TAMING AMERICAN POWER

The Global Response to U.S. Primacy

By Stephen M. Walt

Norton. 320 pp. $27.95

NEW GLORY

Expanding America's Global Supremacy

By Ralph Peters

Sentinel. 292 pp. $24.95

THE COLLAPSE OF GLOBALISM

And the Reinvention of the World

By John Ralston Saul

Overlook. 309 pp. $29.95

These three quite different books all start with the conviction that America's position in the world has suffered in the past few years and that the country needs to rethink its basic strategy. That's surely the right starting point for any serious discussion of U.S. foreign policy. Whatever you think has caused the setbacks, it's hard to dispute the fact that the Bush administration's strategy for global primacy hasn't worked out very well: Our friends are more wary of us; our adversaries are more bold; our vast power is humbled by a terrorist insurgency in Iraq. What has brought us to this sad state, and what should we do about it? That's the big topic these books address.

The best of the three -- and also most disturbing -- is Stephen M. Walt's Taming American Power. It offers a rigorous critique of current U.S. strategy and, even better, a clearly articulated alternative. Walt is a professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School and an exponent of what has come to be known as the "realist" school of foreign policy. He made his reputation with a 1987 study of how alliances are shaped by such tactics as "balancing" to keep a new rising power from becoming too strong or "bandwagoning" to join it. Much of this new book continues that somewhat dry style of theoretical analysis, but by the final chapter, where Walt offers his own prescriptions, the blood is almost dripping off the page.

Walt posits that America is "the mightiest state since Rome," enjoying "a position of power that is historically unprecedented." He looks at this U.S. primacy from the outside in, from the perspective of how other nations respond to America's immense strength. It's a useful technique since it allows him to sidestep the usual normative debate (Is American power good or bad? Is it moral or immoral?) and study how other nations functionally react to American dominance. And the reality is that whether these countries scratch us or stroke us, they are nearly all uncomfortable with an asymmetry that gives America so much power.

Rather than speaking of friends and enemies, Walt divides the world into countries that have adopted "strategies of accommodation" and "strategies of opposition." As the list of countries that feel threatened by American power grows, Walt argues, the United States will increasingly face a "resistant" international system in which it will be harder to achieve U.S. goals. But even when countries are saying nice things about us, treating U.S. primacy as "less a threat than an opportunity," Walt cautions that what they really see is an opportunity to manipulate the world's only superpower into doing what they want. These states seek to tame American power by cozying up to it, flattering it, bending it to their purposes. The challenge is to separate the blandishments of our friends from America's true interests.

So what should America do with its lopsided power? Walt argues that the Bush administration has unwisely adopted a strategy of global hegemony. "This image of global dominance is undeniably appealing to some Americans," he writes, "but the history of the past few years also demonstrates how unfeasible it is." The administration's unilateral strategy of preventive war has frightened America's friends without deterring its enemies. Indeed, says Walt, friendly states "have been distancing themselves from the U.S. foreign-policy agenda," while enemies such as Iran and North Korea "have become more resistant to U.S. pressure and more interested in acquiring the ability to deter U.S. military action" -- in other words, nukes. The administration's bold hopes for political transformation in Iraq have instead led to a "costly quagmire."

Walt says the United States could return to President Clinton's approach of "selective engagement," but he thinks that was also too forward-leaning -- with too much engagement in places like the Balkans and Haiti and too little selectivity about where to intervene. Instead, he argues for what he calls "offshore balancing." That's an overly abstract term for an idea that's actually fairly simple: Walt argues that the United States should basically mind its own business and deploy "its power abroad only when there are direct threats to vital U.S. interests." This approach wouldn't be isolationist, he insists, because America would remain engaged through international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and NATO. Standing offshore, American power would be less worrisome for the world, and as Walt puts it, would give us the coquette's advantage of "playing hard to get."

The most controversial passages in Walt's book are likely to be his recommendations for the Middle East. He argues that America should halt its economic and military support for Israel unless it agrees to give up its West Bank settlements and "withdraw from virtually all territories it occupied in June 1967, in exchange for full peace." Failing that, he writes, America should "pursue its own self-interest rather than adhere to a blind allegiance to an uncooperative ally." Unconditional support for Israel, he contends, "continues to put the United States itself at risk" by badly undermining the U.S. position in the Middle East. That a prominent, mainstream academic should question so forcefully the U.S.-Israel relationship is itself a mark of America's current foreign policy turmoil.

Ralph Peters would probably argue that Walt and his fellow Harvard profs are what's wrong with America. A former Army intelligence officer and author of previous blood-and-guts military books, Peters has dedicated his latest one "To our troops." And New Glory captures what a lot of the old soldiers think. It's a triumphalist, tub-thumping book, dressing up the old certainties about American primacy for the 21st century. "We are the greatest -- and most virtuous -- power in history," Peters writes, and our best days are ahead of us: "We are programmed for success. And the failures hate it."

What's interesting about Peters's book is the catholicity of its enemies list. Needless to say, the French are there. ("Who speaks French today but waiters and dictators?") American journalists take some body blows, especially those at the New York Times and the New Yorker who "all but cheered any hint of an America reverse" in Iraq. So do pointy-headed analysts at the Rand Corporation, which Peters describes as "a self-licking ice-cream cone." But Peters's most pointed diatribe is directed against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his neoconservative aides at the Pentagon, including Douglas J. Feith and Stephen A. Cambone. "Convinced that they were smarter regarding military affairs than those who had dedicated their lives to uniformed service," he writes, "the Rummycrats humiliated generals and colonels in front of their subordinates, dismissing them as fools." He describes Rumsfeld's team variously as "notorious bullies," "Chinese court eunuchs," "commissars," and ideologues "who more closely resembled the early Bolsheviks than any predecessors in the American grain." To Peters, the Rummycrats were arrogant bureaucrats who bought fancy weapons to fight a bloodless, high-tech war rather than body armor for the troops. "Our policies killed our soldiers, as surely as the terrorists and insurgents did," he writes.

Peters sounds the first notes of a chorus that undoubtedly will swell as America retreats from Iraq. As with Vietnam, an unhappy uniformed military will argue that it was the Pentagon civilians (along with the French, the journalists and those ice-cream-cone lickers at Rand) who sold out our troops. It was a stab in the back. Peters's answer is to leave war to the soldiers. "We wish to wage war with tweezers, but combat remains the province of the ax," he writes.

Peters is right to flay the Pentagon leaders for their poor planning for Iraq, which is a scandal. But he understates just how hard a military problem America confronts in Iraq. The generals never came up with a winning counterinsurgency strategy in Vietnam, and if they have one for Iraq, they are sure keeping quiet about it. Peters talks as if flattening Fallujah last fall was the way to break the Sunni insurgency. Sorry, but it's hard to see the evidence for that.

The least interesting of these three extended essays on the state of America and the world is John Ralston Saul's The Collapse of Globalism. It's a series of meandering rants gathered around one central rant about globalization. Saul, the author of Voltaire's Bastards, argues that the very soul of the U.S.-driven global economy -- free trade -- is itself of dubious benefit because it spins goods around the world without creating real wealth. Certainly that case can be made, as it has been eloquently by William Greider in One World, Ready or Not. But it's not made well in Saul's book, which pops off in so many directions that a reader loses track sometimes of just what he's denouncing. (A favorite passage: "The common call today is for an examination of values. I am not clear what this means." Join the club.)

Saul's most dubious proposition is the one that frames his book -- that globalization peaked in 1995 and has now "petered out," leaving America and the world to cope with rampant "negative nationalism." A reader is tempted to wonder whether Saul has traveled the world lately and seen how the connections of the global economy are being built relentlessly, year by year, country by country. A globalized economy doesn't necessarily make for a better world (though I think it eventually will). But it's quite wrong to say that this new system is collapsing, even if Saul wishes it would.

The conundrum that runs through all three books is that the world lacks an effective political corollary to economic globalism. America tried to impose a new security system unilaterally during the Bush years, but that effort so far has largely been a failure. These books signal the start of a new debate about why the world's only superpower is having such trouble in the world -- and about what it should do differently. *

David Ignatius is an op-ed columnist and associate editor of The Washington Post.