Max Boot Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Small Wars 
    and U.S. Foreign Policy: Conversation with Max Boot, Olin Fellow at the Council 
    on Foreign Relations, New York; with Professor Thomas G. Barnes, Professor 
    of History, UCB; March 12, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Foreign Policy

What got you interested in U.S. foreign policy, national security policies, which were not the only topics you've pursued, but seem to be the ones closest to your heart?

It's something I've always been interested in. I grew up in the waning days of the Cold War, when this was still very much of a big deal. The idea of confrontation with the Soviet Union, the idea of possible nuclear annihilation, and the questions of how you deal with that were very much uppermost in our minds. That's a very hard thing for people who are undergraduates today to understand, to go back to the Cold War mind-set. I was probably the last generation that was still a part of that, but that was how I was raised.

I remember following in the late seventies, early eighties, the debates over the neutron bomb and Pershing IIs and cruise missiles, and all this kind of stuff. And that, basically, taught me the importance of foreign affairs. This was not something you could run away from. We had a moment of illusion after the end of the Cold War -- this moment of false serenity after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and we could suddenly shut out the world and imagine that everything would be fine, and freedom and liberty would progress inextricably around the world no matter what we did. That was an illusion, and an illusion that was rudely shattered on 9/11. But I've been interested in foreign affairs from the start, and I'm glad to see that the rest of the country seems to be catching up.

For you, in delving into that subject, history is very important. You were a history major here. What is the importance of history for someone who's interested in foreign policy and national security policy?

History is essential for those of us with short attention spans, because it tells fascinating stories and they're easy to follow and they make sense. Now, relating them to the present day is always a challenge, but it is essential. When you think about foreign policy or politics, it's not an area where it's very easy to do controlled experiments. So the way that you learn about what's ahead or what you can expect is by trying to make an informed sweep of history, and to try to draw lessons from the past to inform the present. That is not easy to do, but it has a lot more value than some of the more complex constructs that political scientists come up with, with lots of equations to try to explain what's going on. I think a more humanistic attempt is likely to prove more fruitful.

Max, let me ask you a question. You've written two books of great note, and I know a third is on the way. They're on quite different subjects. You do an awful lot of goring oxen. The first of those books is Out of Order: Arrogance, Corruption, and Incompetence on the Bench, which is a study of the courts in this country. The other one is The Savage Wars of Peace, which is more recent and which is something of an underpinning for your Nimitz lectures. Now, as I am both a lawyer and a historian, and a historian who teaches military history, how dare you, without having a JD, without having commanded troops (though I haven't either on that score) take on those two hallowed institutions, two professions -- along with the clergy, which of course, we don't have in this country anymore -- the law and the military, and be fundamentally, at least on the lawyer's part, very, very tough? Now, you know that's a rhetorical question. You must answer it non-rhetorically, however.

Well, that's very kind of you to say so. This is both the benefit and the curse of being a journalist, that we're always wading into areas where we know very little and we're trying to learn a lot. It can be a weakness. It can also be a strength, because when I approach a subject like military history or the courts, I'm coming at it from the standpoint of somebody who is not an expert, and I'm trying to learn enough to make it understandable to me. And I hope that, thereby, will also make it understandable to ordinary readers.

In other words, war is too important to leave to the generals, and the law is too important to leave to the judges?

There's some truth to that. But these are very complex subjects, and I wouldn't claim to be, especially in the legal sphere, a great expert, or put my expertise up against that of law professors or judges.

You wouldn't be shocked by the fact, though, that Out of Order, the book on the courts, received an extremely favorable reception among quite a few lawyers, too.

I did hear from some lawyers about their own pet peeves about judges and who were glad to see a lambasting of judges. I enjoyed the legal book, but I really feel more at home in military history and foreign policy. That's always been my first love, and I'm delighted I've had a chance to return to that now full time, working at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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