THE POWER GAME: A Washington Novel

By Joseph S. Nye Jr. PublicAffairs. 247 pp. $25

All you really need for a lasting reputation as a major foreign policy thinker is one Big Idea. George F. Kennan, for example, is immortalized for proposing the "containment" of Soviet communism, just as Samuel P. Huntington will always be known for warning of a "clash of civilizations" between the West and Islam. More recently, Robert Kagan prompted transatlantic hissy fits when he suggested that, on strategic matters, "Americans are from Mars, and Europeans are from Venus." (Wannabe wonks, take note: A memorable catch-phrase helps guarantee a spot on the roster of global gurus.)

Enter Joseph S. Nye Jr. In his 1990 book Bound to Lead, Nye coined the concept of "soft power." Traditional hard power is the ability (through military force or other means) to compel foreign countries or leaders to behave in particular ways. Soft power, by contrast, is the ability to attract and persuade others to do as you wish. American soft power can take many forms: trade and investment, movies and pop culture, diplomacy, educational exchanges and, of course, the values underpinning U.S. foreign policy.

Soft power is an important insight for which Nye deserves great credit. And just to make sure no one forgets it, he has spent the past several years refining and repackaging soft power through op-ed essays, journal articles and more books. Indeed, his stints in the State and Defense departments -- not to mention his nine years running Harvard's Kennedy School of Government -- seem mere footnotes to his own big idea. Whenever Joseph Nye makes his way to that Great Political Science Department in the Sky, rest assured that "soft power" will appear in the first paragraph of his obituary.

Yet, with his intellectual legacy secure, Nye has now risked his reputation by penning a middling novel about power, politics and (oh my) sex in Washington. Indeed, picking up The Power Game, I couldn't help but recall Michael Jordan leaving the Chicago Bulls to play minor-league baseball. Would Nye, too, embarrass himself?

Yes and no. The novel will certainly appeal to U.S. foreign policy junkies and those familiar with Nye's past writings, but no one should confuse it with high literature. Indeed, most of the characters are strictly one-dimensional, and the dialogue often defies plausibility. (Ironically, this is not even the best book about Washington called The Power Game; that honor goes to Hedrick Smith's 1988 nonfiction volume.) Even so, Nye delivers an entertaining tale of good intentions gone awry in the nation's capital, against the backdrop of -- you guessed it -- soft power.

Meet our hero, Peter Cutler, a happily married, late-forties or so academic teaching international relations at Princeton, a few years in the future. After an old friend lures him into an advisory role on a successful U.S. presidential campaign, Peter becomes undersecretary of state for security affairs in the new Democratic administration. Mr. Cutler commutes to Washington hoping to make the world a safer place, but then his troubles -- personal and professional -- begin.

Unfortunately, those troubles don't always make for riveting storytelling. On his first day at the State Department, Peter is chagrined to find that a fellow undersecretary's office "was not only larger but more ornately decorated" than his own. Oh, the outrage! Peter is also stymied by Washington's interagency bureaucracy. "I convened several meetings to begin the Middle East policy review," he reflects in a typically gripping passage, "but once the work was delegated to subcommittees, it seemed to get stuck." Finally, Peter has nightmares wherein his policy rivals gather in the White House Situation Room to mock him and his proposals. When life inside the Beltway gets too tough, he temporarily retreats to his childhood summer home in scenic Cathedral Lake, Maine -- sort of a Fortress of Solitude for Super Wonk.

Despite his stumbles, Peter soon becomes enthralled with his famous (by D.C. standards) status as reporters and staffers recognize him about town. "I'm a player," he gloats to his neglected wife, Kate, during an increasingly rare visit to Princeton. "I've mastered the Washington game."

For some reason, Nye insists on giving his characters predictable names that reaffirm their plot roles. Peter's wise and virtuous Princeton colleague -- who warns him against staying in Washington too long -- is named Abe. (Honest!) The friend who convinces Peter to join the administration is a free spirit hailing from Montana, so let's call him Jim Bob. And don't forget sexy Alexa, an old grad-school girlfriend turned Pentagon official who later moonlights as Peter's D.C. mistress. Alexa's copious charms notwithstanding, feel free to skip The Power Game's humdrum sex scenes. When Peter finally succumbs to Alexa's advances, for instance, his initial "driving, pounding torrent of passion" morphs into a postcoital "surge of guilt" as he recalls his faithful Kate back home. (But hey, at least a little hard power still gets you places in Washington.)

Nearly lost amid the intrigue is the small matter of Pakistan transferring nukes to Iran. Here Peter clashes with hawkish White House and Pentagon officials who prefer covert CIA action to diplomacy, and here is also where Nye's Big Idea comes in handy. From his congressional testimony to his high-pressure meeting with CIA honchos, Peter frequently argues for a soft-power strategy against nuclear proliferation. "We live in an interdependent world," he explains. "We have to use diplomacy to persuade others to go along with our positions." Actually, it's a wonder Peter doesn't explicitly invoke soft power. I mean, he's read Joe Nye, hasn't he? Regrettably, much as in the real world, soft-power considerations fail to convince in times of crisis. A frustrated Peter hopes to buy more time and outwit the hawks by leaking key information to the press. His strategy backfires -- quite literally -- with unforeseeably disastrous and fatal results. For Peter Cutler, the Washington power game is over.

Ultimately, Nye deserves kudos for taking the risk and stretching his writing muscles for fiction, even if he does cramp up a bit. But why stop there? If we already have a novel about soft power, can the screenplay be far behind? Imagine the trailer: In the world's most powerful city, where appointees battle over turf and access and where policy mixes with passion, one man stands up for what is right, protects his nation and saves the woman he loves!

Except, alas, Peter Cutler does none of those things. He is a lonely, anti-heroic and, in the end, surprisingly conflicted protagonist. Wait -- a Washington wonk who doesn't have all the answers? That might be Nye's biggest idea yet. *

Carlos Lozada, a former managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, is a Knight-Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University.