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America's Place in the World

A raft of new books on a superpower that finds itself feeling lonesome.

By Charles A. Kupchan
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page BW05

A common theme unites several new books critiquing the Bush administration's foreign policy: that Washington's go-it-alone tendencies have eroded America's international standing and left the country dangerously isolated. But even as the administration's critics generally agree on the effects of President Bush's foreign policy, they disagree on its origins.

So what are the political roots of Bush's revolution in foreign policy? And if the administration has indeed eroded America's international legitimacy, why aren't the self-correcting and moderating influences of public debate and democratic accountability kicking in?

On March 19, demonstrations in London and elsewhere marked the second anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. (Johnny Green / Ap)

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Kishore Mahbubani makes impressive headway in addressing these questions in his elegant and courageous Beyond the Age of Innocence: Rebuilding Trust Between America and the World (PublicAffairs, $26). He delves into the causes of mounting anti-American sentiment, drawing on his experience as a U.N. diplomat and on his diverse background. (His Hindu parents fled Muslim-majority Pakistan amid the chaos of the partition between Pakistan and India, and he grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Singapore.) Mahbubani explores both why U.S. policy has provoked global resentment and why Americans have yet to demand a course correction.

The core of the problem, Mahbubani contends, is the uneasy fit between a globalized world that magnifies the reach of U.S. influence and an insulated America whose attention often stops at the water's edge. After "convincing mankind that it was an extraordinary country" and spreading "the great American practice of meritocracy," the United States made the "awesome strategic error" of deciding "to behave like an ordinary country," pursuing self-serving policies such as turning its back on Afghanistan after the Cold War ended and impoverishing workers in developing countries through protective U.S. textile quotas and agricultural subsidies. Average Americans are "blithely ignorant" of how profoundly such choices affect others, Mahbubani writes, leading to a country that makes much of the globe feel disenfranchised and resentful. The rest of the world watches America; America watches "American Idol."

As globalization and the information revolution continue to shrink the world, decisions made in the United States will have an ever-increasing impact on other countries. Mahbubani insists that "the insularity of the American debate has to end," urging Americans to accept that they must "defend not just their immediate national interests but the common global interests." Unless America overcomes its narrow-mindedness, over time it will suffer "the delegitimization of American power in the eyes of the rest of the world."

Although bold and bracing in its critique of American society, Beyond the Age of Innocence suffers somewhat from its own innocence. Mahbubani too easily dismisses the realities of geopolitical competition, insisting implausibly that China "has no desire to play a disruptive role on the world stage" and that China and Taiwan, had America not inserted itself into their conflict, "would have eventually reached a pragmatic compromise and learned to live with each other." Mahbubani is right to take Americans to task for being "absorbed and self-contained in their little universe," but his call for Americans to embrace the global village in which they live seems out of touch with the populist instincts now guiding U.S. voters. How, then, to accomplish an about-face in American politics?

Good to Great

Alan Wolfe addresses just this question in Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It (Princeton Univ., $22.95). He contends that political debate in the United States has lost its way and then outlines a program for the country to regain its direction. Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College, bases his book on the distinction between "goodness" and "greatness," two concepts that he believes have informed America's political life since its founding.

The goodness camp embraces American exceptionalism and envisages a country that is infallibly virtuous, but shies away from the sacrifices needed to sustain grand projects lest too much international ambition threaten American liberty. The greatness camp, on the other hand, cherishes liberty and equality abroad as well as at home, and is prepared to amass and employ America's vast power to ensure the global spread of its ideals. Wolfe exhorts America to reach for greatness, lamenting that conservatives and liberals alike have settled for goodness, with Republicans embracing tax cuts and smaller government and Democrats becoming too timid about using American power. "A country that is powerful and willing to acknowledge its power," Wolfe insists, "is more likely to use its power wisely."

Return to Greatness contains thoughtful historical digressions that probe the intimate connection between competing strains of American nationalism and the scope and character of the country's engagement abroad. Wolfe's approach is promising; after all, the electoral appeal of Bush's foreign policy stems at least partially from the president's ability to equate his ambitious agenda with American ideals. But Wolfe's follow-through is lacking. His analysis ultimately falters because the differences he draws between goodness and greatness -- as well as the respective policy agendas of these traditions -- are confused and confusing, limiting the book's ability to illuminate America's current predicament.


Nancy Soderberg, currently with the International Crisis Group, offers a more conventional take on U.S. grand strategy in The Superpower Myth: The Use and Misuse of American Might (Wiley, $27.95). She urges the United States to find the right balance between isolationism and global dominion, arguing that Americans must accept that U.S. leadership is essential to maintaining global order while also resisting the myth of U.S. omnipotence. Her policy recommendations -- "tough engagement"; working "in concert with the international community, rather than clashing with it"; and using "force as a last, not first resort" -- are sensible and put The Superpower Myth in line with other liberal and centrist critiques of the Bush administration.

One of the greatest strengths of Soderberg's book is her insider's account of many of the seminal events of the 1990s. From 1993-96, Soderberg was a high-ranking official on President Clinton's National Security Council (where I also worked from 1993 to early 1994). She then served as a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations until 2001. These perches gave Soderberg a bird's-eye view of such critical issues as intervention in the Balkans and Haiti and U.S. efforts to combat al Qaeda and hunt down Osama bin Laden. Although she is sometimes a bit too easy on her former bosses, her narrative provides valuable material on the considerations and personalities that shaped policy. While her accounts do not offer stunning revelations, they do provide important new detail, illuminating, for example, the tortured debates over intervention in Bosnia and Clinton's effort to overcome the post-Vietnam aversion to limited war.

Imperialism or Barbarism?

At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention (Simon & Schuster, $24) is a collection of David Rieff's previously published essays, with new commentary by the author. Although the volume at times feels dated, Rieff's decision to republish his articles as originally written ultimately pays off. The book conveys his revealing intellectual odyssey as his initial enthusiasm for American intervention abroad sours and ultimately gives way to open skepticism and cynicism.

Appalled by the bloodletting he witnessed firsthand in the 1990s in the Balkans, Rieff became a reluctant supporter of the assertive use of American power, arguing that "our choice at the millennium seems to boil down to imperialism or barbarism. . . . Better to grasp the nettle and accept that liberal imperialism may be the best we are going to do in these callous and sentimental times." Rieff was morally outraged by the international community's failure to do more to stop slaughterhouses in the Balkans and Rwanda. At least temporarily, he teamed up with Michael Ignatieff and other liberal interventionists and human-rights advocates, who in turn sometimes joined forces with hawks on the neoconservative right. This awkward political alliance, which coalesced during the Clinton years, made for a formidable pro-war coalition backing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Rieff's appetite for liberal imperialism did not outlast the Iraq war. In Baghdad, he writes, he witnessed "that terrible move from liberty to force" and saw an invasion "conceived of as an act of altruism" readily become "barbarism." Indeed, Rieff discovers through his reporting in Iraq that "imperialism is or at least can always become barbarism" -- meaning that there really was no nettle to grasp in the first place, no clear distinction between humanitarian intervention and imperial coercion. Hence his disaffection with the humanitarian left and his conclusion that liberal interventionists have only played into the hands of the right, embracing "the same millenarian kick as the [Bush] administration." The "endless wars of altruism posited by so many human rights activists," just like "the endless wars of liberation (as they see it) proposed by American neoconservatives . . . can only lead to disaster." Rieff resists the temptation to drift toward blanket isolationism, instead arguing that "we should lean away from war, lean as far away as possible without actually falling over into pacifism." Such cautionary words are warranted. But the war in Iraq, whatever one thinks of its objectives and implementation, should not leave Americans unwilling to use force when it is imperative -- either to protect U.S. security or when civilians are being murdered by the thousands, as in Darfur.

At the Point of a Gun chronicles the intellectual journey of just one American -- a lone reflective journalist. But Rieff's debate with himself is also representative of the more searching deliberation that is sorely lacking within American society. That debate must move forward if a centrist and bipartisan coalition is to be refashioned, one capable of repairing a polarized nation as well as a polarized world. •

Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of "The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-first Century."

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