None of the Above
Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World
By Ian Bremmer
“Don’t do stupid shit.”
That’s how President Obama characterized his foreign policy when last year, his blood up, he confronted the press corps about its coverage of his trip to Asia—and its coverage of just about everything else, too. He did elaborate, saying that he favored the judicious deployment of American power and the careful husbanding of finite resources, and the session was supposed to be off the record, meaning that nothing was to be quoted, even without attribution. But lines like that are too good for soundbite-obsessed and deadline-burdened reporters. The incident got out (reporters were quoted anonymously by other reporters) and critics of Obama’s foreign policy had a new rhetorical peg upon which to hang their criticisms.
Some took the phrase to mean that Obama was acting in accordance with the belief that the United States was a country in decline; others thought it indicated a lack of focus that explained his haphazard response to various foreign crises. Whatever the accusation, everyone agreed that “don’t do stupid shit” was a philosophy unworthy of America. Hillary Clinton, positioning herself for a run for President and doubtlessly well-rehearsed, spoke for most of the commentariat when she declared that, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
Echoing that chorus is Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, a new book by Ian Bremmer. He claims we are living through one of those “historical moments when the death of the existing order and the violent birth of a new one create extraordinary turmoil.” Despite America’s continued preeminence, “ill-conceived nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan and the inability to resolve more recent conflicts leave Americans cynical about the value of U.S. power and reluctant to test it anywhere else.” As a result, America’s allies “now question the strength of Washington’s commitment to the global responsibilities it claimed for itself in better days. Rivals and adversaries see new opportunities to test American intentions.” The author believes that Americans deserve “a firm decision about what role America can and should play in the world… The incoherence in American foreign policy has been growing for twenty-five years. What are we going to do about it?”
Into the vacuum charges Bremmer, with an odd approach to the venerable Crisis-of-Now genre. He harangues us with urgent words about the necessity of choice, so we can understand the stakes: that’s normal. He pantomimes different approaches to foreign policy with equal enthusiasm, so we can choose among them: an unusual method, though most books weigh alternatives, if only to disparage them. But the most revealing thing, aside perhaps from his condescending tone, is that Bremmer assigns us a multiple choice quiz, so he can tell us at the end why we failed it:
We’ll come back to these questions in the conclusion, and I promise to tell you exactly what I believe and why I believe it—and I’ll refer back to this quiz at the end of chapters 3,4, and 5. But this book is about what you think. Whether you’re an American or the proud citizen of another country, I want to know what role you believe the world’s only superpower should play in our world.
Superpower, in other words, is a book for children masquerading as food for thinking adults. I think it’s the most offensive thing I’ve read all year.
What America needs, our teacher says, is “national debate,” a cliché that many invoke but no one can adequately define. Bremmer sort of tries, but in presuming his audience’s view and flattering them for it, he winds up outlining a political scenario that may never have existed on Earth:
I… love a debate. Not the ones where politicians preen and bob and weave while pundits tally up their applause lines and verbal stumbles. I love debates in which brave and sincere men and women take up serious subjects in hopes of opening new doors onto undiscovered country. That’s the kind of debate America needs right now.
Judged by his own mawkish standard, the “debate” that follows – three chapters in which Bremmer takes up different views of foreign policy and argues them like a man running for office – is very much not what America needs.
For one thing, America could do without so many declarations of patriotism from its leaders and commentators. Before the book even reaches its first numbered chapter, Bremmer thinks it is very important for you to know that he definitely, definitely does not hate America. He is “intensely proud to be an American. You should know that right at the top,” he writes, as if he isn’t uttering the most uncontroversial statement in the American politics. Hedging, perhaps for those even more patriotic than himself, he explains that, “Because I love my country, I feel a responsibility to honor its virtues and accomplishments and to think and write about its shortcomings.” Still – now calibrating like a speechwriter for maximum appeal – the book is not “about blame for past mistakes. It’s about America’s role in tomorrow’s world.” And America, of course, is great—really, really great, and every point in Superpower must rest on this foundation of greatness and the base appeals to sentiment that it inspires. One could even say that the debate Bremmer has fashioned, with its preening, bobbing, weaving and applause lines, bears a strong resemblance to the debate America already has.
Except that there are three candidates, not two. They are Independent America, Moneyball America, and Indispensable America. Each gets one chapter and each chapter opens with a campaign slogan. Independent America’s tagline is stuffy (“So That Security and Liberty May Prosper Together”), while Moneyball’s is frank but rather uninspiring (“To Promote and Protect American Value”). Indispensable America’s line (“Leadership—for America and for the World”) is aggressively dull, and most like the slogans you see on a typical campaign bumper sticker.
For the sake of convenience and grammar, I’m going to play along with Bremmer and describe his three doctrines as if they are real candidates. Indispensable believes that in the post-Cold War world there is “no peacetime or wartime,” just “permanent tension,” and that “we will be safe only if others live in peace.” This is the neoconservative view, one shared in many ways by liberal internationalists. Moneyball believes that “U.S. Foreign policy should be designed to make the United States safer and more prosperous; it’s foolish to think that Americans can safeguard their interests and promote prosperity without accepting some costs and risks far beyond our borders.” But we should choose our battles more carefully, and stop worrying about costly distractions like human rights. This is basically the “realist” school of international relations, exemplified by people like Henry Kissinger and Samuel P. Huntington. Independent believes that we should stop trying to “solve other people’s problems” and work on our own: “For all the damage a foolish foreign policy inflicts on U.S. interests abroad,” he claims, “the greatest damage is done inside the United States.” The Vietnamese and Iraqis, to name a few, might disagree, but moving on, this view has wide though relatively shallow representation on both sides of the political spectrum, from people like Pat Buchanan to former Democratic Senator Jim Webb.
There’s something else familiar about them, too. Bremmer’s three candidates frequently insult and mis-characterize each other, just like real politicians. Independent America, for example, goes to great lengths to point out that he is not arguing for isolationism, yet Moneyball and Indispensable keep accusing him of it. Moneyball is especially rude: “The ideas expressed in the previous chapter,” he says, “won’t create an ‘Independent America.’ This is Isolationist America, a shining city on a hill built high atop Fantasy Island.” It reminds me of the way Republicans once maligned the catchy, populist anti-interventionism of Ron Paul (as opposed to criticizing him for something with a stronger basis in fact, like his ties to racists and neo-confederates—too many voters to offend there). Some might praise Bremmer for this verisimilitude, but campaign politics is both frustrating and boring, and so is his book.
In one important way, though, Bremmer doesn’t carry the likeness far enough. I suppose this constitutes a spoiler alert, so consider yourself warned: at the end, Bremmer chooses Independent America. One of Independent America’s bugbears is free trade, which he claims (with some justice) is bad for both American and foreign workers. Bremmer, on the other hand, is a fan, but, “To capture the views of many others I’ve heard championing this vision of the country’s future, I felt a responsibility to give voice to a widely held trade skepticism that I don’t share.” It’s a curious admission, because Bremmer often goes out of his way to make his fictional candidates more like their creator than their inspirations.
All three, for instance, believe the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a mistake, but in the real world many of those who want the United States to intervene vigorously abroad (the Indispensable types) don’t think that at all, and further argue that America should bomb or even invade Iran. Bremmer doesn’t believe that, so Indispensable doesn’t believe it. The Independent America crowd thinks these interventions are absurd and Bremmer is faithful to that but fails to capture something important: outside the radical left, there is an ugly, even xenophobic slant to their rhetoric. Likewise, neither right-wing Independent or neoconservative Indispensables favor large-scale domestic spending, but Bremmer does and so their stand-ins must, too. Moneyball thinks intervention should be limited to places where victory is easy and gains are probable. Bremmer makes him argue for a “Cold-blooded, interest-driven approach that redefines America’s role in the world in a way designed to maximize the return on the taxpayer’s investment.” But circumspection is not a virtue common to the self-righteous or the selfish: real-life Moneyball-types, like Henry Kissinger, are as likely to invade other countries as the Indispensables, because a country with interests as far-spanning as the United States will see fortunes and enemies everywhere.
Bremmer is playing a foolish hypothetical game here, but he insists we choose one of his creations. By the end he attains peak condescension, using what he thinks is a clever trick to drive home his point about the necessity of a unified “vision”:
Look back at the short quiz you took in the introduction. I bet that you’ll find that some of your answers line up with Indispensable arguments, others with Moneyball, and still others with Independent. I hope that a second look makes clear that all three of these arguments have real merits and significant drawbacks. But I also hope you recognize that if you take those questions one at a time, and you try to answer them without a broader strategy in mind, the sum of your answers will create a foreign policy that’s impossible to explain—to our allies, our enemies, or the American people. That’s what our elected leaders have been doing for years.
The quiz has ten questions and they each have three possible answers. A typical question goes like this:
4. China is:
a. America’s greatest challenge and greatest opportunity.
b. The place where too many American jobs have gone.
c. The world’s largest dictatorship.
One glance is all it takes to realize that these answers are not mutually exclusive. A person could believe all or none or any combination of answers without being incoherent (well, not the third: China has an authoritarian government, not a dictatorship). Why else would Reagan negotiate with an “evil empire,” or Obama make a deal with Iran?
Closing out his final sermon on choice, Bremmer appears to be quite literally speaking to an audience of children even though they don’t have the credit cards necessary to buy his book:
If you live long enough, you will face a few difficult personal decisions that set you on a path toward the rest of your life. You’ve probably already made a few of these big decisions. We guess. We gamble. We close the door on interesting possibilities and hope to discover opportunities we could not have imagined. But if we fail to choose, our choices will be made for us—and we will live with more than our share of regret. America faces a critical choice.
May we choose wisely.
Of all Superpower’s false premises, this may be the worst: the idea that Americans can somehow choose their foreign policy. Americans choose answers to poll questions, they choose between two candidates, they occasionally choose to protest, but on the level of policy the word is useless.
So is “national discussion,” a nonsense phrase that means nothing like what its words imply. What Bremmer is really talking about is something else, a vague complex of interactions between events, commentators, politicians, economic elites, and the votes and opinions of a cynical, often uninformed citizenry. The economic, political and cultural elites mainly subscribe to a narrow range of acceptable views (like the immutable principle of America’s greatness, which Mr. Bremmer echoes so expertly), and they are very slow to adapt to change. The citizens are rightly skeptical about nearly everyone who works in Washington, but they are mostly concerned, like people everywhere, with their own lives; received wisdom and cultural preferences do the bulk of the work for them, too. Policy evolves fitfully in a setting like this, usually in response to events. Lessons are learned and frequently forgotten, and old shibboleths die gradually, if at all.
Obama, to recall Bremmer’s simplistic diagnosis, came to office with a “coherent foreign policy strategy”: end America’s ground wars and shift emphasis away from hard power and the Middle East toward economic power and Asia. But “intense battles at home over health care reform and the federal budget and his lack of interest in foreign policy allowed him to become easily distracted,” and so the President was caught “flat-footed” by the Arab Spring, the conflict in Syria, and much else besides. I’ve always thought this “distracted” line, which you hear everywhere, is more assertion than observation, but in any case, to Bremmer, Obama’s greatest sin isn’t distractibility but his refusal “to choose a clear path forward,” the end result being that the President’s “lack of a coherent worldview dissolved his commitment to the well-made plans of his first term, leaving him to improvise responses to events far beyond his (or anyone else’s) control.”
I think that last clause is key. There’s something to the idea that America hasn’t had as consistent a message as it once did, when fighting the Soviet Union and making the world safe for democracy and capitalism were easy to tie together in speeches. After two calamitous wars, one economic disaster, and the relative decline of American power, the message today is still freedom and enterprise, but without the old enthusiasm or the Soviet Union for a boogeyman. Obama had no chance to prevent these events, as Bremmer admits, and he seems to want to move away from the blithe confidence that informed the knee-jerk interventionism of Clinton and the programmatic interventionism of the younger George Bush. However foolish the choice to intervene in Libya, Obama did insist on a reduced role for the United States. He chose diplomacy with Iran and Cuba. He withdrew from Iraq. I don’t know how much further, in an ideal country, Obama would like to take this shift in direction. There is a strong vein of incrementalism in his world view, but it is plain that he has not been able to go as far as he wanted (Israel is one of many examples). He has to respond to events he can’t control, and he operates within a sclerotic political system that punishes deviance and rewards cheap rhetoric.
Obama has also made some terrible, even cowardly, choices (I would nominate the Afghan surge, his schizophrenic involvement in Syria, the drone wars, and the expansion of the surveillance state, among others). But they all seemed to be concessions to fear, or politics, or entrenched institutions: Obama isn’t the type to face down a stubborn military or a recalcitrant CIA, or ignore the benefits (to America, at least) of getting soldiers off the ground by putting drones in the air. A lot of innocent people are dead because of that, but America doesn’t really care. Absent calamity – which changes minds far more quickly than conversation – it is not going to suddenly adopt a new philosophy of foreign relations, much less one of the those on offer from Ian Bremmer—or Bill Kristol or Noam Chomsky. The system will not allow it. If that is true, then maybe the best America and the world can hope for right now is the flexibility and caution that Obama sometimes demonstrates. In other words, perhaps the best we can hope for is just less stupid shit.
Greg Waldmann is the Editor-in-chief of Open Letters Monthly, and a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.