Thursday, 11 March 2010

“Power Rules”, by Leslie H. Gelb (Harper)


How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy

Inspired by Niccolo Machiavelli's classic treatise on power and its use, The Prince, Leslie H. Gelb offers his guidelines on how American power actually works and should be wielded in today's tumultuous world.

Writing with the perspective of four decades of experience in various government, think tank, and journalism positions, Gelb provides an incisive look at the major U.S. foreign-policy triumphs and tragedies of the past half century, and offers practical rules on how to effectively exercise power today.

Power Rules is an impassioned challenge to both liberals and conservatives and a plea to reclaim the true meaning of power and the essential role of common sense in solving global problems.

When it comes to books on US foreign policy, it is difficult to write anything particularly new or revelatory. Gelb, I think, recognises this, and Power Rules is “more about reminders than revelations”, drawing on 500 years of history and the evolution of power and its usage. Gelb hopes to illuminate the issues surrounding foreign policy, and explain how and why the system is broken or comes across problems.

“Intuitively, most Americans sense that there must be a better way – and they are right. This book shows them why they are right.”

Having worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations, Gelb is clear to state that he is not attempting to produce a partisan attack on one party or another.

“In recent years… I have become much more a critic than an admirer of both parties. That applies especially to George W. Bush, but also to [Bill] Clinton. Both men and their parties have made me not partisan, but just a bit surly.”

Power Rules is well structured. The book is split into three parts. “Power in the New World” begins Gelb’s treatise, first providing his impression of the world now and how “from the birth of the nation-state until after World War II, international power was much simpler”, with the more powerful able to boss around the lesser powers, but in the current international climate this is no longer the case. Gelb then defines power as he sees it; how American politicians have attempted to wield it, from the Founding Fathers to Bush II (this chapter was particularly interesting for me); and “the New Pyramid of World Power”, that is how “power is… dispersed below to unprecedented and complicating degrees”.

Part II of the book describes and explains the Rules of Exercising Power; these include the importance of strategy and indispensability, intelligence, military power, economic power, and the importance of being able to set the stage in a way that benefits America’s national and security interests.

Part II also shows us Gelb’s feisty disdain for some of the actors involved in the American foreign policy-making process, particularly in chapter 7, “U.S. Domestic Politics and Power”. In this chapter, the author takes a look at the influence of the media, special interests, Congress, and think tanks. Ultimately, he argues that the majority of foreign policy power remains in the office of the president, and for a president to lose a foreign policy “battle” with Congress, “everything has to go wrong – all at the same time and over a long period of time.” As this was the chapter that held the most immediate interest for me, I thought I’d share just a couple of incited Gelb offers, to showcase his writing style. More than most other forces at work in the policy-making process, Congress has the most chance of stopping the president in his tracks and forcing major changes in foreign policy. That is,

“on those unusual occasions when it is roused from its slumber-inducing rhetoric. Until those rare moments, members of Congress do little more than aim a few darts of criticism followed by quiet acquiescence. Congress is an odd place that sometimes rises up like a giant, but mainly tries to avoid responsibility”

Part III brings all these things together – first discussing foreign policy and the necessity of outlining clear and proper policies. Gelb takes this opportunity to take a look at US policy in the Middle East, and then draw everything together to offer his guidelines on how best to create a commonsense foreign policy in today’s complicated and unpredictable world.

Another book review of a text by one of Kissinger’s former PhD students (the other is the late Peter W. Rodman’s Presidential Command, which will be reviewed very shortly), Gelb’s Power Rules is an exceptionally well-written and enjoyable read. His analysis is incisive and well-informed, drawing on his many years of access and experience working in or around the US government.

Bringing Machiavelli’s Prince into the 21st Century, reinforcing the realist school’s approach to international relations, Gelb argues that,

“Power rules, still, and there still are rules on how best to exercise it. The rules differ from those penned by Niccolo Machiavelli…, but share the same roots in a mixed view of human nature and a constant sense of the uncertainties of a semi-anarchic world”

Mentioning realism, Gelb’s approach to his subject is refreshingly accessible – while the occasional phrase or jargon of international relations crops up, for the main he has managed to write in a way that portrays the complexity of the problems facing any president in a way that is easily understood and digested. For this he should be applauded, as all too often scholars and authors find comfort in dense and indecipherable blocks of jargon and academic phraseology – not only is this off-putting and difficult to read, but self defeating. More books on international relations should be written in Gelb’s style. The author’s use of the historical material included here is also deft and eloquent, clear and concise.

For once, the encomiums that grace the cover of the book and also a couple of pages on the inside are wholly justified. Power Rules is certainly one of the best, if not the best, book on American foreign policy I’ve ever read.

An essential book for anyone interested in this subject, I can’t recommend it enough.

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