By Leslie H. Gelb
Read a Q&A with author Leslie Gelb about his new book.
In another era, it would be inconceivable that the ruler of a small, defenseless island would successfully defy the writ of the world’s most powerful nation. Yet Fidel Castro, Cuba’s dictator, has done just that, living to thumb his nose at 10 American presidents (and counting).
Castro’s defiant longevity frames the central insight of Leslie Gelb’s new book: power in the post World War II era ain’t what it used to be. To be sure, power is still what it always was: the ability to make others do what they do not want to do. But the levers and channels of power, Gelb argues, have changed in profound and revolutionary ways.
In “Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue U.S. Foreign Policy,” Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, seeks to not only restore a proper understanding of what power is (hint: it’s not soft, smart, or hard), but also how to wield it in the 21st century. In an accessible, occasionally acerbic style, Gelb sets upon a task he likens to Machiavelli’s famous 1593 discourse on power, The Prince, penning an open letter to the president and those who hold the fate of American power in their hands.
To set the stage, Gelb offers a quick canvas on the state of power in the world today. He bucks the emerging conventional wisdom that America has been (or is about to be) knocked off her perch. Unlike his peer at the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, Gelb does not believe the U.S. is entering an era of “non-polarity” where no one power center dominates. And – sorry, Tom Friedman - the world isn’t flat, either. Instead, Gelb writes, the world is a pyramid, with the U.S. on top.
The U.S. remains the world’s most powerful nation not simply because of its economic might and military prowess, but because unlike China or India, it is the only nation capable of leadership on a global scale to address global problems. America is also the “balancer of last resort” – the one nation others will turn to for defense against neighboring rivals. No other nation can boast the same.
Yet even if Washington remains the alpha male, it cannot simply get its way through sheer force of will, military exertion or clever diplomacy. Countries such as China, Germany, France, India and Russia that sit beneath the U.S. in the global pyramid may not be able to push the U.S. around, but they can throw enough sand in the gears to grind down our momentum. There is nothing in history, Gelb asserts, akin to this interdependence. The U.S. cannot succeed without other nations, nor can other nations succeed without us.
This “mutual indispensability,” he writes, is the “central operating principle for power in the 21st century.” America must harness this dynamic to advance her interests, Gelb writes.
This insight may, at first, appear to undermine Gelb’s contention that the U.S. is indeed at the top of the pyramid instead of just one powerful nation among many. After all, if the U.S. cannot compel nations to submit to our demands, can we really be said to be powerful?
The answer lies in a crucial conclusion: the U.S. is powerful, but her expectations are unrealistic. Enter the book’s sub-title. To Gelb, common sense entails keeping America’s goals attainable (and hence, modest) and clipping her rhetorical wings. Gelb’s prescription would have the U.S. making fewer promises about ending tyranny around the world, and cutting more deals such as the one that disarmed Libya while leaving an autocrat in power.
In the book’s most persuasive and damning chapter, Gelb issues a stark warning: “every great nation or empire ultimately rots from within.” The U.S., while powerful, is in a precarious position. Its foreign policy community is largely ignorant of economics, Gelb argues, leaving it unprepared for wielding the principle power of the 21st century.
Worse, however, is what Gelb calls the “demons” of America’s foreign policy – “principles, politics and the arrogance of power.” This terrible triumvirate often conspires to undermine American power, Gelb says, by forcing its leaders to overstate (and over-react) to foreign threats and overestimate American capabilities.
“Power Rules” does have its discordant moments. Gelb warns frequently against nation building but also urges the U.S. to use military force to stop genocides. To stand idly by, he writes, will make the public cynical. Why such cynicism is a greater threat than the mission creep or potential blowback such interventions engender is never addressed.
Still, Gelb’s blunt realism is a refreshing tonic to the prevailing sanctimony that often characterizes the debate over U.S. foreign policy. It synthesizes the essential realist insight that international relations is, at its heart, a struggle for and about power, with the liberal internationalist understanding that power is magnified through cooperation. It is grounded in a healthy and, alas, rare respect for the limits, and dangers, of power even as it offers useful advice on how to wield it. Our modern day “Prince” could do far worse than heed its advice.