Nye’s latest book is an interesting one. It is also a tricky one to review. Partly, this is because I ended up focusing on certain gaps and glaring omissions. Therefore, I’m going to offer a less exhaustive review, focusing instead on some specific thoughts on the book’s content. (There are a few general comments, of course.)
I always look forward to a new book from Nye, but I must say this one failed to meet my expectations (to be fair, I also found his his previous volume wanting – The Future of Power: And Use in the Twenty-First Century). I had hoped for a concise, focused discussion of the role of the president in foreign policy-making. Instead, despite some valuable content, what I found was a book that was more muddled than it should have been.
Known for his work on “Smart” power and his many years as a presidential adviser, I was interested to see what he had to write about the role of presidential leadership in American foreign policy.
In his introduction, Nye states that the aim of this book is to “try to reconcile international relations and individual leadership theory.” (xii) I do believe he goes some way towards starting this debate, but given the book’s length, I do not believe he goes far enough, and in his admirable quest for brevity has produced some incomplete arguments and answers.
There are some statements in the book that are very difficult to refute – for example, that “... some presidents matter, but not always the ones who are most dramatic or inspiring.” And also, “... in judging leaders, we need to pay attention both to acts of commission and to acts of omission – dogs that barked and those that did not.” This is true, but the more I read, the more I realised that the book still didn’t offer much in the way of a convincing answer to these and other key questions.
As a student of American foreign policy, and the role of individual actors in the policy-making process (it formed a considerable proportion of my PhD thesis), I had hoped to find compelling support for my own conclusions. Instead, I mostly found a lot of the same or similar content and examples. Given his expertise, I had hoped for more from Nye.
The book is mostly well-structured. Nye offers a chapter on the Role of Leadership, laying out the various strands of theory that deal with actors and policy-making. He highlights the key Agent-Structure debate in International Relations, and Realist, Liberal and other perspectives on the question of specific leaders’ roles in key foreign policy developments and decisions. The author picks up on the trends within US foreign policy, including the potential need for a mix of theoretical approaches to its study – realism and liberalism. He suggests, correctly, that to view foreign policy decisions through a single theoretical lens is insufficient (this, pleasantly, supported my own research).
Nye follows this up with a brief, well-composed summary of US foreign policy history from Theodore Roosevelt to George H.W. Bush. This was a very good chapter, actually, giving readers just enough to provide fodder for making his argument, but without regurgitating a long history that could just as easily be found elsewhere.
The third chapter in the book, on Ethics and Good Foreign Policy Leadership, was the greatest disappointment with the book. From my reading, it was mostly irrelevant to the goal of the book. Nye’s attention on ethical foreign policy was a distraction from what should have been the main thrust of the book: the role of presidents as individuals in foreign policy. His argument sometimes felt irrelevant, and forming an entirely separate discussion/topic. Which, in turn, made the book somewhat imbalanced. This is not to say that the study of Ethics in foreign policy decision-making is not important, but in this case, I did not see how it was relevant and Nye did not convince me that this tangent was. Nor did he convince me that there is value in alternate-history hypotheticals (he includes a long-ish section of these).
“In the 2012 presidential campaign, both major-party candidates insisted that American power was not in decline, and vowed that they would maintain American primacy. But how much are such promises within the ability of presidents to keep? Was presidential leadership ever essential to the establishment of American primacy, or was that primacy an accident of history that would have occurred regardless of who occupied the Oval Office?”
The questions in the above paragraph are never sufficiently answered, in my opinion. While this is a well-written and interesting book, it cannot claim to answer the questions Nye set out to investigate. At most, it could be seen as a starting point for the debate. This is, in itself, a valuable thing and for this reason, I think people should buy and read this book. I just wish the book had been longer, and much more in-depth. There are so many factors that remain unaddressed. For example, how interested in foreign policy was each president analyzed? Under different presidents, different regions enjoyed increased or decreased scrutiny. The active engagement in an issue, or active disengagement, is very important, but Nye’s attempts to find a generalised interpretation leaves this and many other things unexplored. In fact, his clear interest in creating a general interpretation was muddled by many instances of specific examples being used to extrapolate a general picture. Matters were further muddled, when he would dismiss similar matters or examples with regards to different presidents. In this respect, Nye unwittingly highlights the difficulty in studying the roles of specific leaders in foreign policy-making.
I’d like to spend a moment discussing the relative absence of Richard Nixon in this book. For the study of presidential leadership and decision-making in foreign policy, I cannot understand why Nye ignored the president who has perhaps produced the single most obvious example of a White House-led foreign policy victory: the reopening of China. At one point, Nye seemed to dismiss Nixon because of his bet on the Gold Standard. I could not see how this was relevant. For all the presidents Nye features in the book, each of them had foreign policy successes and failures – and for the latter, there were certainly some who fared far worse than Nixon. Richard Nixon is only instance in which Nye chooses an economic reason to exclude a president (he does not exclude George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter due to economic policy, for example, nor does he include Bill Clinton for it). There is, therefore, an arbitrariness to his case selection.
Nye selects presidents and attempts to create a general impression of success or failure for each featured. However, I do not believe the role of a single president can be studied in any way other than case-by-case. I know there are plenty of International Relations and Political Science scholars who don’t like this narrow focus. But, in our frequent attempts to make sense of the complexity of IR and politics, and our insistence on proving to others that it is complex, the search for generalisations abound. This book is just one new example. If the book addressed a specific policy, or set of policies (for example, US-Europe, international trade, US-China relations, or any number of others), then Nye and his readers could have developed at least some form of satisfactory conclusion. In the search for a unified leadership theory, it must ignore the wider elements and actors that inform US policy-making. This is a considerable weakness, and a disappointing one.
No president is an island, operating in some immaculate policy bubble. For the same reasons that Nye selects Eisenhower, Reagan and George H.W. Bush for inclusion (correctly, in my opinion), he should also include Teddy Roosevelt and Howard Taft. Nye argues that Teddy Roosevelt “affected mostly timing, but not very much.” I disagree, and for much the same reason that other presidents are lauded for seizing the moment they find themselves in, Roosevelt certainly seized his moment, and forced the United States to grasp internationalism with both hands. True, there were hold-outs, but even those who were originally opposed to his worldly attention would soon shift in much the same direction (Wilson, for example). TR was a triumphalist proponent of American primacy and potential, just like Ronald Reagan, who Nye gives a high ‘score’ to (Nye adapted some of his book for an article in The Atlantic, which awarded explicit grades). TR helped pave the foreign policy way for all presidents who came after him, putting paid to George Washington’s long-accepted and politically-internalized warning against foreign entanglements. Without Teddy Roosevelt, despite his less-noble, oft-racist policies and personal sensibilities, Wilson, FDR, et al would never have been able to pursue and conduct the internationalist policies and successes they did. Taft, for his part, cemented TR’s legacy in many ways – the articulation of Dollar Diplomacy, for example, stands today, with the Cold War an actual aberration in overall trends and traditions of US foreign policy. With policy specifics changed and updated for the time, Roosevelt-Taft should have been included for the same reasons that Reagan-Bush were included.
Ultimately, and to end this piece on a positive note, Presidential Leadership and the Making of the American Era is a flawed book, but not one without value. As I wrote above, I believe this is a very good starting point for a larger discussion of the role and influence of individual leaders in the foreign policy-making process, and specifically for the United States. But I would caution would-be readers that they may not find the answers they are looking for, and that the book does not go far enough and is not as focused as it should be. Nevertheless, it is well-written, as can be expected from Nye, and the book has a lot of interesting and valuable content.