European Affairs

The author, Michael Mandelbaum, is a public intellectual of the classic Washington variety. Unlike their European counterparts, whose pronouncements on politics and policy take on weight because of their academic and literary stature, the American public intellectuals try to make themselves heard from the dual podiums of past government service and a variety of think tanks and universities clustered around downtown Dupont Circle in the U.S. capital.

Barely a block east of the Circle, one of these institutions is the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where Mandelbaum is now a professor. He gained national prominence in 1992 in the first Clinton presidential campaign as the candidate’s foreign-policy adviser and spokesman – and something of a hawk amid a covey of doves in the inner circle. After the election, instead of getting a post in the administration, Mandelbaum became one of its most caustic critics, most notably (many would say, wrongly) opposing the first round of NATO expansion in the mid-1990s. In a 1996 article in Foreign Affairs, he provided an acerbic and widely-noticed critique of U.S. humanitarian interventions in Haiti, Somalia and Bosnia under the devastating headline “Foreign Policy as Social Work.” His ideas – and epigrams – have gained wider circulation thanks to his role as a guru for New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. And over the last decade he has been a prolific author supporting triumphal American-sponsored democracy and free-market economics.

His latest book is, in effect, a response to the big negative reactions to American power and policies that have emerged since the Iraq war. Mandelbaum’s treatise describes a U.S. role providing global services to the international community – along the lines of a government providing national public goods. Coming at a moment when international polling shows the popularity of the United States at record low levels and when some electorates and governments, especially in Latin America, are turning away from market economics, it is an interesting contrarian exercise.

In crisp, rapid-fire order, Mandelbaum makes a number of points about U.S. power that go against the grain of much conventional wisdom. Essentially, he argues that the United States is not an empire in the classic sense of holding “colonies” by force. Instead, Mandelbaum says, the U.S. has a genuinely global outlook and a unique degree of military and economic power that put it in the role of the world’s government. (What an ironic twist: for decades American conservatives railed against world government as allegedly manifested in the United Nations. Now in power, the U.S. right wing has met the enemy and – like Pogo, the immortal character in the Walt Kelly comic strip – finds out that it is us.)

The author acknowledges that the analogy of U.S. power to world government is somewhat strained (as are several in this book). Nevertheless, he sees the U.S. functioning somewhat like a police department protecting security. On the economic front, through the spread and power of the dollar and the U.S. role in international economic institutions and its support of relatively free trade, the U.S. acts as something of a global economic arbiter – often functioning for the general good as a central mechanism atop international organizations. Other nations may chafe, but they accept these American roles.

Perhaps the most provocative point in his account of the evolving U.S. role as the planet’s benevolent Goliath is that the Bush administration’s public assertions on preventive war are a lineal descendant of the U.S. humanitarian interventions in the Clinton years. Mandelbaum argues there is little difference between those moves in a Democratic administration and the controversial Bush doctrine. He concludes that postures of this type are not likely to become a permanent feature of 21st century American policy because neither the Clinton nor the Bush version can sustain support at home or abroad.

Among many European and other international readers, some of Mandelbaum’s ideas and assertions may grate. Not only is he disdainful of multi-polarity, he argues that the formation of an anti-American global coalition is highly unlikely because American power is not a direct threat to the territory or national existence of potential opposing coalition builders such as Russia, China, India or, much less, France. The reference to India is a reminder that Mandelbaum’s focus is at once global and narrow. That country is barely mentioned even though the near-alliance between Washington and New Delhi may turn out to be the most enduring foreign policy achievement of this administration. He totally ignores Latin America at a juncture where that continent – especially Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela – seems to be going full-tilt in rebellion against the “Washington consensus” of free-market and freetrade economics. And his discussion of nuclear weapons seems at one point to glide over the most recent ominous development, that countries like Iran are developing them as a security guarantee against American power. Later, he does aver that the greatest risk to the world is terrorists acquiring nuclear technology.

Other arguments may find a more receptive audience abroad than at home. For instance, Mandelbaum asserts that 9/11 is not another turning point on the scale of Pearl Harbor. Islamic extremists, even in their ambition to create a second caliphate, pose nothing like the threat of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. The author, like every other analyst, deplores the excessive American dependence on Middle East oil. Here we see the limits of the Washington public intellectual. These views, while hardly radical, are too provocative to ever make it into the political dialogue on Capitol Hill or in presidential election campaigns.

Mandelbaum’s biggest idea – perhaps insightful and premonitory but for the moment not part of any public discourse in the United States – is that American global power may run aground because of domestic rather than international opposition. As he notes, U.S. foreign policy may be directed by American elites, but the limits and ultimate choices are set by the broader public.Mandelbaum argues that this broader public may decide that it cannot (or will not) pay for America’s international commitments if it can barely afford to pay for domestic obligations, particularly to support its elderly people. In the not too distant future, U.S. taxpayers will be facing bills of up to $75 trillion to finance the pensions and health care of a graying U.S. population.

If the United States withdraws from the world, what country or countries would take up its political, military and economic roles? Certainly not Europe, argues Mandelbaum, because of its continuing absence of sufficient unity, because of its understandable historical aversion to war and the use of force and because of its inability or unwillingness to match its global rhetoric with deeds.

He concludes on a wary note. Should the United States cease to function as the world’s government, other countries will not step in to pay for it; meanwhile they will continue to criticize it; and they will miss it when it is gone.

Michael Mosettig is a senior producer on foreign affairs at The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 1-2 in the Spring/Summer of 2006.