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How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy

Review by Carlos G. P. Teixeira, M.A.

Leslie H. Gelb, Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy, New York: Harper, 2009, 352 pages, ISBN 978-0061714542; hardback, $27.99.

Realism has made a comeback. At least this is the conclusion that one would come to by reading the most recent works of some American scholars after the debacle of the war in Iraq and the apparent failure of the neoconservative prescription for American foreign policy. Just as a small sample, in 2007 George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni released Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy, arguing against the American policy of democratization and defending priority for establishing reasonable conditions of security abroad – “Security drives democracy,” states Etzioni, “while democracy does not beget security.”

In 2008, Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich published The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, in which he also criticizes the attempt to impose democracy on foreign countries. For Bacevich, “realism rather than idealism – not ‘do-goodism’ but self-interest – provides the impetus for action.” While Etzioni offers a more academic and sociological perspective, Bacevich, who graduated from West Point and served the United States Army for 30 years, is concerned mostly with military aspects.

The latest defense of realism (even though sometimes it is a realism that dare not speak its name, since there is always a typical American necessity to argue for moral superiority – Etzioni’s subtitle is a good example) comes from Leslie H. Gelb in Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. The three books share a sense of increasing limitation to American power and of exhaustion towards the fixation on democratization. Gelb adds to this discussion a more policy-oriented approach.

Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and former New York Times columnist, has served in several posts in government, both for Democrats and Republicans. Before working for the Department of Defense under the Johnson administration, Gelb was executive assistant to Republican senator Jacob Javits. Later, during the Carter administration, he was assistant secretary for political-military affairs in the State Department. Before assuming the presidency of the Council on Foreign Relations, Gelb was awarded a “Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism” during his time on The New York Times. Gelb’s book has a different tone from both Etzioni and Bacevich since he writes it as if he was a modern Machiavelli giving advice to the American prince. By the time he wrote the book, Barack Obama had already won the elections, and Gelb aims to influence the Obama administration on how to use American power in the face of new strategic conditions of the twenty-first century.

Organizing Themes
Gelb’s argument is centered on three main organizing themes. First, he provides his definition of power and how the nature of power has changed in the last 50 years or so. Second, Gelb presents his view of the structure of the current international system.  Finally, as if he was writing the American version of The Prince, Gelb goes on to discuss the rules for exercising power, enumerating four or five of these rules by the end of each chapter, often employing the second person to refer to the new American president. The book ends with some specific policy prescriptions, particularly for the Middle East.

Borrowing from the work of Robert Dahl, Gelb defines power as “getting people or groups to do something they don’t want to do.”  Gelb emphasizes power as a psychological and political tool, adding that “it is about manipulating one’s own resources and position to pressure and coerce psychologically and politically.” Thus, the author considers that power in inter-state relations is only observable when a state gets another state to do something it would not otherwise do. On this belief lies Gelb’s wariness towards the notion of “soft power” which, in his terminology, becomes “stage-setting power.”

The author argues that soft power is not actual power, since it is unusual to get a state do something it would not otherwise do just based on things like ideas, values, and culture.  In Gelb’s view, the role of soft power is to facilitate the implementation of a given strategy, since it “cloaks and cushions the ultimate blows of power” and “make being pressured more palatable.” Although he does not give much credit to soft power, the author stresses that the nature of power has changed in the last several years, with military power losing importance and economic power rising. The limits of power became clear during the Vietnam War and have been confirmed more recently by Iraq and Afghanistan. Because he sees economic power as central – and urges American universities to develop better programs in political economy – Gelb praises China for being the country that “has played the economic power more adeptly.”

Gelb is critical of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as in fact he is critical of both American liberals, who are claimed to be too wary in using force and to believe that every difference can be solved by reason, and of American conservatives, who would ignore the limits of power and give too much emphasis on pressure over persuasion.  The author charges Clinton with being too uncomfortable in wielding power, not having a clear overall strategy, and being excessively focused on domestic economic issues.  Thus, in line with Gelb’s view of the role of soft power, the result was that world leaders liked Clinton, “but seldom did as he wished or demanded;” i.e., “the positive feelings” did not translate into actual power.

Bush is blamed for rushing into Iraq without hard evidence, rejecting diplomacy, making empty threats to North Korea and Iran, and “his utter devotion to the ultra right’s mania for military force, and the national arrogance he came to embody.”  In sum, Gelb argues that whereas Clinton tried to escape power politics, Bush attempted to dominate it, and both ended up yielding unsatisfactory results.

The three leaders that Gelb praises the most throughout the book are Truman, Nixon, and Bush senior – the first for designing a strategy for responding to Soviets with the help of European allies, the second for diverting the defeat in Vietnam by skillful diplomacy, and the latter for managing the fall of Soviet Union by strengthening Gorbachev instead of humiliating him.

The Current International System
In the second part of the book, Gelb offers his view of the current international system, which is fundamentally a rejection of the notion of a “flat” world. In addition to his criticism of soft power, here is where Gelb clearly parts ways with some of the recent analyses from the liberal camp within the United States.  While Thomas Friedman sees a “flattening” world and Fareed Zakaria talks about “the rise of the rest,” for Gelb the world is rather “pyramidal” – yes, power is more dispersed, he acknowledges, but the United States remains on the top.  Below it, there are several tiers.

The second tier is composed by what Gelb calls “The Eight,” which includes China, Japan, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Brazil.  In Gelb’s framework, these are the principal countries that the United States should consider when seeking support for its actions.

The third tier is composed of oil producing countries, the fourth of mid-level regional powers, the fifth of countries like Switzerland and Chile, which “neither make nor submit to demands,” the sixth of “problem states” like Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and, finally, the seventh tier is occupied by non-state actors, such as NGOs. The author points out that power is concentrated on the top three tiers, and understanding this pyramidal structure is the key for policy-makers to avoid getting stuck in excessive multilateralism. The connection between power and good policy, argues Gelb, relies on the world pyramid and on the new rules for exercising power, which is the last axis of the book’s argument.

The world described by Gelb is characterized by the fact that “so few nations have the power to get things done, and so many have the power to delay and resist.” For Gelb, rather than multilateralism, it is the principle of “mutual indispensability” – focused on the first tiers of the pyramid – that should guide American foreign policy. This principle is a recognition that “as powerful as the United States is, it can’t succeed in solving or managing a major problem without cooperation of other major countries” and vice-versa. Gelb’s slogan for this concept is:  “We swim together or sink apart.”

Based on this view, the conclusion is that it is vital for the U.S. president to recognize the need for compromise, based on a clear understanding of what is essential and what is marginal. Compromising and making clear and informed choices are essentially what Gelb denominates in the book’s subtitle as the “common sense” that “can rescue American foreign policy.” Nevertheless, in this pyramidal framework, compromising does not mean wasting time attending every demand from a myriad of different countries, but rather establishing power coalitions concentrating on the top tiers.

Policy Prescriptions
In the last part of the book, Gelb gives specific policy prescriptions to the new American president, with particular focus on the Middle East. This section is certainly the most disappointing in an overall good book.  Whenever Gelb remains focused on broader issues, the consequence is usually a clever discussion; but when he goes into specifics, the results are less encouraging.  For example, he mentions that “the Latin American constituency in the United States” would be interested in neutralizing Venezuela and in increasing trade with Brazil.  Aside from the fact that talking about a unitary block called the “Latin American constituency” in the United States is incredibly misleading, certainly the relationship with Brazil and Venezuela would not top their agenda – Mexico, Cuba, and Central America would probably be more pressing issues for such a constituency.

When Gelb switches to the Middle East, the major weakness is the lack of creative solutions for the region.  His recommendation for Iraq is exactly what was decided by the end of the Bush administration and continued by Obama’s – establish a federal government, guarantee a level of security, and withdraw troops.  For Iran, Gelb proposes to strike a bargain by having Libya as a model, where Qaddafi agreed with Bush’s demands, and Bush agreed to Qaddafi staying in power – a deal regarded as “the best piece of diplomacy of the Bush administration.” The oddest recommendation is on Syria – a mix of doing nothing with helping the Assad family to gain more “prestige” and “credibility.”

For the Palestine-Israel issue, Gelb only reiterates generalities – a two-state solution, negotiation with Fatah, reaffirmation of the Camp David accords of 2000, making coalitions with other Arab states, efforts to stop terrorist attacks, etc. If one looks for more insightful proposals for the region, renowned Washington Post columnist David Ignatius – who spent most of his career dealing with issues in the Middle East and interviewing several key figures in the region – has recently written a very interesting piece for Foreign Policy magazine dealing with exactly the same topic. End.

Bibliographical References
Bacevich, A. J. 2008. The limits of power: The end of American Exceptionalism. 1st ed. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Dahl, Robert A., “The Concept of Power”. 1957. Behavioral Science, Vol.2, No.3.
Etzioni, Amitai. 2007. Security first: For a muscular, moral foreign policy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Friedman, Thomas L. 2007. The world is flat : A brief history of the twenty-first century. 1st further updated and expanded hardcover ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Gelb, Leslie H. 2009. Power rules: How common sense can rescue American foreign policy. 1st ed. New York Harper.
Ignatius, David. 2009. Caught in the Middle. Foreign Policy, May/June 2009
Nye, Joseph S. 2004. Soft power: The means to success in world politics. 1st ed. New York: Public Affairs.
Zakaria, Fareed. 2008. The post-American world. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton.


Carlos G.P. Teixeira is a Ph.D. candidate in International Studies at Old Dominion University and a Fulbright Grantee. He earned a Masters in International Relations from the Programa San Tiago Dantas at Universidade Estadual Paulista in Sao Paul. His thesis “The Neoconservative Thought in Foreign Policy in the United States” won the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Award from the U.S. embassy in Brazil.


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