Book Notes

Small Ones on the Big Issues

(Chuck Burton/associated Press)
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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Even strapping baseball sluggers shorten up on the bat to lay down a bunt from time to time, and this spring three writers known for their intellectual muscle have produced a short take on a big topic.

In On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy (Pantheon, 91 pp., $19.95), British historian Eric Hobsbawm compares the United States with the former British empire, and the Americans don't come off so well. The British, he points out, knew their limits. "Being a middleweight country which knew that it could not hold the world heavyweight championship forever, it was saved from the megalomania that is the occupational disease of would-be world conquerors." Will the United States be able to reconcile itself, as Great Britain did, to the loss of its preeminence, Hobsbawm asks, "or will it be tempted to maintain an eroding global position by relying on politico-military force, and in so doing promote not global order but disorder, not global peace but conflict, not the advance of civilization but of barbarism?"

Robert Kagan, who among other chores as a thinker on global issues writes an op-ed column for this newspaper, doesn't see the United States giving up its superpowerdom easily. In The Return of History and the End of Dreams (Knopf, 128 pp., $19.95), he writes that a "guiding principle of American foreign policy has been that no one else can quite be trusted to keep the world safe for democratic principles -- not America's enemies, certainly, but not its allies, either." Nor, it appears, would he prefer it otherwise: "In most of the vital regions of the world, in East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, the United States is still the keystone in the arch. Remove it, and the arch collapses."

Joseph S. Nye Jr., looks at individual leadership, rather than the international kind, in The Powers to Lead (Oxford Univ., 145 pp., $21.95). He contrasts hard and soft power as bases for leadership. The hard stuff is easy to explain: Police power, financial power and the ability to hire and fire are examples. Soft power is a bit more elusive, but it is something like trying to "persuade others that they want to do in their own interests what you want them to do." Nye quotes Dwight Eisenhower -- who as a general, university president and U.S. president wielded both kinds of power -- on the importance of being soft: Leadership, he said, is an ability "to get people to work together, not only because you tell them to do so and enforce your orders but because they instinctively want to do it for you. . . . You don't lead by hitting people over the head; that's assault, not leadership."

-- Dennis Drabelle

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