The Good Titan

(Selçuk Demirel)
Reviewed by Rich Lowry
Sunday, January 29, 2006


How America Acts as the World's Government in the 21st Century

By Michael Mandelbaum

PublicAffairs. 283 pp. $26

T he Case for Goliath is what they call in the publishing business a "selling title" -- or at least as much of a selling title as can be mustered on behalf of a book that is a sober work on international relations, rather than a partisan screed written to slash and burn its way onto the bestseller list. As is often the case with selling titles, this one is arresting, provocative and not entirely defensible. Readers won't come away from Michael Mandelbaum's book convinced that the United States acts as the world's government. They will, however, come away enlightened.

Mandelbaum is a liberal internationalist, a supporter of Woodrow Wilson's vision of wielding American power on behalf of political openness and human rights, who teaches at the Johns Hopkins University. He has not lost his equilibrium during the Bush presidency, a time when many liberal idealists have gone cold on democracy-promotion just as it has been taken up by a conservative Republican president. Mandelbaum's last book was the sweeping The Ideas That Conquered the World , an account of how the Wilsonian "triad" of peace, democracy and free markets had risen to world dominance. Compared to Ideas , which clocked in at nearly 500 pages including notes, The Case for Goliath is short and breezy. It is substantial and serious nonetheless.

The Bible story primes us to root for the guy slinging stones at Goliath, rather than the overdog giant. In today's international environment, that is a mistake, according to Mandelbaum. He rejects the label of "empire," the charged term favored by some celebrants and detractors of American power. "The United States," he writes, "does not control, directly or indirectly, the politics and economics of other societies," the classic characteristic of empires. Instead, he argues, "America acts as the world's government." At first blush, government is a more problematic term even than empire. On second blush too.

Mandelbaum acknowledges the rather fundamental objections to this idea of America's role in the world. For starters, government is the tool of a state -- that is, a sovereign entity controlling a given territory -- and the international system has no state. Furthermore, as Mandelbaum himself concedes, "In the society of sovereign states the United States does not have a monopoly of force and does not practice the kind of coercion that domestic governments routinely employ." If there's no state and no monopoly of force, there's not much government either.

What Mandelbaum's argument comes down to is that the United States provides "public goods" -- security, economic stability, etc. -- to the world in much the same way a government provides these things to its citizens. Which is true, as far it goes. But Mandelbaum contrives to fit U.S. behavior into his "government" paradigm in unconvincing ways. War in Europe, he argues, has come to be considered as undesirable as an infectious disease; therefore, in acting to prevent it, the United States has become a kind of "public health service." That's quite a stretch.

But the core of Mandelbaum's case -- that U.S. power is so important to the world that the international order would badly fray without it -- is provocative and valuable, given how pervasive the notion has become at home and abroad that the United States is the world's parasite, or predator, or both. Strained analogies aside, Mandelbaum's analysis is generally sure-footed and often original.

The United States does indeed provide many public goods: "reassurance" to Europe and East Asia, in the form of the U.S. troops and security guarantees that keep countries in these regions from fearing attack by their neighbors; a check against nuclear proliferation, through the U.S. nuclear umbrella extended to other countries and U.S. support for anti-proliferation agreements and organizations; and the security, currency, free trade and consumer demand on which the world's economy depends.

The U.S. global role is buttressed by the international consensus in favor of that Wilsonian triad of peace, democracy and free markets that makes American power -- identified with all three of these values -- welcome in most circumstances. The U.S. government isn't necessarily popular overseas, but neither has it prompted the sort of "political and military combination" that threatened states have formed to oppose other overwhelming powers of the past. This is what checked the hegemonic ambitions of France in the 18th and 19th centuries and those of Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th. Today, some of the loudest critics of the United States are the same countries that benefit from U.S. public goods, often with no attempt to pay for or otherwise assume their fair share of the burden. Mandelbaum, always temperate, is as scornful as he ever gets about this: "To accept benefits without paying for them and simultaneously to complain about the way they are being provided shades over into hypocrisy." Indeed.

For all our might, there are limits to American power. The United States hasn't proven adept at nation-building (or, more precisely, state-building), the task that inevitably follows either preventive war (Iraq) or humanitarian intervention (Somalia, Haiti and the Balkans), America's two chief forms of post-Cold War intervention. Bending another country's culture and institutions to our specifications is inherently difficult. Also, state-building isn't popular with the American public, which hints at what Mandelbaum thinks is the foremost threat to America's dominant role in the world: its will. Even though we are in a position to continue our world role at a relatively small cost compared to the later decades of the Cold War, Mandelbaum worries that exploding old-age entitlements will "threaten to reduce public support for any and every other public purpose."

Mandelbaum's writing is clear, if not sparkling. He gives too much summary of recent events, and he sometimes reverts to the trite. (Editors should never again allow writers to use the Claude Rains's "shocked, shocked" gambling scene from "Casablanca" as an illustration of disingenuous surprise.) Nevertheless, The Case for Goliath is an important and wise book. It is a reminder of how much depends on the American role in the world and how important is the (sometimes tenuous-seeming) bipartisan consensus in favor of it. I wish that this book would become a bestseller in France, Germany and other sullen U.S. allies. Those audiences in particular could stand to hear Mandelbaum's spot-on conclusion about other countries' posture toward U.S. "world government": "They will not pay for it; they will continue to criticize it; and they will miss it when it is gone." ·

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.

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