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How does the United States use its enormous power in the world? In The Case for Goliath, Michael Mandelbaum offers a surprising answer: The United States furnishes to other countries the services that governments provide within the countries they govern.
Mandelbaum explains how this role came about despite the fact that neither the United States nor any other country sought to establish it. He describes the contributions that American power makes to global security and prosperity, the shortcomings of American foreign policy, and how other countries have come to accept, resent, and exert influence on America's global role. And he assesses the prospects for the continuation of this role, which depends most importantly on whether the American public is willing to pay for it.
Written with Mandelbaum's characteristic blend of clarity, wit, and profound understanding of America and the world, The Case for Goliath offers a fresh and surprising approach to an issue that obsesses citizens and policymakers the world over, as well as a major statement on the foreign policy issues confronting the American people today.
And I know it's hard on America, and in some small corner of this vast country, out in Nevada or Idaho or these places I've never been to, but always wanted to go ... I know out there there's a guy getting on with his life, perfectly happily, minding his own business saying to you, the political leaders of this country, "Why me? And why us? And why America?" And the only answer is, "Because destiny put you in this place in history, in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do." Tony Blair, Address to the United States Congress, July 17, 2003
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a term came into use to refer to the American role in the world that conjured up images of Roman legions with helmets, metal breastplates, and sharp lances keeping order in the ancient world, bearded Habsburg grandees riding on horseback along cobblestone streets in Central Europe, and British colonial officials in pith helmets presiding over tropical kingdoms. The term was "empire." Many books and articles appeared advancing and exploring the proposition that the United States had become, without officially acknowledging it, what the largest and most powerful political units of the past had proudly proclaimed themselves to be.
Applied to the United States, the term "empire" had a jarring effect. For empire had seemed, as the twenty-first century began, the dinosaur of international history, having dominated the planet for much of recorded history but then become extinct, its place taken everywhere by the more cohesive and legitimate nation-state. The ideas that had underpinned the empires of the past-the glory of war and conquest, the commercial advantages of political monopolies, the natural hierarchy of the human race that made some people fit to govern others-had all fallen decisively out of favor.
The United States seemed a particularly unlikely candidate for an imperial role. Although America had once had an empire, it had been acquired later, had been given up earlier, and even at its zenith had been considerably smaller than the empires of the British, the French, the Austrian Habsburgs, the Russian Romanovs, or the Ottoman Turks. Moreover, the United States had been founded in revolt against empire, and even when it was an imperial power had harbored powerful anti-imperial sentiment. Its first and most expansive exercise in imperial conquest, the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the direct possession of the Philippines and indirect control of Cuba that resulted from its victory in that war, aroused considerable opposition in the United States Congress and among such eminent private citizens as Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie.
What accounts for the revival of a seemingly obsolete and, in the case of the United States, inappropriate term? Behind the use of the word "empire" to describe American relations with other countries lay two motives-one descriptive, the other derisive.
The global status of the United States at the outset of the twenty-first century seemed to require a new term because the American presence in the world had changed. It was an unprecedentedly powerful one. The range of the military, economic, and cultural influence that the United States could bring to bear was impressively wide. Even more impressive was the margin of power that separated America from every other country. The American economy produced 30 percent of the world's output; no other country was responsible for even half that much. The American defense budget exceeded, in dollars expended, the military spending of the next fifteen countries combined, and the United States had some military assets-its highly accurate missiles, for example-that no other country possessed.
As a term to describe this latter-day colossus, "empire" did have some advantages. America's global role did bear some resemblance to the empires of the past. Its military forces were deployed in many countries-upward of 150 by one count. As with the great empires of the past, the language most frequently employed in international discussions was the one Americans spoke: English. The American government itself noticed the similarity: The Department of Defense commissioned a study of the great empires of the past, with particular emphasis on how they had maintained their dominant positions-or failed to do so.
Moreover, if the word "empire" seemed, in some ways, to capture the reality of the twenty-first century American global presence, more familiar and recent terms did not. The United States had surely become more than a great power, which is what the major European countries (many of them, to be sure, also empires) had been called in the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth. It had outgrown the status that, along with the Soviet Union, it had enjoyed during the Cold War, when both were called nuclear "superpowers." The great powers and even the superpowers of the past had, after all, had international peers: The twenty-first century United States had none.
Because it suggested a greater, grander status than either of the other two terms, it was empire that came to seem to many the most appropriate way to describe America's international status.
If one reason for using this term was to describe America's role in the world, another was to denounce it. By the twenty-first century, the word "empire" had ceased, in all but the most academic discourse, to be purely descriptive. It carried a negative connotation. Like slavery, dictatorship, and discrimination, it was widely understood to refer to a political practice that, while once common and acceptable, had come to be seen as an odious exercise in wrongful subordination. Two of the most powerful ideologies of the twentieth century, nationalism and Marxism, defined their respective historical missions as prominently including the defeat and abolition of imperialism. To call the American role in the world imperial was, for many who did so, a way of asserting that the United States was misusing its power beyond its borders and, in so doing, subverting its founding political principles within them.
The use of the term "empire" to describe the American role in the world in the twenty-first century, whatever its advantages, has one major shortcoming: It is inaccurate. Many criticisms may plausibly be leveled at the United States for the way it conducts its foreign policy, but the charge that that policy is essentially an imperial one is not among them.
Empires are "relationships of political control imposed by some political societies over the effective sovereignty of other political societies." Over the centuries the many empires that have risen and fallen all have shared three features. One is subordination: Every empire is an unequal relationship, with one party superior, the other inferior. The second is coercion. Whereas most empires have involved cooperation, sometimes extensive cooperation, between the rulers and the ruled, behind the relationship always stood the threat, and sometimes the use, of force by the imperial power to maintain its control. The third defining feature of empire is an ethnic, national, religious, or racial difference-or some combination of them-between the imperial power and the society it controls. Empire is a form of dictatorship, but a particular form: a dictatorship by foreigners.
Like other forms of dictatorship, empire violates a basic norm of political justice-self-government-that commands virtually universal allegiance, at least rhetorically, in the twenty-first century. That is why it has come to be a term of disapproval. But it does not apply to the relations of the United States with other countries, vast and varied though these are.
American influence in the world is certainly considerable, but the United States does not control, directly or indirectly, the politics and economics of other societies, as empires have always done, save for a few special cases that turn out to be the exceptions that prove the rule. Where it has exercised direct control it has sought, as in the Balkans in the 1990s, to share this control with other countries, unlike classical imperial powers. It has also sought to divest itself of this responsibility as quickly as was feasible, as in Haiti in the same decade. By contrast, the empires of history generally tried to perpetuate themselves and often, as in the case of France in both Indochina and Algeria after World War II, invested a great deal of blood and treasure in this effort.
If the twenty-first-century United States is not an empire, what is it? Words matter, especially words defining complicated political arrangements, because they shape perceptions of the events of the past, attitudes toward policies being carried out in the present, and expectations about desirable directions for the future. The use of the term "empire" leads to erroneous conclusions about the nature and the distribution of the costs and benefits of American foreign policies, the origins of these policies, and the most important influences on their future course. There is a word that better conveys the realities of all of these. That word is government. America acts as the world's government.
The term "government," from the Greek for "to steer," is older than "empire," which derives from the Latin word for "command." It is more nearly neutral, without the negative baggage that "empire" has come to carry. It is a more general concept: Empire is but one of many forms of government.
As a description of America's relations with other countries the word "government" is even more jarring, and may at first seem even less apt, than "empire." There are, after all, many governments in the world and the global role of the United States, expansive though it is, does not look much like any of them.
The reason for this is that government everywhere is identified with what the world lacks: a state. A state has three defining properties. It encompasses a formally delineated territory. It employs specialized personnel, usually bureaucrats and soldiers. And it is recognized as independent on its territory; that is, it is sovereign. Government is the instrument of the state, established by and acting on behalf of it. Government is what the state's specialized personnel do within its territory-and sometimes outside it.
States do not necessarily last forever-the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia disappeared in the last decade of the twentieth century-but they have proven more durable than particular configurations of government. Five different republics and two empires have governed France since the revolution of the late eighteenth century, but the French state has endured.
States are not only durable, they are ubiquitous. Every member of the United Nations is a sovereign state. Every inhabitant of the Earth belongs to one or another of its almost 200 states. World history is by and large the collective and individual histories of the world's sovereign states. But there is no single overarching world state of which world government could be the instrument. The UN is the trade association of the world's states, not an entity that governs them.
Government may also be understood, however, as a provider of services for a society. A society is a collection of interconnected yet independent units that are in regular contact with one another. By this definition the world's sovereign states qualify as a society, for they, like the human inhabitants of societies, interact regularly. The society of states, like societies of individuals, requires services. Economists refer to the kind of service that societies need and that governments provide as public goods. The United States furnishes them to the society of sovereign states.
A public good is something that, once it is provided to a group, cannot be denied to any member of that group. National defense is one example; clean air is another. When a military defends a country's borders, it protects everyone who lives within them; when air is clean, everyone gets the benefits of breathing it.
The most basic of all public goods is personal safety. Governments are able to provide public safety because they have a monopoly of force. That monopoly is crucial for the supply of other public goods as well: Public goods are costly, and a government, because of its monopoly, can force people to pay for them.
Without the government doing so, no one has any incentive to contribute to the cost of a public good because no one can be excluded from receiving its benefits. Once the air is clean, anybody can breathe it whether or not he or she has contributed to the cost of purifying it. It is, in purely economic terms, rational to be a "free rider," enjoying the benefit without paying the cost, like the person who sneaks on to a bus without paying a fare. Thus, in the absence of the compulsion that government supplies, no one will voluntarily contribute to cleaning the air and it will remain dirty.
While the provision of public goods depends on the coercive power that government wields within individual states, in the society of sovereign states the United States does not have a monopoly of force and does not practice the kind of coercion that domestic governments routinely employ. Indeed, it is the absence of this characteristic governmental practice that distinguishes the twenty-first-century United States from the empires of the past. How, then, is the United States able to supply public goods to the world?
It is able to do so because public goods can be supplied even in the absence of an authority to compel payment from the benefiting group when one of the group's members is large enough, wealthy enough, and, most importantly, has a great enough stake in the public good in question to pay its entire cost. For example, the owner of a large, expensive, lavishly-furnished mansion surrounded by more modest homes may pay to have security guards patrolling his street, and their presence will serve to protect the neighboring houses as well, even though their owners contribute nothing to the cost of the guards. That is what the United States does in the world of the twenty-first century. It is in this sense that the United States functions as the world's government.
Like the creation and maintenance of empires throughout history, the provision of international public goods by the United States is not an act of altruism. Self-interest motivates the world's strongest power to undertake its twenty-first-century global tasks, just as self-interest lay behind the expansion of Roman, Habsburg, and British imperial power. But in other ways the American global role differs dramatically from-indeed is the opposite of-imperial rule.
Empire stands condemned in the twenty-first century because it has always rested on an imbalance of power between the ruling and the ruled societies. Inequality of any kind, once considered a normal, natural part of human existence, came to be seen in the course of the twentieth century as increasingly illegitimate. For the provision of international public goods, however, inequality is desirable. Indeed, it is essential. The advantage over all other countries in wealth and power that the United States enjoys, and that those who term it a latter-day empire decry by their use of the term, is the necessary condition for the American role as the world's government.
That role also reverses the distribution of benefits commonly attributed to empire. Traditionally, the imperial power has been seen as a predator, drawing economic profit and political gain from its control of the imperial possession, while the members of the society it controls suffer; or, if they do benefit from the relationship, the ruled gain far less than their imperial masters. In its role as the provider of international public goods, by contrast, it is the United States that pays and the rest of the world that benefits without having to pay. The biblical Goliath served the Philistines but not the people of Israel. The twenty-first-century United States does both. It is not the lion of the international system, terrorizing and preying on smaller, weaker animals in order to survive itself. It is, rather, the elephant, which supports a wide variety of other creatures-smaller mammals, birds, and insects-by generating nourishment for them as it goes about the business of feeding itself.
Excerpted from The Case for Goliath by Michael Mandelbaum Copyright © 2005 by Michael Mandelbaum. Excerpted by permission.
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|Ch. 1||The world's government||1|
|Ch. 2||International security||31|
|Ch. 3||The global economy||88|
|Ch. 4||International legitimacy||141|
|Ch. 5||The future||187|
Posted August 8, 2011
A friend gave me this for my birthday and it's one of the greatest and clearest books I've ever read (and I have a doctorate, so I've read many books.) I cannot recommend any book about the American role in the world more highly than this. Absolutely brilliant. A must-read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 5, 2011
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