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Power Rules
How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy
By Leslie H. Gelb
HC, 352 pgs US$27.99
ISBN: 0-0617-1454-2

Towards a new old foreign policy

By Steven Martinovich
web posted May 25, 2009

Power RulesBack in 1992 someone, perhaps the candidate himself, hung a sign in Bill Clinton's campaign headquarters which stated, "It's the economy, stupid." It is held as biblical truth that domestic policies matter more than foreign affairs and yet it is nearly inevitable that every American president is defined by their foreign policy. Although the economy has taken centre stage during Barack Obama's first few months in office, it's not hard to see that eventually his attention will necessarily be drawn to some extraordinarily nettlesome problems overseas.

And just as there are no end to foreign policy problems for a president to become mired in so too is there no end of books written by policy wonks to advise him. The latest high profile effort, Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy, comes courtesy of former Carter administration official and New York Times columnist Leslie H. Gelb. Adopting the conceit of being a modern version of Machiavelli's The Prince, Gelb offers the current prince what is essentially an updated version of George H.W. Bush's foreign policy.

Gelb argues that the United States and its leadership must recognize that it exists in a world of mutual indispensability. While it is the most powerful nation on the planet both militarily and economically, it is no longer the most dominant and it can no longer dictate terms to others. It must instead use its power to lead and to create coalitions to solve global issues. Other nations, however, can't solve key problems without the United States either. As Gelb writes, "We swim together or sink apart." In other words, the world needs the United States and the United States needs the world.

Further eroding America's absolute dominance is the fact, at least in Gelb's view, that since the fall of the Soviet Union economic power has taken precedence over military power. While the later can bring about change immediately, it is economic power which is likely to bring about longer term change. Military power brought down the Ba'athist regime in Iraq and left that nation with a still uncertain future but it was economic considerations which forced Libya's Muammar Qaddafi's to renounce terrorism, pay reparations and slowly rejoin the international community.

It must be said, however, that Gelb isn't the predictable center-left soft power advocate. He admits that the United Nations is a largely unworkable solution to international issues – George W. Bush's "mad rush to war" saw the United States work with the U.N. for over a decade before the second war was initiated.  He also acknowledges that the approach often seems useless when applied to legitimate bad actors – it's hard to believe Kim Jong-il would ever succumb to anything less than force. His primary caution against the use of military force seems to largely rest on the belief that it can reveal weaknesses. The United States is capable of overthrowing almost any regime on the planet but could face a post-war Iraqi-style insurgency, something that the Iranians have noticed.

Power Rules is essentially a celebration of the most successful aspects of George H.W. Bush's foreign policy, most notably the invasion of Iraq. It is there that Gelb's principles seem most in play. A wide-ranging coalition was formed which featured regional and international stakeholders with economic considerations playing almost as an essential role as the military force assembled. Most importantly, the mission defined was well within American power and achieved precisely the goal set, the liberation of Kuwait and the containment of Saddam Hussein.

The second Iraqi invasion, however, reveals the limitations of Gelb's approach. Though he urges against unilateralism, Gelb has few answers when it comes to a world community prepared to standby while rogue nations like Iran and North Korea race towards a nuclear armed future. Both nations have successfully played anyone attempting to negotiate or threaten them away from such a path with the result that one likely has rudimentary nuclear arms while the other may be as little as a decade or two from being able to lob them as far as Europe. Given that most of the world believed Iraq to possess a biological and nuclear weapons program, and Hussein did everything to hide the fact that he didn't what would have Gelb done in addition to the overflights, multiple U.N. resolutions, and economic and political sanctions?

If Gelb's notions gain any traction with the current White House occupant it is only because he has few kind words for any policy school. He rails against unilateralism while at the same time admitting the limitations of soft-power. He lauds "mutual indispensability" though it seems to be the same multilateral approach which is failing with Iran and North Korea, and doesn't appear to have worked with Iraq. And while his approach may see successes on the external level, how successful could it be in a Yugoslavian or Rwandan style meltdown? There is room for a "third way" in foreign policy but the requirement is that it answers more questions than it raises. ESR

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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