Foreign Policy

Books in Temporary

Read Foreign Policy staffers’ reviews of recent releases on America in the world, English piracy in the Indian Ocean, and mass murder in Indonesia.

America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy

America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, Robert B. Zoellick, Twelve, 560 pp., $35, August 2020

After more than three years of watching U.S. President Donald Trump turn his back on alliances, the international order, free trade, and human rights, it’s tempting to view his foreign policy as an aberration.

In reality, as Robert B. Zoellick shows in this wide-ranging, highly readable account of 200 years of U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy, the United States’ engagement with the world has always been a dance between two conflicting imperatives: the continent-sized pull of the ongoing national experiment and the belief that American exceptionalism can remake the world.

That tug of war has led to seemingly abrupt departures in U.S. foreign policy over the years. John Quincy Adams vowed that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” yet much of modern U.S. history is littered with the bones of those very monsters; a country that famously swore off, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “entangling alliances” would one day end up with more allies than any other.

If the story of U.S. foreign policy seems helter-skelter, Zoellick suggests that it has something to do with the way diplomats think about their place in the world. Unlike many European traditions that girded diplomacy in theory (and that colored the views of such Europe-focused luminaries as Henry Kissinger), U.S. foreign policy has usually been the preserve of pragmatists.

“Over two hundred years, U.S. diplomacy has sought out what works, even if practitioners stumbled while discovering what they could accomplish,” Zoellick writes.

Zoellick, a former senior U.S. State Department and trade official in the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations (and later head of the World Bank), is a pragmatist himself and offers a sympathetic take on those like him who came before. The great strength of America in the World is its emphasis on those very practitioners—the book focuses on the personalities of men (and it’s all men) such as Jefferson, William Seward, and Theodore Roosevelt and how they grappled with new problems as the nation grew and its place in the world evolved. The cast isn’t limited to the most recognizable names, though. Some of the best sections of the book shine a light on the groundbreaking work of lesser-
known men such as Elihu Root, who helped embed the United States in a system of international law, and Charles Evans Hughes, whose efforts after World War I to limit a naval arms race created the template for modern arms control.

Regrettably, given Trump’s disruptive diplomacy and current questions about America’s place in the world, Zoellick’s survey largely leaves out the last quarter century. He briefly describes the surprising continuities between the foreign policies of Barack Obama and Trump, highlighting the contrast with their predecessors. But the book’s focus, by design, is on history that’s already in the books, not still being written.—Keith Johnson

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt, Steven Johnson, Riverhead Books, 304 pp., $28, May 2020

In the Indian Ocean in September 1695, an English frigate approached a well-armed treasure ship laden with precious metals, gems, and spices. The frigate’s captain was Henry Every, a notorious English pirate. The treasure ship belonged to Aurangzeb, ruler of the Mughal Empire and one of the most powerful men on Earth. Every was outmanned and outgunned in almost all respects, but he and his not-so-merry band of pirates nonetheless succeeded in disabling and capturing Aurangzeb’s ship. The daring raid set in motion a chain of events that transformed the British Empire, enabled its hold on India, and laid the foundation for modern trade.

Every’s voyage is one of those rare examples where scholars can trace a key inflection point in history back to a single place and time. Steven Johnson maps out this little-studied moment, its aftermath, and the repercussions in his compelling page turner Enemy of All Mankind.

Every’s raid on Aurangzeb’s treasure ship became the most notorious crime in its day—not least because the ship was also carrying women, including members of the royal court and possibly one of the ruler’s daughters. Returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca, the women met a grimmer fate than many of the surviving men on board. The crime sparked the first global manhunt and an existential crisis for England’s East India Company, then nearing its centenary and faltering. Caught between a backlash in London and the furious Aurangzeb, the company’s managers managed to seize the crisis as an opportunity to reset relations with both the Mughal Empire and England—a reset that would eventually turn the East India Company into the ruthless corporate and military juggernaut that subjugated the entire Indian subcontinent.

Conventional wisdom holds that it was not until the Battle of Plassey in 1757 that Britain’s course to ruling India was set. But Johnson, drawing on the work of scholars before him, convincingly argues that Every’s raid marks the turning point instead. It was then that the Mughal ruler first agreed to outsource the protection of his sea trade to the East India Company, the catalyst for the company to build a private military that would eventually vanquish the Nawab of Bengal at Plassey. And it was then that England’s Parliament finally swore off piracy (though not privateering against rival European powers), laying the groundwork for a secure system of global trade.

Johnson’s book is a fast-paced, engrossing work of narrative nonfiction. The counterfactuals he explores throughout are convincing enough to consider that the British Empire, India’s history, and the world’s trade system would have taken a very different course had it not been for Every’s fateful pirate raid.—Robbie Gramer

The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World

The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World, Vincent Bevins, PublicAffairs, 320 pp., $28, May 2020

Toward the end of Vincent Bevins’s The Jakarta Method, one character describes America as “the land of the great amnesiac.” As protests against racism force the United States to grapple with its past, the book is a timely reminder that the history of U.S. foreign policy contains its own dark chapters.

Bevins focuses much of the book on Indonesia, a country he knows well from his time as a Southeast Asia correspondent for the Washington Post. He charts the country’s first steps as a postcolonial democracy in 1950 to the U.S.-supported military rebellion in 1965 and ensuing bloodbath that cost the lives of an estimated
1 million Indonesians. Along the way, Bevins gives a concise account of how U.S.-supported carnage in Indonesia inspired other countries to unleash their own murderous suppression of left-wing movements.

By focusing on Indonesia and nations not aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union, Bevins goes beyond the typical Cold War history of arms races and intrigue. And as his account makes clear, the U.S. victory involved blood. Unfathomable volumes of blood.

The book comes alive most vividly in Bevins’s account of the anti-communist purges that followed the 30 September Movement, a suspiciously botched kidnapping and execution of Indonesian military leaders in 1965. In Bevins’s telling, the anti-communist terror campaign was an outgrowth of a strategy Washington had adopted as a check on nonaligned countries: funding a country’s military class as a bulwark against communist activity and actively supporting the faction when it struck for power. Bevins tells of U.S. intelligence agents gladly providing kill lists of suspects as the Indonesian military systematically combed the country. The events served as a blueprint for crackdowns in other places: Bevins found that right-wing governments and movements in at least 11 countries used “Jakarta” as a code word for the murderous suppression of leftists.

Although the descriptions of mass murder are harrowing, they become even more chilling through Bevins’s intimate account of the book’s main characters. There is still room for quirky anecdotes of CIA bungling, however—such as a pornographic film co-produced by Bing Crosby that involved a look-alike of Indonesian President Sukarno and was intended to discredit the charismatic leader. (Don’t try to find it on YouTube—the project was shelved.)

As Bevins effectively describes, we are still living in the world created by these anti-communist purges. In the United States, politicians mobilize older voters by exploiting their fear of socialism. In South America, the legacy is even clearer: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s resurrection of the ghosts of communism in no small part enabled his rise to power. When Bolivia’s leftist president, Evo Morales, was deposed and replaced by an ultraconservative, unelected leader last November, it was hailed by Washington as an assertion of democratic will.

Three decades after the end of the Cold War, Bevins’s account raises necessary questions. Did the anti-communist mania of the 20th century make the world any safer? And if so, for whom?—Colm Quinn

This article appears in the Summer 2020 print issue of  Foreign Policy.

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