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.


WHEN HE'S not entertaining us with his commentary on the foibles of the elite, Gelb is outlining his own advice, quite obviously based on his definition of power. And this is one of the greater services of the book: going back to a realpolitik definition of power. This is not as simple as it sounds. He again has to take on his foreign-policy-community colleagues. Enthusiasts of "soft power" like his former-Carter administration cohort Joseph Nye believe that persuasion is an element of power. Neoconservatives like the Washington Post 's Charles Krauthammer are more comfortable with a definition that confines itself to the application of military force and the exercise of will. The number of power definitions has now metastasized beyond control, to the point where the term possesses a Potter Stewart-like quality-people only know power when they see it.

Gelb will have none of this conceptual fuzziness: "Persuasion, values, and the use of force can and often do flow into power, but at its core, power is psychological and political pressure." Power Rules takes care to distinguish this definition from either persuasion or the use of force. Persuasion only happens if power is successfully wielded. And one only has to use force if power has failed. Gelb does state that while force should not be ruled out in crisis situations, if the situation has gotten that bad, it probably means power resources alone were not enough. In late 2002, for example, the Bush administration's rhetorical and military threats successfully secured a unanimous Security Council resolution to authorize aggressive WMD inspections in Iraq. The 2003 invasion, on the other hand, represented a failure of power to change Saddam Hussein's behavior.

In his advice about the exercise of power, Gelb raises some warning flags and issues some cautionary notes. He praises the role that deterrence can play in dealing with America's adversaries, noting that it "has worked on almost all occasions when presidents positioned it clearly and firmly." And at this point it applies most immediately to Iran. Bottom line, though he'd rather Tehran not have nuclear weapons, he is not overly concerned with the possibility. Gelb argues that America's deterrent capability will limit their utility beyond the self-preservation of the regime.

He also observes that the dynamics of power politics have changed over the past century. The ability of the weak to resist the strong (on the weak's turf) has grown rapidly in recent decades. A hundred years ago, any colonial power could have subjugated Somalia with a minimum of fuss; in the twenty-first century, despite prior efforts by the United States and United Nations, a stateless society persists in the Horn of Africa.

Essay Types: Book Review