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The Montréal Review, June 2012


 "Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy" by Leslie H. Gelb ( HarperCollins, 2009)


In "Power Rules" Leslie Gelb, a President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and former Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent and columnist for the New York Times, has no ambition to suggest grand strategy for the American foreign policy, nor he tries to sell a spicy ideological narrative to the disillusioned post-Cold war world. Recalling his mentor at Harvard, Henry Kissinger, who advised that to be profound, one has to be obscure, Gelb admits that with this book he "shall once again disappoint him."  His only goal is to suggest in a clear way a set of foreign policy alternatives and solutions to the existing challenges that the American power faces today.

Why should somebody waste time to read a foreign policy book that is not intended to be profound and that is not offering a grand strategy or ideology? First and foremost, it is worth reading because power is always a big subject-we cannot discuss power and think small. And second, power is always pragmatic-it cannot be achieved with illusions and dreams. Lastly, grand strategies and ideologies are just well-defined pragmatism.

Gelb, like Machiavelli, wrote this book for the sovereign-- the American people and their elected President. In the twenty-first century the elected Presidents, Gelb explains, are still princes because they make policy and decide on war or peace. But by contrast with the princes of yore, the Presidents are elected rulers, which makes the citizens responsible to learn enough about the world and policy alternatives to judge their leaders.

"Power Rules" is not intended as a conventional, conciliatory work. It is a book aiming to undermine the dominance of popular ideas in today's foreign politicy. It offers a set of pragmatic solutions for the American policy abroad that should be described as neither liberal, nor conservative. Thus, Gelb is happy to show his reservations to Joseph Nye's theory of the effectiveness of soft-power, while opposing the conservative "hard-line" politics of realists like Charles Krauthammer. In addition, despite his belief in the existence and importance of mutual dependence and balance of power, he doesn't think that the world is getting flatter, as famously declared Thomas Friedman a few years ago. "Today's world is neither flat nor nonpolar, but pyramidal," Gelb argues. "The United States stands alone at the pinnacle, with formidable and unique global powers of leadership, but not the power to dominate."

He argues that twenty-first century realism is just a politics of commonsense and choice that embraces and blunts the edges of all dominant views and ideologies and doing so, it is able to gradually resolve the problems of the day. He is convinced that commonsense realism could make the American foreign politics effective again--which means America still having a chance to lead the world only if taking into account the existence of multi-polarity, economic leadership and interdependence, the steadiness of foreign nationalism, interests and ideological opposition, and the limits of military power.

Gelb defines power as "the capacity to get people to do what they don't want to do, by pressure or coercion, using one's resources and position." This view fits in the widespread, centuries-old understanding of power as a coercive force, but Gelb refines it with the notion that power is not absolute and has never been such, especially in the recent 500 years. The formation and growth of nation states has caused a revolution in the character of world power that made of every superpower a banded colossus. The examples from the second half of the twentieth century confirm the validity of this concept: despite the global dominance of two superpowers, none of them achieved a single and total victory abroad. Military conflict didn't cease after the Second World War, but the leading powers did not add territory to their national bodies, nor they had unchallenged influence over their dominions. France and U.S. failed in Vietnam; during the Cold war, the tiny, communist Cuba existed undisturbed next to the muscles and brains of world capitalism; USSR failed in rural Afghanistan as British and French lost influence and territory in the Middle East and Africa. Insurmountable national movements and balancing interests were behind all failed attempts of the world powers to apply their will over foreign territories and nations.

Gelb's explanation of why we still call some states "world powers," when history shows that no foreign power is able to submit completely a nation, is simple. Superpowers exist and will continue to exist, he argues, but their leaders have to change their mind-set about the role of power in today's world: superpower's job is not to conquest or submit nations; it is to provide leadership (not dictatorship) that solves problems in the interest of the key nations on the world stage.

Gelb is convinced that Washington can't solve major problems on its own. For long time power has been understood as military power and the military power is the physical ability to punish, submit and conquest in direct conflict. Now, with nationalism reigning, military power is just a pillar in the edifice of power. It is indispensable, but not crucial. "Military power alone, writes Gelb, no matter how decisive against conventional armies and entrenched forces, has sharp limits... In a world filled with constraints, exercising power is a more complicated business."

Economic leadership is one of the best means for exercising power in modern world, Gelb believes. "For the first time in history," he writes, "economics has become the principal coin of the realm, displacing military and diplomatic power." He argues that if economic power is used strategically and with patience, it could be the "most cost-effective means of persuading other governments to do what they don't want to do-and persuading them without war." He gives as example the Truman administration that used economic strategy most successfully for the advance of American interests. In the post-Second World War decade, the U.S. led the world through creation of a series of new multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the United Nations, and the Marshall Plan. Unfortunately, although these international institutions remain today, by the 1960s military power overwhelmed national security policy of America.

Gelb's complaint is that the American politicians have forgotten that military power depends on strong economy and that they lost their way to economic leadership. This is because although known the concept of economic influence is still underrated by the traditional power masters in the U.S. He recalls his own failed efforts to promote joint studies of foreign and economic policies in academy and at the Council of Foreign Relations. "Academic walls, inspired by professional theorists who rule their fiefdoms, had risen far higher than they were in my graduate school days. All the while, the Clinton and Bush administrations would not make great headway in meshing the gears of government in these two fields". Yet, Gelb admits that it's easier for governments to control military power than economic power.

The politics of economic strategy is best exercised today by China: the leaders in Beijing, in order to perpetuate the rule of the Communist party, have decided to seek a greater economic benefit for ever-greater number of Chinese, they have started to expand, first, their export and now their internal market. "China's leaders, writes Gelb, employ their economic power unthreateningly and carefully. Unlike the Russians, they rarely flaunt it; they let it speak for itself."

Economy can be mistaken as a part of the domain of soft-power. It is true that economic relations create interdependence, but with its ability to coerce and punish wealth is power. The main feature of soft-power is the power of convincing others through words and good example-diplomacy and ideology are the things that matter. Gelb rejects both as effective and only means for exercising influence abroad. For example, he insists that many Muslim and Arab leaders see American values of freedom and democracy as a threat for their power. Moreover, they don't believe in the sincerity of American idealism. Moral proselytism and the missionary spirit that America has been practicing since her begetting have taught the world to judge her according to higher standards, which inevitably has led to recurring charges of hypocrisy. If ideology doesn't really work, what about diplomacy? Diplomacy, in Gelb's opinion, is lame without the support of military and economic power. In general, the soft-power can only facilitate the overall exercise of power.

Every chapter in "Power Rules" offers a set of practical advices that meant to answer the main challenges that American power faces today internationally. Mixing the shadows and nuances of the liberal and conservative ideological divide, Gelb succeeds in his goal to offer a pragmatic manual on foreign policy.

"Foreign policy is commonsense, not rocket science", he writes in the last pages of the book. "But it keeps getting overwhelmed by extravagant principles, nasty politics, and the arrogance of power. These three demons rob us of choice, which is the core of a commonsense foreign policy."

T.S.Tsonchev, The Montreal Review


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