Power Steering

Power Steering

Mini Teaser: Two optimistic portrayals of the international future--by political scientists Joseph Nye and Michael Mandelbaum--go under a historian's scalpel.

by Author(s): Walter A. McDougall

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 222 pp., $26.

Michael Mandelbaum, The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-First Century (New York: PublicAffairs, 2002), 512 pp., $30.

Insofar as there is an intellectual quality to the policy debate over the war on terrorism-and what it does or does not have to do with the problem of Ba'athi Iraq-it tends to recapitulate perspectives that held sway not only before September 11, 2001, but before the fall of the Berlin Wall, as well. In other words, those not inured to orthodoxies or vested points of view were free to see 9/11 as a truly revolutionary discontinuity. Those inured or invested, however, in whatever political or philosophical school of thought they inhabited, have been less given over to the breathlessness of novelty and more concerned to knit continuities both analytical and ideological. Good or bad as that may be, nowhere has this tendency been more pronounced than among those just about to finish major books about U.S. foreign policy and international politics when the Twin Towers fell. Indeed, authors whose books were still in press on 9/11 had little choice but to assert, in hastily revised introductions, that the shocking events of that day changed little and, in fact, confirmed their preconceived arguments. Thus, the introduction to Joseph Nye, Jr.'s The Paradox of American Power defines 9/11 as "a wake-up call" and a "symptom of deeper changes" the book itself was written to analyze.

Nye, an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton Administration, grew frustrated during the 1990s by Americans' blasé attitudes toward foreign affairs. Some of us, he writes, were indifferent to world affairs after the end of the Cold War, while others were arrogantly complacent in the belief the Gulf War proved the United States "invincible and invulnerable." As far back as 1989 Nye tried in vain to persuade Americans that their unique combination of military, economic and cultural power made them "bound to lead" whether they liked it or not. In 1997, Nye and R. James Woolsey tried in vain while in government service to make "catastrophic terrorism" the highest national security priority. Having returned to the deanship of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Nye now means to tell us how to husband and use our power. But the stampede triggered by 9/11 means that he is probably once again trying in vain.

An old quip has it that conservatives speak of paradoxes, liberals of dilemmas, and Marxists of contradictions. His title notwithstanding, Nye is neither a conservative nor a dogmatist of any other variety. He is a keen empiricist, sharp observer and very absorbent sponge. I fancy that his favorite tag line likening security to the air we breathe (taken for granted until it is lacking) was inspired by my own August 1993 New York Times column quoting historian Carroll Quigley. In any event, his present book title was inspired by Sebastian Mallory who observed:

The paradox of American power at the end of this millennium is that it is too great to be challenged by any other state, yet not great enough to solve problems such as global terrorism and nuclear proliferation. America needs the help and respect of other nations.

If that is the author's message, who could possibly argue with it? Indeed, Nye is so even-handed, or rather two-handed ("on the one hand, on the other"), there is scarcely a sentence in the book with which any sensible reader would take issue. He says military power is indispensable, but so too are America's economic and "soft power" (Nye's signature phrase) derived from our values and popular culture. Globalized markets and communications enhance America's soft power, but breed resentment as well. Geo-economics cannot transcend security imperatives, but excessive reliance on the military arm undermines soft power. The United States should seek multilateral solutions, but on occasion must act on its own. The United States should pursue humanitarian missions, but on occasion must abstain. Nation-states remain the primary actors in world affairs, but 27,000 non-governmental organizations act as a "global conscience" constraining their sovereignty. The Information Revolution empowers larger and freer countries more than smaller and closed ones, but also inhibits the power of all sovereign states. Globalization is a boon to the American economy, but causes anger abroad and in time will erode America's lead. Immigration remains a source of American strength, but the post-1965 wave adds little to the gnp while taking jobs from low-skilled workers. As for specific conflicts such as those between Israel and the Palestinians, China and Taiwan, or India and Pakistan, Paradox has nothing to say.

Can one identify what Nye stands for on the basis of what he seems to oppose? Not easily or directly, because he usually takes shots at vague schools ("the isolationists") rather than at named individuals. But it is noteworthy that Gertrude Himmelfarb, for example, is tagged as "conservative" while liberal spokespersons are not labeled as such. Nye calls opposition to global protocols, such as those on the environment or the international courts, "arrogant"; skepticism about the United Nations "ideological"; abortion an "extraneous" issue. Democratic debate itself he finds a "messy" process that "doesn't always come up with the 'right' answers." Above all, the book gives the impression that all the myopia and malfeasance in U.S. foreign policy over the 1990s was somehow the work of a President Jesse Helms and Secretary of State Newt Gingrich. The name of the man who really presided over America's alleged failings appears just three times from cover to cover, twice in the impersonal phrase "the Clinton Administration" and once in a favorable reference to a particular presidential speech.

If we learn nothing about Nye's undoubted frustration over the internal dynamics of the Clinton foreign policy team, we learn a great deal from his excellent chapters on the challenges posed by globalization, the information revolution and trends on the U.S. home front. Unfortunately, the principles he lays down for meeting those challenges are profoundly equivocal with a single exception: he states boldly that the worst thing we can do is talk and act as if the United States were some sort of overbearing imperium. How interesting, therefore, that Nye concludes by quoting Coral Bell's hope, from the pages of The National Interest, that the United States will play its cards right so that "the Pax Americana, in terms of its duration, might . . . become more like the Pax Romana than the Pax Britannica."

If the United States does preside over a manner of empire it is surely Jefferson's "empire of liberty." That is the creed restated as orthodoxy in every official speech referring to 9/11: terrorists hate us because of our liberty; hostile regimes fear the appeal of our liberty; abject Iraqis, Afghans and North Koreans nonetheless crave liberty, or will do so once we topple their tyrants. That, Michael Mandelbaum writes, is because three modern ideas-peace, democracy and free markets-have conquered the world. Not "persuaded" or "converted", mind you, but "conquered." And not "will conquer", but "have conquered", notwithstanding the current war on terrorism.

The Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies and fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, Mandelbaum was also ambushed by Al-Qaeda while his book was in press. So he, too, amended his introduction assuring us 9/11 was not a new Pearl Harbor and did not usher in a new world. Rather, it "illuminated the main features of a world that already existed, a world that had emerged in its first full form a decade earlier but had been two centuries in the making." One proof of that is the absence of any danger that either 9/11 or the American riposte to it would spark a major war: all major nations value peace and the global market, if not yet Western democracy. Another proof is the terrorists' utter lack of a competitive ideology on the order of the French or Russian revolutions: they are nothing but nihilists, desperate resisters. Thus, even though "the attacks of September 11 aimed at the heart of the international order of the twenty-first century, their effect was more like that of a badly stubbed toe." It hurt, but it could not stop the march of history because it "could not dislodge the system that these buildings embodied, which was pervasive, deeply rooted, and based on ideas and experiences that terrorism could not eradicate."

Mandelbaum's effort is more ambitious than Nye's. He means, in the manner of Francis Fukuyama, to trace the gradual triumph of what he calls "the Wilsonian triad." He grants the ideas of peace, the free market and representative democracy all trace their roots to the 18th-century Enlightenment. He also grants Woodrow Wilson was a failure in his time, a prophet more than a statesman. But Wilson's liberal internationalism promoting "restraints on the exercise of power by governments" at length defeated virulent nationalism, militarism and communism. The central theme of world history since the collapse of the Soviet Union, therefore, has simply been the "defense, maintenance, and extension of the three parts of the Wilsonian triad." To put it in Clintonian terms: assertive multilateralism, enlargement and globalization.

Essay Types: Book Review