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Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era

Ambassador Eric Edelman, Roger Hertog Distinguished Practitioner-in-Residence, Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, Johns Hopkins SAIS
Adam Garfinkle, Editor, The American Interest
Trudy Rubin, Foreign Affairs Columnist, The Philadelphia Inquirer

April 4, 2016

Christian A. Herter Professor and Director of the American Foreign Policy Program Michael Mandelbaum moderated a panel discussion with foreign policy experts on the release day of his new book “Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era.” Mandelbaum said his book is based on the history of American foreign policy from 1993 to 2014, which he regards as the “Post-Cold War Era.” He called the era a distinctive period in international relations because the U.S. faced no serious threats, and therefore had an unusually wide range of choices in forming and carrying out policies.

Mandelbaum said the U.S. chose to take on “nation building,” or cultivating a sense of national identity, and “state building,” or helping to construct institutions of modern governance where they did not exist. He referred to these policies as "missions of transformation" and noted that the last three U.S. administrations embarked on such missions toward China, Russia, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. All these missions had the same outcome: they all failed. Mandelbaum argued that the U.S. cannot successfully carry out such transformations in other countries. Rather, the people of these countries have to do it themselves. Mandelbaum said the post-Cold War era has ended, with the return of threats to American interests including the Chinese navy in the western Pacific, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea.

The panel offered commentary on the book. Eric Edelman said “state building” was doomed to fail because it took place in societies dominated by traditional kinship structures such as clans, tribes, and extended families. Trudy Rubin said U.S. “lectures” on humanitarian rights and protection have mostly failed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, and China. She added, “America’s effort to reshape the world in its image clearly has not been successful.”

The book has been heralded for its influential foreign policy insights by writers at the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, among others.  

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