We Are the World
Michael Mandelbaum is both of this party and outside it. His work as an academic theorist of US foreign policy has been less associated with liberal internationalism than with more neorealist justifications for American pre-eminence. In recent years, however, he seems to have become increasingly Wilsonian--itself, perhaps, a sign of these triumphalist, parochial times in America. Mandelbaum's previous book, which bore the unabashedly vulgar title The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the Twenty-First Century, is about the inexorable triumph of liberal (read: American) ideas. In this, Mandelbaum's view is much like that of Thomas Friedman in his earlier, more euphoric period of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, where he unwisely asserted that globalization and Americanization were indistinguishable.
Friedman is one of the people Mandelbaum thanks in the book's acknowledgments, which is hardly a surprise, since they appear to share the same determinist outlook. The Case for Goliath is less triumphalist than The Lexus and the Olive Tree but just as insistent on the indispensable role the United States plays in the world. As Mandelbaum somewhat petulantly concludes, whatever the life span of America's role as "the world's government," "three things can be safely predicted: They [i.e., the rest of the world] will not pay for it; they will continue to criticize it; and they will miss it when it is gone."
That the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies sees fit to indulge in such childish rhetoric--"and then I'll be dead and they'll be sorry!"--is not an insignificant illustration of the extent to which we are once more living in an age of faith. Of course, if one is talking seriously about history, such a contention is not only astonishingly self-regarding; it is also almost pure speculation. For there is no way of knowing at this point whether the United States will be regarded, after the passing of its hegemony, as a particularly benevolent hegemon, assuming onerous burdens largely for the sake of the greater global good. Mandelbaum writes with astonishing self-confidence about the three "dominant twenty-first century ideas"--free markets, peace and democracy. But in doing so, he behaves as if the history of the twenty-first century could, at century's beginning, already be known. Imagine the same argument being made in 1806 about the nineteenth century or in 1906 about the twentieth. This is not historical argument but rather special pleading for American hegemony. Above all, Mandelbaum's "case for Goliath" is based on a particularly pernicious sort of circular reasoning. On the one hand, he claims that the global dominance of the ideas of peace, democracy and free markets "owed a great deal to the power of the United States, which embraced and espoused them." But, he quickly adds, "the reverse was also true: American power rested in no small part on the dominance of these ideas."
This is pure Hegelian claptrap--America as the incarnation of the world spirit. We have grown accustomed to the authority such ideas enjoy in neoconservative circles. "The 'real movement' of history, it turns out," wrote one of the movement's godmothers, Gertrude Himmelfarb, in the umpteenth essay proclaiming Marxism dead and buried, "is fueled not by matter but by spirit, by the will to freedom." The neocons apparently discerned that will to freedom in Ahmad Chalabi and expected to find it in the streets of Baghdad and Basra. That they did not might be thought to suggest that there was more left to Marx's assertion that "life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life" than they might have wished to believe. Finding political analysis grounded, whether explicitly or implicitly, in the romantic twaddle of Weltgeist and Zeitgeist is bad enough coming from the utopian wing of the Bush Administration. But it seems even more incongruous when one encounters it embedded in the otherwise stolid prose of a scholar like Mandelbaum, who clearly prides himself on his hardheaded analytical approach to international relations. But there are times in The Case for Goliath when Mandelbaum seems to have more a bad case of idolatry than self-love, as, for example, when he writes that America's role in the world "has something in common with the sun's relationship to the rest of the solar system. Both confer benefits on the entities with which they are in regular contact. The sun keeps the planets in their orbits by the force of gravity and radiates the heat and light that make life possible on one of them. Similarly, the United States..." Well, you get the idea.
Such purple passages aside, Mandelbaum's inspiration in writing the book seems to have been to examine the claim, frequently voiced on the streets of virtually every capital city on the globe (but, as Mandelbaum rightly points out, not in those capital's chanceries), that the world would be better off without the United States serving as the guarantor of global security and prosperity--or, as Mandelbaum puts it, as the world's government. It is a reasonable question. The problem is, from the book's opening page to its concluding one, The Case for Goliath so skews the analysis in America's favor that its conclusions seem all but foreordained. No matter how playfully they may have been intended, even Mandelbaum's choice of epigrams for many of his chapters, like W.S. Gilbert's "A policeman's lot is not a happy one" or Hilaire Belloc's "Always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse," serve to confirm that he has written an apologia for American hegemony rather than a serious anatomy of it.
Paradoxically, even after having weighted the scales to the extent he does, Mandelbaum's ultimate justification for believing in the benefits of continued US dominance of the global system is more negative than positive. In his book, he brandishes the fact that there has so far been no serious effort by other states to band together to create a counterweight to the United States as conclusive evidence that other countries realize how much they benefit from the current system and how much they would lose were America no longer to play its current role. Of course, a skeptic might reasonably retort that the century is still young. But even if Mandelbaum is right, it is hardly a ringing endorsement of American stewardship. As he concedes, "a proper judgment [of the Goliath role] depends ultimately not on whether this or that American foreign policy could be improved--many undoubtedly could--but rather on whether that role is preferable to the plausible alternative." And this, Mandelbaum asserts, "is not considerably better global governance but considerably less of it, and the consequences of less governance are not likely to be pleasant."
So it really is "always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse" and certainly not "Ain't nanny doing a swell job?" What Mandelbaum seems not to understand is that the snapshot he provides of "how America acts as the world's government in the 21st century" (to quote his subtitle) is based on a static image of a world that, in reality, is rapidly changing. While it once may have been true that it was up to the American public to decide whether or not the United States would act as a hyperpower, today such decisions are no longer exclusively within America's grace and favor. The rise of Asia, above all China, upon which the United States is already dependent for the stability of its own financial markets; the limits, well exhibited by events in both Iraq and North Korea, of what US military power can actually accomplish; and the challenge posed by the euro to the dollar's primacy as the world's reserve currency--all of these developments insure that the American-dominated system Mandelbaum extols, and about which his principal anxiety is that the American public will cease supporting it, is in fact coming apart at the seams already, only six years into the century in which America was to perform its historic role as "the world's government."
Of course, there may eventually be a domestic "mutiny" against America's world role based on competing domestic demands for resources. But Mandelbaum is sadly mistaken if he really imagines that the United States is still in a position to guarantee economic rule sets. Historically, this is not a role long accorded to debtors, and there is no reason to believe things have changed in this regard. On the geopolitical side, things are little better. Besides being an incontestable argument for proliferation for any state that is unprepared to do America's bidding, what the debacle in Iraq has demonstrated is how fragile American hegemony really is. America won the battles. Iran won the war. Such are the limits of hegemony these days. It also ducks a larger question that neither Mandelbaum nor Democratic policy analysts like Ivo Daalder and Anne-Marie Slaughter seem willing to consider, which is: Why do they believe the United States is and will continue to be the exception to what seems like one of the few iron laws of history--that a nation with overwhelming power at its disposal rarely behaves with forbearance and moderation for very long--when it has enjoyed such power for more than half a century already?
It would seem that it is waters of Nepenthe time in Washington these days. In other words, we are back to American exceptionalism... again. And there is a word for that, and that word is self-regard--an attitude that rarely turns out well for those unable to get past it.