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

Nye is precise if somewhat crabbed about the world 9/11 couldn't change. Mandelbaum is expansive but muddled, as his penchant for similes demonstrates. Building a democracy, he writes, is like assembling a computer. Maintaining arms control regimes is like assembling a network of computers. The sovereign state is like an operating system that runs computer programs. The international system is like a fixed price menu. nato expansion was like "an unforced error in tennis." The Cold War unfolded like biological evolution, competition among business firms or religious conversion. Wilsonian institutions are like dikes, dams and levees keeping the flow of history in its channel. Those who shun foreign intervention now that the Cold War is over are like hunters who turn vegetarian after killing deer is no longer deemed poaching. Those who resist liberal economics are like the little girl who fancied Brussels sprouts, "but not enough to eat them." Establishing liberal security and economic institutions is less like architecture than horticulture. Foreign aid is like candy, a source of quick energy but unhealthy. Opponents of the Wilsonian triad are like Harpo Marx in Duck Soup, tearing up a diplomatic dispatch because "he gets mad he can't read."1

Mandelbaum concedes that civilization has its discontents. He echoes Nye in acknowledging that the global triumph of liberalism will widen the gap between rich and poor, cause alienation and anxiety, increase pollution and exacerbate global warming. But "the only thing worse than the triumph of the ideas that conquered the world is their defeat." Will they triumph? In his introduction the author assures us they already have. Why then, does he conclude that introduction with a promise to tell readers "everything important about the history of the twenty-first century except its outcome"?

Most imperial outcomes are at best ambivalent and complicated. Rome's glory began to fade by dint of its own corruption even before the days of Caesar Augustus. But residual civic pride, habits of statesmanship and the grit to exterminate rebels permitted its empire to survive another five centuries. Britannia's glory began to fade by dint of its industrial decline and moral self-doubt. But courage in the face of adversity, tactical virtuosity and a stiff upper lip permitted its empire to survive another five decades. Now that September 11 has obliged Americans to confess to an empire, our task is somehow to resist corruption, decline and self-doubt, thereby proving John Quincy Adams wrong when he warned America might become "dictatress of the world" only to lose her own spirit. Nye and Mandelbaum rightly remind us that our spirit is what brought us this far in the first place. But only the owl of Minerva, decades or centuries hence, can tell us whether a Wilsonian empire is a contradiction-or paradox.

Essay Types: Book Review