Review: The Paradox of American Power–Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone

4 Star, Diplomacy, Economics

Amazon Page
Amazon Page

4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant Strategic Insights, Operationally Disappointing,

March 11, 2002
Joseph S. Nye Jr.
My highest complement for a book used to be how many pens I broke on it. This book leaps into a new category. I actually had to read it three times, short as it is. It is brilliant, with paragraphs of such substance that multiple readings are needed to “unzip” the implications. This is not an undergraduate text although it could certainly be used as such, to open deep discussions.Among the strategic thoughts that I found most valuable were these: 1) a plenitude of information leads to a poverty of attention; 2) in the absence of time or means to actually review real-world information, politics becomes a contest of competitive credibility (with the Internet changing the rules of the game somewhat); 3) Japan has vital lessons to teach Islamic nations–that one can adapt to the new world while maintaining a unique culture; 4) we are failing to adapt our democratic processes to the challenges of the Earth as well as the opportunities of the Internet.

This last merits special attention. I found in this book an intellectual and political argument for restoring democratic meaning to our national policies. From its evaluation of the pernicious effect of special interest groups on foreign policy; to its explanation (“When the majority are indifferent, they leave the battlefields of foreign policy to those with special interests.”); to its prescription for healthy policies: a combination of national discussion (not just polling), with a proper respect for the opinions of others (e.g. foreigners), the author clearly sets himself apart from those who would devise national policies in secret meetings with a few preferred pals.

Throughout the book, but not given any special chapter as I would have preferred, the author is clearly cognizant of the enormous non-traditional challenges facing the community of nations–not just terrorism and crime, but fundamentals such as water and energy shortages, disease, genocide, proliferation, trade injustices, etcetera.

Operationally, the book is slightly disappointing. Despite the fact that the author has served as both the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council (and perhaps left the operational bit to his Vice Chairman, Greg Treverton, whose book, “Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information” I recommend be read in conjunction with this one), and as an Assistant Secretary of Defense, I did not see two things in this book that would have bridged the gap from strategic reflection to operational implementation:

1) How must we change the manner in which our nation handles information? What should our national information strategy be, to include not only a vast new program for properly collecting, processing, and understanding foreign language materials that are openly available, for but improving our K-12 and undergraduate education with respect to foreign affairs?

2) How must we change the manner in which our nation authorizes, appropriates, allocates, and obligates the taxpayer budget? While noting that we spend 16 times as much on military hard power as we do on diplomatic soft power, the author left this issue largely on a single page.

On the topic of values and accountability the author excelled. Although I would disagree that values by themselves are the foundation of national power (“knowing” the world, in my view, is the other side of the coin of the realm), the author sounds very much like Noam Chomsky with a social make-over–we have to be honest on human rights and other core values, and not act nor permit our corporations to act in ways that are antithetical to our true national commitment to decency and honesty. The section on new forms of accountability and transparency being made possible by changing in information tools and practices are valuable–admitting non-governmental organizations to all bodies; accelerating the release of records into the public domain, and so on.

We learn from this book that the author is an avid admirer of The Economist, that he thrives on Op-Ed reading (I have never seen a more comprehensive use of Op-Eds in the notes), and that he is largely accepting of the World Trade Organization and other multi-lateral groups, most of which have not yet accommodated themselves to the new world of citizen-centered policymaking. As good as the notes are, the book would have benefited from a bibliography. The index is acceptable.

If we part ways on any one thing, it would be that I am less sanguine about any foreign policy, however much it might use “soft power,” being successful if it persists with the notion that we can cajole and seduce the world into wanting what we want. We’ve done that with Hollywood, and McDonalds, and chlorine-based plastics, and it is not working to our advantage. It may be that America must first recognize its own demons, adjust its global goals accordingly, and interact with the world rather than striving for a grander version of the “Office of Strategic Influence” that recently got laughed into oblivion. We appear to agree that the U.S. Information Agency must be restored as our two-way channel between our people and all others. I would dramatically expand USIA to also provide for a Global Knowledge Foundation and a Digital Marshall Plan on the one hand, and the education of all women on the other (Cf O’Hanlon’s “A Half-Penny on the Federal Dollar”).

This book opens the great conversation, and in doing so, renders a valuable service. Missing from the public conversation is the Department of State. Both the politically-appointed and the professionally-trained leadership of the diplomatic service appear to have been cowed into silence by a mis-placed coda that confuses abject compliance with loyalty to the larger national interest. If this book can draw State back into the public service, into a public debate on the urgency of protecting and expanding our most important soft power tools, then the author’s ultimate impact on the future of American security and prosperity will be inestimable.

Vote on Review
Vote on Review