The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation


This dramatic narrative of breathtaking scope and riveting focus puts the "story" back into history. It is the saga of how the most ambitious of big ideas — that a world made up of many nations can govern itself peacefully — has played out over the millennia. Humankind's "Great Experiment" goes back to the most ancient of days — literally to the Garden of Eden — and into the present, with an eye to the future.

Strobe Talbott looks back to the consolidation of tribes into nations...

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The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation

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This dramatic narrative of breathtaking scope and riveting focus puts the "story" back into history. It is the saga of how the most ambitious of big ideas — that a world made up of many nations can govern itself peacefully — has played out over the millennia. Humankind's "Great Experiment" goes back to the most ancient of days — literally to the Garden of Eden — and into the present, with an eye to the future.

Strobe Talbott looks back to the consolidation of tribes into nations — starting with Israel — and the absorption of those nations into the empires of Hammurabi, the Pharaohs, Alexander, the Caesars, Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, the Ottomans, and the Hapsburgs, through incessant wars of territory and religion, to modern alliances and the global conflagrations of the twentieth century.

He traces the breakthroughs and breakdowns of peace along the way: the Pax Romana, the Treaty of Westphalia, the Concert of Europe, the false start of the League of Nations, the creation of the flawed but indispensable United Nations, the effort to build a "new world order" after the cold war, and America's unique role in modern history as "the master builder" of the international system.

Offering an insider's view of how the world is governed today, Talbott interweaves through this epic tale personal insights and experiences and takes us with him behind the scenes and into the presence of world leaders as they square off or cut deals with each other. As an acclaimed journalist, he covered the standoff between the superpowers for more than two decades; as a high-level diplomat, he was in the thick of tumultuous events in the 1990s, when the bipolar equilibrium gave way to chaos in the Balkans, the emergence of a new breed of international terrorist, and America's assertiveness during its "unipolar moment" — which he sees as the latest, but not the last, stage in the Great Experiment.

Talbott concludes with a trenchant critique of the worldview and policies of George W. Bush, whose presidency he calls a "consequential aberration" in the history of American foreign policy. Then, looking beyond the morass in Iraq and the battle for the White House, he argues that the United States can regain the trust of the world by leading the effort to avert the perils of climate change and nuclear catastrophe.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"With the sweep of a historian and the sure hand of a man who has been in the arena, Strobe Talbott has given us a brilliant, provocative, and thoughtful book about the most important questions of our time." — Jon Meacham, author of Franklin and Winston and American Gospel

"The Great Experiment is a magisterial work — a rare combination of sweeping historical narrative with personal insight, wisdom, and analytic brilliance. It should be a call to action for leaders at the highest level." — Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals

"Both a witness to history and a shaper of it, Talbott has written a vivid and vital reckoning of what we need to manage and contain global threats." — Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

"A crucially important book for our times and the debate on how to deal with challenges ranging from climate change to terrorism to pandemics." — Dennis Ross, author of Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World

"A book of stunning breadth, analyzing past efforts at transcending isolation and conflict and explaining the inescapable need for global cooperation. A fast-moving survey, elegantly accessible with illuminating autobiographical touches. A rare feat for a large public." — Fritz Stern, author of Five Germanys I Have Known

"Americans should read this narrative — part history, part memoir — and hope for a day when its author will once again be in a position to help restore his country's fortunes." — Tony Judt, author of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

Publishers Weekly

Talbott, deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, makes an eloquent but predictable appeal for progress toward "global governance" under the auspices of the United Nations, which he sees as humanity's destined path since tribes began forming states, and since states have sought an alternative to international anarchy. The major obstacle to the new order, according to Talbott (Engaging India), is the United States, whose massive power and individualist principles encourage its citizens to regard limiting national authority as unnatural. In the face of cultural resistance, however, presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton regarded some form of world authority as both a natural development in a nuclear era and a useful element of U.S. foreign policy. The villain of the piece, not surprisingly, is George W. Bush, who Talbott claims asserted America's right to make and enforce rules for other nations, rejected facts that did not support his preconceptions and ignored advice from more experienced foreign-policy hands. The resulting havoc wrought by "triumphalism" and "evangelism," according to the author, will require the careful attention of wiser, more temperate people, presumably in a Democratic administration. While the roots of Talbott's argument run deep, it echoes so much conventional wisdom on the subject that its impact is likely to be minimal. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Trying to get a rogue state to behave the way one likes is a messy business. It's a touch easier when the nations of the world join you. It's near impossible when you try to go it alone. Thus, in a nutshell, is the arc of the latest exercise in geopolitics by former Clinton Deputy Secretary of State and current Brookings Institution president Talbott (Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb, 2004, etc.), a fluent, smart observer of the international scene. The presumed premise of the book isn't exactly earth-shattering. The growth of the nation-state from its clannish and tribal origins has been well documented in thousands of previous studies, though the historically minded reader may well enjoy recalling the many successes of the medieval Hanseatic League, committed to the notion of international peace in the interest of commerce. It is always useful, too, to be reminded why the United Nations came into being and of the "lofty but elusive goals" it is meant to pursue and sometimes attains. Yet all of that is prelude to the heart of Talbott's argument, a withering assessment of current U.S. foreign policy. The author admits to not liking Bush and recounts Bush's clear dislike of him. Thus, while there is no danger of Greenspanian out-of-left-field revelations, neither is there reason to expect Talbott to find much right with the way things are going. He doesn't. He does turn in a few nice surprises, though, including an account of a meeting with Pentagon top brass in which the absence of multilateralism is sorely missed, a solid appreciation for Bush the Elder as just the sort of multilateralist that ought to be missed and a sharp study of the deep dislike for former UNambassador Josh Bolton within the state department. Bush's policies, Talbott concludes, are "an aberration in the evolution of American internationalism," likely to be corrected but still liable to do much harm to the nation and the world. This book makes for lucid dissent. Agent: Esther Newberg/ICM
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743294096
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 3/17/2009
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 4.20 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Gathering of Tribes 1

1 The Imperial Millennia

1 Caravans at Rest 15

2 A Light Unto the Nations 26

3 The Ecumenical State 41

4 The Poet and "The Prince" 66

5 Perpetual War and "Perpetual Peace" 86

6 Blood and Leather 104

2 The American Centuries

7 Monsters to Destroy 125

8 Empty Chairs 148

9 The Master Builder 174

10 A Trusteeship of the Powerful 203

11 An End and a Beginning 237

3 The Unipolar Decades

12 The New World Order 255

13 Seizing the Day 280

14 Hard Power 299

15 A Theory of the Case 324

16 Going it Alone 347

17 A Consequential Aberration 370

Conclusion: Yes, We Must 393

Acknowledgments 411

Illustration Credits 414

Notes 415

Index 463

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