. He should know, I suppose. And I think there is some reason to think that that would be consistent with how other Russian leaders in the past might have seen these issues.
But I think sometimes we are unsuccessful in looking critically enough at ourselves in this regard. And what is realistic? Can the world actually be made a democracy? Can culture be overwritten to that extent, and made uniform? And these are really significant questions, it seems to me. I’m sorry Frank Fukuyama got on his motorcycle yesterday and can’t be with us today to discuss these issues.
MACMILLAN: Yeah. I think, if I can just add, I think that is absolutely a vital point. And I think we underestimate—perhaps because we’ve lived in a stable world, most of us—we underestimate the value of stability. You know, and the ease with which it can be threatened and unturned. You know, that we don’t have to like dealing with some of the governments that we have to deal with in the West, but if we can deal together to have a form of stability, we all benefit.
KURTZ-PHELAN: John, let me bring Kennan into this set of problems for a moment, before we move a bit forward in history. How do you think Kennan would confront this dual challenge of China and Russia? The focus on China as the main competitor, but a growing kind of Sino-Russian bloc. And of course, the war in Ukraine. What’s the Kennan approach to this?
GADDIS: Well, he thought it was a really bad idea, the opening to China. And you have to realize that George knew quite a lot about Russia. He knew a good deal about Germany. He knew relatively little about his own country. And he knew nothing at all about China. And so when Nixon and Kissinger went to China, Kennan was horrified. And he was not sure why he was horrified. Maybe it was a certain subterranean racism. Maybe it was simply an ignorance of China itself. But for whatever reason, he thought that this was a dangerous initiative.
All of which shows some of the difficulties of a theoretical approach. Because technically the theorists tell us: Kennan was a realist. And of course, in some ways he was. And also, the theorists tell us: Realists love to divide their adversaries and balance their adversaries. And on that one, Kennan would have understood that context within the setting of Europe. He had no sense of it within the setting of China. And so this was one that he was profoundly skeptical about, and remained so for the rest of his life.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Would he share the sense of alarm about China’s behavior in the world and its more assertive foreign policy now that you get in Washington? Or do you think he would have a more cautious view of where we are?
GADDIS: I think he would be very alarmed. (Laughs.) And he would say—probably, he would also say, politely, I told you so.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I want to talk a bit about Ukraine and how we understand this as a historical turning point before we go to questions from members and subscribers. I think in the middle of an event as massive and as consequential as a war, you certainly get a kind of slew of declarations that surely this is a major historical turning point, and this is a hinge of history. I’m curious how each of you see this moment. Are we likely to look back on this as an inflection point, for bad or—for good or ill? Do we see this as, you know, merely another datapoint in a long deterioration of global order or, you know, an exception that reinforces the norm against conquest? How do you think we will look back at this moment, if we were, you know, say, having this discussion at the 150th anniversary celebration of Foreign Affairs? Margaret, let’s start with you.
MACMILLAN: Historians always hate to say how we’ll look at things in the future. But I think John Gaddis said it, that—I’m sorry, I don’t want to misquote you—but I think you said that the post-Cold War period started in 1991 and has just ended.
GADDIS: Mmm hmm.
MACMILLAN: And it’s often difficult when you’re living through something to fully assess it, but I think that is true. To begin with, it brought war to the continent of Europe, where few people were expecting a war. And you can say that’s a lack of imagination, and I blame myself for that as much as anyone else. But it has done a number of things. I think it’s shown not just Putin, but it’s shown others that outright conquest can take land and hold it, can become a basis. So, I mean, in some ways we’re going back to something like the 18th century in that. And I think what it’s also done is forced the Western countries, which of course is no longer a geographical term but more political and ideological term, to think about what it is they hold important and to think about how they can defend it. You know, it seems to be one of those moments where we’re all having to reflect on what we’re doing and what the world is looking like, and what should we be doing.
GADDIS: I think there’s one other aspect of this, though, that is interesting. And here, Kennan would have had very firm views. It exemplifies the danger of authoritarian rule. Margaret is right. Russia is weaker as a result of this. In fact, Russia will be weakened by this for many years to come. It was a decision that was made in a way that many Soviet and Russian decisions have been made in the past—not consulting informed advisors, but simply the autocrats at the top making the decision. Many of them elderly or getting there very quickly. What kind of a method of governance is this? This is something Hal and I talked about in the article we did for you, Dan. Whoever said that autocrats get wiser as they age, or more energetic as they get older, or that their countries benefit from this aging process, whoever said that zombies can be geopolitical geniuses? And that’s the fatal weakness, it seems to me, that Russia has never surmounted.
To some extent, it applies in China as well, certainly with what Xi is trying to do, the consolidation of authoritarian rule there. I can see why they’re doing it. It’s because they’re nervous. It’s because they’re afraid, it seems to me. But at the same time, I think this is one of those viewpoints on which history is very clear. What authoritarians can you think of who achieved what they had intended, who did not produce unintended consequences, and who died content?
GADDIS: Not very many. (Laughter.)
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let me ask each of you one more question before we go to questions from everyone else. You know, I think there is a lot of kind of nostalgic looking towards some of the history that the two of you have written about over the course of your careers. In a sense that that kind of bold policymaking or strategy is not possible today because of changes in our politics or education or the makeup or the foreign policy world, or whatever else. Margaret, let me start with you. Do you see it as more difficult to achieve the kind of statecraft and diplomatic victories that Nixon and Kissinger were able to in the opening to China? I think even Kissinger has said that it would be impossible, just given how hard it is to keep things secret now, to pull it off. But do you see that as a limit on the ambitions or the capabilities of statecraft and diplomacy?
MACMILLAN: Unfortunately, I do. You know, I think what makes good statecraft and diplomacy possible is sometimes being able to do it confidentially and in secret. It’s like any sort of negotiation. If you do it public, the negotiations between workers and bosses, you’re not going to get very far because positions will harden. And I think that is a problem. I think we also have a problem in that diplomacy is being downplayed. Too often I think it’s been seen as something with diplomats going to cocktail parties and in striped trousers, whatever, talking away. And I think we have misunderstood, or we’ve forgotten, how important it is to have people who know a lot about an issue or a part of the world and can advise their governments. And I think we also have a problem. A lot of heads of state love summits, they love foreign policy, because it gets them away from home. (Coughs.) Excuse me. Sorry, I was finished. I just—it’s not COVID, I promise. (Laughter.) It’s just a cough.
KURTZ-PHELAN: John, let me—let me put the same question to you, but with respect to grand strategy. You know, we’ve run pieces about the end of grand strategy. Is that true?
GADDIS: Well, no, I don’t think so. I have a capacious definition, as you know, Dan, of grand strategy, that it’s the balancing of unlimited aspirations against limited capabilities. And given that kind of definition, no, grand strategy is not going to go away. It’s going to be with us always. But I do think it’s wise to keep in mind that when we talk about the distractions of media and politics and all of these things that are characteristic of democracies, this is not new. Was the domestic political scene at the time when Kennan formulated the strategy of containment, was it quiet and amicable? No. The Republicans had just taken the Congress. Truman was supposed to not know what he was doing. Communists were supposed to be infiltrating the government. And it was a very dicey time.
Or go back to the time of the Nixon-Kissinger trip, as Margaret says, Vietnam was going on. And part of what they were trying to do was to get us out of Vietnam. But the distractions of what was going on at that point—think about Kent State, think about the march on the Pentagon, think about all those things. They were there as well. So it seems to me this comes with the territory when you’re a democracy. You’re going to have these distractions. But I don’t think that precludes rising above them or maybe sequestering yourself off from them and taking imaginative new approaches. I think the key to doing that is simply to have the people in the government who can conceive of the world as round. There was a famous Herblock cartoon about General MacArthur, who was showing off a square globe. And somebody said to General MacArthur: General, we’ve been using a more roundish one lately. (Laughter.)
KURTZ-PHELAN: Well, that is a good note to end this portion of the conversation on. Sam, let’s go to questions from members and subscribers. And let me remind people that we are on the record. So anything you say in a question can be—can be used by the press, if they would like to.
OPERATOR: Thank you so much.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question is a written submission from Richard Duarte (sp), who asks: Do you believe that it was a mistake to increase NATO’s presence in the east of Europe, and particularly in Ukraine, even if standing on certain moral values? Or was it solely the Russian Federation’s fault in responding so aggressively to those acts?
KURTZ-PHELAN: John, why don’t you start with this? You’ve written considerably on it.
GADDIS: Yes. I think it was a mistake. I think you have to think about what the purpose of an alliance is. It’s to counter, peacefully, an adversary. I think you have to think about who runs alliances, or who should run alliances. An alliance is not a club that you join, but it’s an alignment that some countries may or should affiliate with. But not necessarily all, because to admit all countries is to weaken the alliance, to expand the periphery, to complicate the defense problems, and probably to alienate that that the alliance is aimed against.
So if you think about the paradox of the post-Cold War period, one of the driving forces in that period is going to be regarded I think, by historians, as the expansion of NATO. Which if you think about it, had already achieved its objectives by the time that the previous period had ended. So how did NATO continue, having lost its objective? And indeed, how could it have played so large a role in what we confront now? There is—there are several very good books to be written on this subject when the documents fully open up.
KURTZ-PHELAN: John, can I ask you to explain the way that you used the Versailles analogy when NATO expansion debates were taking place in the 1990s, to help get to this conclusion? I mean, you recently sent me a piece you did, not for Foreign Affairs, making this point.
GADDIS: Well, it just struck me as a paradox that the Napoleonic Wars ended without a piece of vengeance. The French were brought right back into the European concert by Metternich and Castlereagh. And a long period of stability ensured after that. The Americans and the British did much the same thing in 1945, despite that being the most horrible of all wars. We very quickly brought in the Germans and the Japanese and incorporated them within the international system. This was much less well-done, I think Margaret would acknowledge, in 1919, particularly the isolation of Germany and Soviet Russia, even though efforts were being made later to deal with this. But it was perceived by them as something that isolated them. Historians have argued, and are still arguing, that ultimately it drove them together, not apart.
But that paradox is simply this: Why in the Cold War, when we had the best of all possible adversaries, reasonable people who did not risk the use of war in the first place—the long peace, and somebody once said—how in this situation could we have failed to be more understanding and accommodating in thinking about the position of Russia in the post-Cold War period? That’s what puzzles me. That’s where I’m at a loss still. And I think that paradox, which—keeping in mind, Russia under Yeltsin was a very different place from Russia under Putin. But it became Putin in part, I think, as a result of what we and our NATO allies did. Not thinking about where that process should stop. Not thinking about what the fundamental objective of that alliance was or should have been.
MACMILLAN: There was a euphoria. I mean, I remember it at the end of the Cold War. And after this long period of—and often very difficult moments, when we all thought it was going to break out into a hot war—this feeling that it was all over. But that euphoria I think also translated into the right side won. And there was always that element of the Cold War. It was seen as not just a struggle between two power blocs. It was seen as the struggle between two civilizations, two ways of life, two sets of values. And I think there was this triumphalism, which is understandable, but regrettable.
And it also coincided, I think, with the high point—and I’m sorry—very sorry Francis Fukuyama isn’t here for a number of reasons, but to talk about this—of neoliberalism. The idea that you didn’t need government control, that you should leave everything to the market. And here is Russia, which is just emerging out of a regime which had crushed all initiative and had not left a legal framework, hadn’t left institutions that worked terribly well, being told suddenly that it must, you know, simply have a free market and all problems would be solved.
And I think what the Russians went through in the 1990s domestically is something we have to remember. I mean, I think we didn’t do our best to help them. And the advice we gave was often very bad. And I think we—you know, I think we thought at the time that expanding NATO was cost free. You know, and I think we should have realized. And there was the other factor, and it was a difficult one, that countries emerging out of the Soviet empire, like Poland, were desperate to get into NATO, because they wanted some form of protection. And they were putting as much pressure as they could on. But, no, looking back at the 1990s, I think we’re going to say we missed a lot of opportunities. And we were over-confident in the West and, I think, often arrogant in what we were telling the peoples of Russia and other former Soviet countries to do.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s go to the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is: What are your thoughts on the assessment that the Bretton Woods era is over? Meaning that the transition from a unipolar world to whatever comes next will lead toward deglobalization? And that’s from Michael Holt (sp).
KURTZ-PHELAN: Margaret, do you want to start with this one?
MACMILLAN: Well, the Bretton Woods world wasn’t unipolar. It always had to take into account the fact that the Soviet Union was there. I mean, initially the Soviet Union, it was expected, would join in the Bretton Woods organizations. And of course, the Cold War intervened. And perhaps that was never realistic at all. But I would say that for a number of the institutions of the Bretton Woods period, and the whole hope that there could be management of the international system, began to fray in the early 1970s. You know, with the, for example, Nixon decision to abandon the gold standard. Well, no, that’s the wrong formulation, but to start convertibility of U.S. funds. I mean, some of these institutions no longer began—no longer contributed to a stable international economic order. We still have those institutions, but I think they’ve been very much compromised. And of course, they’re increasingly being challenged by China, which is trying to build a parallel economic order.
GADDIS: I would just add that globalization was an artifact of mono-dimensional thinking about events. The dimension being simply: Economics triumphs everything else. Economics triumphs culture, it triumphs religion, it triumphs geography, it surpasses—it seems to me it would not have required a rocket scientist just to dig into that and say: No, the history’s a good deal more complicated than that. Economics is part of this, but only one of four or five of the great subterranean tectonic forces that drive history. So, yes, globalization is over and we’re into something else.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s go to another question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Gideon Rose, who asks: As we sit here in 2022, post-9/11 and post-January 6th, are there any viable grand narratives of modern history left? If so, what are they? If not, what are the implications?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Margaret, do you want to start with that? (Laughter.)
MACMILLAN: Oh, I don’t know where to start. That’s a very good and provocative question. And I’m having to think about it. I mean, there always will be grand narratives, I think. But sometimes they emerge. And what will be emerging now I think will be a different grand narrative. We are moving into a period, I think, that will be more unstable. But we’ve had such periods of instability before. And we are moving, I think, into a period in which we’re having to look seriously at our institutions and our ways of thinking, perhaps in ways that we haven’t done for some time.
And we’ve had a period of about twenty years where we haven’t been forced really to think about the foundations of our societies in serious ways. And I think what 9/11 did, I think, was make the American people feel vulnerable in way that they hadn’t felt before. Many other peoples in the world have had that sense of vulnerability driven in on them by wars. But the United States had not been directly attacked in this way, with that loss of life, really ever in its history since it became a nation.
And I think what January the 6th has done is make us realize yet again how what we take for granted can be challenged. You know, I think—I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I think it’s quite possible to imagine events on January 6th going a different way. The more we learn about what the president was discussing with that rather strange crew of people who came into the White House on January the 6th and 7th, and the fact they’re even discussing using martial law, for example, to seize voting machines, would have seemed inconceivable before January the 6th. And now, alas, it is conceivable.
And so I think we are facing questions about both the world, where it’s going, and about what’s happening to one of the oldest and, up to now, most established democracies, and successful democracies, in the world. And so what narratives will emerge? Hard to say. I mean, there may well be grand narratives of simply a continually unstable world and a continually unstable set of powers in that world, for internal reasons.
GADDIS: Gideon, I try to get my students to see that grand narratives are still possible, but not entirely satisfactory. So I have my freshmen read Yuval Hariri’s Sapiens, which is a truly grand narrative. But I pair that with John Lukacs’ Five Days in London: May 1940, which is a micronarrative. And then I ask them: What are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach? And this leads to really fascinating discussions. Grand narratives have their place, because it puts things in very, very wide perspectives. But sometimes micronarratives are the more useful thing for policymaking, for sure.
MACMILLAN: Yeah. And I think we’re also realizing just how much a few moments and one or two leaders can make a difference.
GADDIS: Absolutely. Mmm hmm. Turning points.
KURTZ-PHELAN: John, are there moments where the micronarratives prove more useful and grand narratives less useful, and vice versa? Or is it—
GADDIS: Oh, sure. Hariri in Sapiens is—hardly has room for World War II, for example, or many other things. And the students find this very frustrating. You know, some are interested in reading about the invention of fire, or the rise of agriculture, or the domestication of dogs. But most of them don’t find these things applicable to what they will be confronting in their own careers. So, yes, it’s good for them to know about these things. But it’s also good for them to be able to delve more deeply, as Lukacs does in his book, on the turning points that really shaped where we are or have been.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s go to the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Nigel who asks: We are witnessing great revisions in national histories in Russia and China. How will we overcome the increasingly relativism of the perceptions of history? Are we headed toward a clash of histories?
KURTZ-PHELAN: It’s a great point. You have leaders in both Russia and China who spend a lot of time thinking about history and historical—crafting historical grand narratives. Which I’m not sure is entirely healthy when it comes to stability.
Margaret, do you want to start with this one?
MACMILLAN: Yeah. I think there’s a difference between what we do as historians, which is argue with each other—and we should. I mean, we argue over interpretations, we argue over how evidence should be interpreted. But those are what we should be doing in history. But what’s happening with—and dictators often, I think, do this. They take history very seriously and they want to impose a view on the past which validates them, which justifies what they want to do, and makes their leadership absolutely essential for their people. And I think they take history seriously for that reason.
It’s not the sort of history that we should be doing in universities or anywhere, but it’s the sort of history that they see as a tool, being able to rule over people and direct them in a particular area. And the fact that Putin is now sending teachers into the conquered parts of Ukraine to produce the Russian version of Ukraine’s history—well, to say there’s no Ukraine at all—I think is indicative of that. But, yeah, I think—I think dictators, perhaps more than anyone else, recognizes how powerful a tool history can be.
GADDIS: I think what’s happening in Russia and China are not the invention of new histories but returns to very old histories. What Putin is doing is going back to celebrate the age of the czars. He’s putting up statutes to Peter the Great and Vladimir—Prince Vladimir, and all of this. You know, huge statues. He’s going back to Orthodoxy. It’s interesting to ask what happened to Marx and Engels and Lenin in this process? And Putin has actually said: Oh, Comrade Lenin was wrong about many things. Which is what they used to say in China about Mao. Comrade Mao was right 70 percent of the time and wrong 30 percent of the time. The same thing is happening in China. China, the weight of history, I think, has always been much heavier than in Russia. So but nonetheless, it seems to me, that what we see is not new but actually very, very old, and deeply rooted in both countries.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let me linger on something Margaret said. Because you both may have read an essay that Jill Lepore wrote in Foreign Affairs a couple years ago, a very powerful but also controversial piece, arguing that historians and scholars did have an obligation to craft narratives that would help kind of make sense of identity and purpose, and that by giving up that task they had left it to autocrats and dictators and demagogues to create narratives to kind of fill a need that a population had. Do you buy that that’s part of the obligation that historians should bring to their work? Or do you see that as misguided?
GADDIS: I agree with it. It seems to me that the obligation of a historian is to depict backgrounds from which we came. And this is not necessarily to say that you must glamorize or glorify these backgrounds, or you must condemn these backgrounds. But it is simply to say that the background is important. And it’s also to say not all peoples have the same background.
Culture matters. Culture matters hugely. It’s the great, fundamental human consciousness from which we come. And it’s not the same everywhere. So realizing what is different about cultures, realizing what some believe and other don’t and why, and how that’s lodged in the past, these are extraordinarily important things for young people to have. And if occasionally this makes the best of a culture, that counteracts the tendency, more than occasionally at least in this country and in the academy, to make the worst of our culture. So I’m for it.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Margaret, does that—is that in tension with your call for historians to focus on arguing with each other?
MACMILLAN: No, it isn’t, I don’t think. And I agree absolutely with what John has said. I mean, I think our obligation is to answer the question: How did we get here? And I think it’s a very natural question for human beings to have. And they want to know how we got here, what are the forces. What I think we can always do is make people aware that there are differing interpretations of the past, that we will always be asking new questions. You know, each generation has new questions it wants to pose of the past. So I don’t see it as incompatible. I think we should treat those who read our history as grownups, and let them know that we don’t always agree, and these are the reasons we don’t agree.
But I don’t think—and I think there’s been a tendency recently—I don’t think we should be sitting there as sort of judges awarding gold stars and black marks to peoples of the past. I think there’s been too much of that. I mean, I think we all have moral views as individuals, but I don’t think our job is to moralize about the past. Our job is to understand it. That doesn’t mean condoning the crimes of the past. It’s simply to understand how they could have happened. But also to understand how it was that in certain countries governments and peoples succeeded in building institutions that lasted. And this is helpful too. You know, that we need to understand how we got functioning democracies, partly in order that we can continue to strengthen them.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s get another question then.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Sherri Goodman. Who asks: What can history teach us about the actor-less threat and destabilizing impacts of climate change?
KURTZ-PHELAN: John, do you want to start with this one?
GADDIS: It can teach us quite a lot, because an ecological view of history would certainly demonstrate the impact of climate on societies and cultures. So it’s a wonderful starting point. And I think it’s absolutely necessary. The problem with studying climate change is that it’s a very slow process. And students, readers of—consumers of history get impatient with it. So I found it difficult to find a good book that I can use with my students on climate change, because things happen too slowly. But this is certainly important, as Margaret says, precisely with this notion, where did we come from? Well, that is a question that extends way back before human beings were even here. Where did we come from? And still bears on the fate of—and the future of human beings.
MACMILLAN: There’s been a great interest, I think, recently in the history of climate, which is very understandable. Again, it’s a case of us asking questions about the past which reflect our current preoccupations. And historians have been doing some very interesting—Tim Blanning has done a book on the 18th century—sorry—17th century, looking at the mini-ice age, seeing how that had an impact on politics. And it’s speculative in many parts, but it is challenging and, I think, important to ask these questions.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s try to get a couple more questions in.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Lindsay Gorman, who asks: President Biden’s interim national security strategic guidance called democracy, “our most fundamental enduring advantage.” How effective an orienting principle do you believe defending democracy is for U.S. foreign policy in today’s moment?
KURTZ-PHELAN: John, do you want to start with this one?
GADDIS: Sure. I think it’s extremely important, considering the alternatives. So if you go back to what Hal and I were writing about with regard to autocracies and the difficulties that these pose, it’s just common sense that democracy over the years is going to produce more durable, more intelligent, more survivable leadership. Yes, the process is going to be messy and chaotic and sometimes inefficient. But over the long run, it does very well, it seems to me. You have to approach it cautiously. You have to—this is one reason why, Dan, in the grand strategy class we look at ancient Athens, to see a democracy that imploded, self-destructed. It’s important to learn why these things happen and to apply them to current events. So we have to be critical in this. But Churchill’s famous aphorism, what is the alternative? It’s the worst system except for all the others, still applies, it seems to me, in this regard.
MACMILLAN: Yeah. No, I agree completely. You know, democracies muddle through. And they often make mistakes along the way. But they don’t make the sort of mistakes, as John said earlier, that dictators will make, because they’re always open to challenge. And so I do think that they do work. I think where we need to be really careful, and I think we got it wrong in the 1990s, is that we thought democracy promotion—we saw it too simple terms. We thought, you make a country democratic by having elections. That’s Iraq, I’m thinking of, where the occupation forces thought that elections would solve everything. Democracy is not just about elections. Democracy is about a set of values, a set of beliefs, a set of norms. And I think we didn’t realize, and we should have had a bit more humility, how long it took us to get to functioning democracy.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Right. Sam, let’s do one final question.
OPERATOR: The next question is from Frank de Feliz (sp), who asks: A long war is forecasted in Ukraine. Drawing from lessons in dealing with aggressive autocrats, what is the best strategy for the West to adopt to shorten or end the war?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Great last question. Margaret, would you like to start?
MACMILLAN: I think a lot of it is out of our control. The war is being fought on the ground. Where I think the West can make a difference is in the quality of arms it supplies. It’s not clear at the moment that the sanctions are deterring Russia’s capacity to fight that war. And I think a lot of what’s going to happen is going to be decided in the end of the ground. It’s going to be decided by the Ukrainian forces, how long the Russians can hold out. Outside intervention—well, it won’t be outside intervention, I think. But outside support will make a difference, but I think in the end it’s going to be the facts on the ground that matter.
GADDIS: I agree with that. And I would simply add that it’s not our place to tell the Ukrainians what kind of settlement is appropriate. They have to make that decision themselves. They are the victims, clearly, in this situation. But ultimately, they will be the ones who decide the basis on which this ends. We have to give them a—we have to do it within certain constraints. We don’t give them everything, and we shouldn’t give them everything. But if we can make the whole process less costly for them and more so for the Russians, that makes good sense. That’s no different from what the Russians and the Chinese in the past did to us in various conflicts as well. There’s a long history of this kind of thing. Ultimately, though, it’s a tragedy, for sure. And it’s a tragedy that I think simply has to work itself out. And there will be prices to be paid. And ultimately, I’m pretty sure, Russia will pay the greater price. But what price the Ukrainians have to pay before we get there is the tragic question that confronts us right now.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Am I understanding from both of you that you find it premature to pursue some kind of diplomacy or seek out a diplomatic solution at this point?
GADDIS: No. The Ukrainians have to decide that themselves, though. We can’t tell them to do that, it seems to me.
MACMILLAN: Yeah. No, I mean, they’re the ones who are fighting and dying. And I think we have to be very—and I find some of the rhetoric—politicians in England, for example, who are urging, you know, war to the last Ukrainian, I find—I think we should have a decent sense of humility and respect what they’re going through. But in the end, as John says, it’s their decision.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Well, we will end on that note. Margaret MacMillan, John Gaddis, a huge thank you for joining us. Couldn’t have asked for a better pair to mark our 100th anniversary. Thanks for all you’ve contributed to FA over the years. And we’ll look forward to more in the near future. And thanks to all CFR members and FA subscribes for joining today. Take care, all.
GADDIS: Nice to see you, Dan. And same.
MACMILLAN: Thank you very much. Thanks.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you.
This is an uncorrected transcript.