Machiavelli Revisited

March 2, 2009 Topics: Society Regions: Americas Tags: Niccolò Machiavelli

Machiavelli Revisited

Mini Teaser: With great power comes great responsibility. But Washington is adrift and our country in search of a strategy. Foreign-policy heavyweight Les Gelb wittily channels a master to update the classic realpolitik definition of power.

by Author(s): Daniel W. Drezner

Leslie H. Gelb , Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (New York: Harper, 2009), 352 pp., $27.99.


RICHARD NEUSTADT and Ernest May, in their classic work on statecraft, Thinking in Time , tell a revealing anecdote about the early months of the Carter administration. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and his team were jetting off to Moscow with a secret, dramatic proposal for deep cuts in nuclear weapons by both sides. Vance was filled with optimism about the chances of an arms-control breakthrough. Only one official expressed any pessimism-Leslie H. Gelb, Vance's assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs. Gelb bet Vance a dollar that the proposal would be rejected without so much as the politeness of a counterproposal. As it turns out, Gelb was right-the Soviets were annoyed by the absence of any advance work and rejected the proposal outright. Gelb left the administration after two years and ended up voting for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Fast forward thirty-two years. Another Democratic administration is coming to power after a wholesale rejection of eight years of Republican rule. Gelb is now the personification of the foreign-policy community. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent and columnist for the New York Times , and followed that with a successful stint as president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He served in two administrations in senior Defense and State Department posts, was director of the Pentagon Papers project and recently advised Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Gelb possesses enough gravitas to sink a battleship. Now he has written his magnum opus, Power Rules .

In an effort to avoid seeing history repeat itself as farce, Gelb has penned a "how-to" manual for Barack Obama and his foreign-policy team. He has set a high bar for himself, consciously patterning his book after Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince . Ordinarily, such a risky gambit is a gift for the reviewer-the author will have inevitably hoisted himself with his own petard, and the reviewer can show off all of the ways in which the book du jour falls short of the famous Florentine's masterwork. Fortunately, in this case the ready critique is not so easy. It is to Gelb's credit that Power Rules is striking more for its similarities than its differences with The Prince . Like Machiavelli, Gelb gets to the nub of hard truths about power and statecraft in a complex world. He tackles how to deal with adversaries, cajole recalcitrant allies and manage domestic rivals in matters of foreign policy. Power Rules misses the mark on occasion-but compared with the glut of grand-strategy books currently in circulation, it is a damned sight better than most.


POWER RULES most clearly echoes Machiavelli in its awareness of the linkages between domestic politics and international relations. In his listing of uncomfortable truths, Gelb notes that in one's choice of political allies, "[Moderates] make for weak allies in crises, where the day usually goes to the passionate, ruthless, and most undemocratically organized."

One wonders how many allies Gelb will have left once this book hits store shelves. In the juicier bits of Power Rules , Gelb is unsparing in his assessment of the U.S. foreign-policy community. Thomas Friedman, his successor at the New York Times , and Richard Haass, who took over for him at the Council on Foreign Relations, take it on the chin at various junctures, as Gelb wittily explains why the world is neither flat nor nonpolar, rebutting each of those men's own personal slogans. He also notes that these doctrinal disputes do not amount to much on the big questions: "While foreign policy experts usually battle each other over policy, they tend to follow presidents to war together." Lest one think that Gelb is picking on think tankers alone, he lets journalists have it as well: "Journalists suffer from a further disadvantage in covering the range of foreign, security, and international economic issues: they are not, as a group, overburdened with background and knowledge in these subjects." Furthermore, Gelb posits that journalists act in a procyclical fashion. When presidents are popular, they are treated with kid gloves; when they are unpopular, the media will dogpile on with unabashed glee.

In general, Gelb evinces a bemused disdain for the nonpresidential components of the foreign-policy machine. Not surprisingly, therefore, Power Rules argues that both domestic and foreign observers underestimate the power of the president in foreign-policy matters:

Presidential power over the making of foreign policy rests not only on formidable constitutional and political strengths, and on the deference given to the president as commander in chief, but also on the weakness of his competitors, whose limitations are generally underestimated, especially by themselves. The cast includes the think tanks, the nongovernmental organizations, the media, the lobbies, and the executive branch bureaucracy.
Essay Types: Book Review