On Not Going It Alone

A leadership role for America in a world without governance

How powerful is the United States, and how should it relate to the rest of the world? Is America a new version of the Roman Empire? These questions are increasingly debated around the world in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.

Some neoconservatives, such as the columnist Charles Krauthammer, have argued that the United States is so much stronger than other countries that it can afford to go it alone in what he calls “a new unilateralism”: the United States should do as it pleases, and others will simply have to fall in line. He notes that the word “empire,” long banished from American foreign policy, is gaining a new respectability. A number of academic writers, including Tisch professor of history Niall Ferguson, have compared the United States to the Roman and British empires.

Not since the days of Rome has one country been so large relative to all other nations as the United States is today. Our defense expenditure is equal to that of the next 17 countries combined; our economy is larger than the total of the next three countries, and American culture—from Hollywood to Harvard—has greater global reach and produces more soft power than any other country.

Michael Mandelbaum, The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the 21st Century (PublicAffairs, $26).

But as Michael Mandelbaum, Ph.D. ’75, argues in The Case for Goliath, the temptation to see ourselves as the new Romans should be resisted. Primacy should not be confused with empire. Empire involves supreme control over other peoples. The United States is more powerful compared to other countries than Britain was at its imperial peak, but we have less control over what occurs in other countries than Britain did. For example, when I was doing my thesis research in East Africa in the waning days of the British empire, Kenya’s schools, taxes, laws, and elections—not to mention external relations—were controlled by British of-ficials. This country has no such control outside our borders today. Historically, we have shunned it, except for the anomalous period at the beginning of the last century when we took Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain. In 2003, we could not even obtain the votes of Chile and Mexico for a United Nations resolution designed to legitimize our war with Iraq. Some empire.

The paradox of American power in the twenty-first century is that the strongest country since Rome cannot achieve many of its goals by acting alone. Consider economic policy. International financial stability is important for our prosperity, but we need the cooperation of others to achieve it. The United States cannot achieve its objective of a new trade round without the cooperation of Europe, Japan, and other nations. The information revolution and globalization are creating issues that are inherently multilateral. Global climate change will affect the quality of life in the United States, but three-quarters of the problem arises outside our borders. Diseases such as AIDS or avian flu, originating in distant parts of the globe, penetrate our borders with ease and must be attacked in cooperation with other countries. Success against transnational terrorism will require years of patient civilian cooperation with others in intelligence sharing, police work, and tracing of financial flows. We cannot solve these problems unilaterally with orders from imperial headquarters.

At the same time, American primacy means that the United States will have to lead other countries in seeking solutions to these problems. Scholars have long argued that the largest country must take the lead in producing public goods that benefit everyone, because it is difficult for small countries to get their acts together to do so. And we do so not out of charity, but because it is in our interest as the largest consumer of such public goods. In the days of British primacy in the nineteenth century, Great Britain maintained the balance of power, freedom of the seas, a global gold standard, and an open trading system. Those public goods benefited smaller countries, but they also benefited Britain. As economists like Charles Kindleberger of MIT and Robert Gilpin of Princeton pointed out some time ago, many of the problems of the 1930s arose from the fact that the United States had surpassed Britain in power, but did not adopt policies that replaced British leadership in producing public goods. Michael Mandelbaum’s case for the “American Goliath” updates these well-known arguments for today’s world.

Mandelbaum, Herter professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, will be familiar to some readers as a former faculty member in Harvard’s government department. He was then, and remains, a fine teacher and wordsmith with a skill for homely metaphor that can illuminate complex concepts. A good example here is his likening of a world without American leadership to a freeway full of cars without brakes. He is an elegant stylist.

The heart of Mandelbaum’s argument is familiar, though his form of presenting it is new. The United States is a benign Goliath that furnishes services and public goods to other countries as it pursues its own interests. In this way, it acts as the functional equivalent of a government in a world otherwise without governance. In the realm of security, American alliances in Europe and East Asia provide reassurance that enhances stability and allows economies to flourish. American leadership on nonproliferation of nuclear weapons plays a similar stabilizing role. The American dollar helps to provide monetary stability, and American openness and consumption of international goods help to maintain the international trade system. The United States also helps to ensure the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, which benefits all countries in the global economy.

World government is unlikely, and neither the UN nor the European Union nor any other country is capable of providing the necessary leadership. “For better or for worse, therefore, the world has, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, no substitute for the United States as the provider of governmental services to the international system….Insofar as American foreign policy is unilateral, this is by default as well as by choice.” Mandelbaum may disagree with Niall Ferguson about whether America is an empire, but he follows Ferguson’s view that the world would miss American power if it were to decline.

Although the broad lines of Mandelbaum’s argument are largely correct, he pays too little attention to the importance of process or style in foreign policy. He correctly points out that the very scale of American power is bound to breed resentment: “Like Goliath, who was neither the sentimental nor the theological favorite in his biblical clash with David, and for the same reasons, the United States, the Goliath of the international system, attracts little popular sympathy beyond its borders.” There are structural as well as historical and cultural reasons to expect anti-Americanism. Like the biggest kid on the block, the United States engenders a mix of admiration, envy, and resentment. But the ratio of love and hate in the relationships is not fixed. It is affected by how we behave. The big kid who is a bully is less likely to be loved than the big kid who comes to the assistance of the little kids. Or to cite Machiavelli, it may be better for a prince to be feared than to be loved, but worst of all is to engender hatred. Mandelbaum says too little about how the style of our leadership can affect how we are perceived.

Mandelbaum characterizes the United States as a “benign Goliath”—what he terms a herbivorous elephant rather than a carnivorous lion in international affairs. But this perception was more true a decade ago than it is today. The United States became the world’s sole superpower in the 1990s and, while that engendered some worry and resentment, America cloaked its power in alliances and used multilateral institutions. The “new unilateralism” that became fashionable in the first administration of George W. Bush and the manner in which we entered the Iraq War led to a dramatic drop of American attractiveness or soft power in other countries. Polls showed a 30 per- cent drop in the standing of this country in Europe (including in countries such as Britain) and an even more dramatic drop in the Muslim world. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim country, three-quarters of the population had a favorable view of the United States in 2000, but that dropped to 15 percent in May 2003. (It rose again to 40 percent after our efforts at humanitarian relief in 2005, following the Indian Ocean tsunami.)

How the United States has used its power merits more discussion. Mandelbaum says we invaded Iraq when Saddam Hussein “failed to comply fully” with UN inspections. In fact, we refused to allow the inspectors the additional time they requested, and that added to the resentment felt by other countries. He says we had to act unilaterally by default rather than design, because of Europe’s unwillingness to act. But in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon initially rebuffed European offers of assistance under Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The style of the neoconservatives’ new unilateralism undercut the benignity of Goliath’s image. They would have been more effective had they paid more attention to our soft power to attract, rather than focused so heavily on our hard power to coerce.

Mandelbaum also shortchanges the considerable literature on the issue of public goods and government. Public goods, once produced, benefit others, and the producer cannot exclude others from enjoying those benefits. A well-placed lighthouse is a classic example. But there are degrees of public goods. Some countries may not see the role of the dollar, or American consumption, or our military interventions in the same light that we do. Our unilateralism may produce imperfect public goods. In some areas, as Mandelbaum admits in regard to our consumption of a quarter of the world’s oil, we are actually adding to the public bad of greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Finally, the fact that we produce goods which some other countries agree are public does not make us the world’s government. It is possible for groups of countries to cooperate in international institutions to produce public goods. It is important that the largest country participate in such institutions if they are to be effective, and the United States participates in dozens of such institutions. But this is global governance, not government.

Despite these flaws, Mandelbaum’s basic argument is correct. There is a case for Goliath. In an imperfect world, American leadership is crucial. But how we lead is equally important.


Joseph S. Nye Jr. is Distinguished Service Professor and former dean of the Kennedy School of Government. He is the author most recently of The Power Game: A Washington Novel and of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.


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