The US global role – options for the next President (Book Review)

Title: Superpower – Three Choices for America’s Role in the World; Author: Ian Bremmer; Publisher: Portfolio Penguin; Pages: 256; Price: Rs 499

Love it or loathe it, it is undeniable that the US is the world’s sole superpower (and will remain so for quite some time) but has to choose which kind of superpower it wants to be – and can be. And when less than a month from now, it chooses its new president, the victor will have to decide this point, which will determine its response to major issues like terrorism, climate change, economy and other festering crises.

Political scientist Ian Bremmer, in this slim but invaluably, incisive book, contends that US foreign policy since the Cold War’s end has been “incoherent” and failed to save it from getting embroiled it in many interminable and costly commitments, which have not only failed to make the world safer but threatened and damaged the US itself.

He make a convincing case for this phenomenon beginning even before Bill Clinton’s ill-planned decision for a Somalia deployment, when the US made decisions for East Europe that wouldn’t survive when Russia grew powerful again – and explains the current tensions in Ukraine and the Baltic. It however reached its zenith in George W. Bush’s tenure and even Barack Obama, despite his accomplishments, failed to have a “coherent worldview”.

After his view of “today’s world, America’s limits and its opportunity to transcend them”, and the last quarter century of its foreign policy, Bremmer goes on to argue, that despite its superpower status, America’s influence has declined with it “now less able to convene a coalition, forge trade agreements, build support for sanctions, broker compromise on an international multinational dispute, or persuade others to follow it into conflict than at any time in the past seven decades”.

And while China, Russia, India, Brazil, and other emerging powers, he notes, “can’t change the global status quo on their own, but they have more than enough leverage to obstruct US plans they don’t like”.

But Bremmer, also founder of global political risk research and consultancy Eurasia Group, doesn’t only focus on a prognosis, but also a prescription.

It is high time, he says, that America chooses a totally new definition of its superpower status – one which recognises its “responsibilities, opportunities, and most importantly, its limits”.

He lists three feasible options. “Independent America” recognises that America does not have endless resources on other nations, and will fare much better if it devotes its energies and resources to rebuilding strength from within, while in “Moneyball America”, it knows it cannot afford every foreign fight in support of American values, but must defend interests wherever threatened, and make tough decisions intelligently, while openly admitting its limitations.

In “Indispensable America”, the belief that America can go on autonomously from the rest of the world is not only ignorant but also extremely dangerous, and with the world relying on American leadership, and America’s international interests, it must continue to remain actively involved abroad.

How these play about, he deals with a small quiz where each of the ten questions, dealing, among others, on the nature of freedom, of the US, China (in relation to the US), on US spy capabilities, and on the primary responsibility of the US President, has three answers, each linked to each of these three choices.

Each of these three, says Bremmer, has their own strengths and disadvantages vis-a-vis each other and he goes to list and compare these, before his final summing up of how they would work (and not work), before he gives his own, rather unexpected, view about which course America should take.

But this book is not only about American foreign policy choices but in his masterly, cogent and persuasive but jargon-free arguments, backed by realistic and relevant hypotheses, Bremmer shows what compulsions and circumstances can go into making a foreign policy. He is especially valid what is not its aim or a credible method in its determination.

And there are many lessons for everyone, especially how “grandstanding” increases risks of “reckless challenges to challenges that demand careful thought” and though it “wins applause. It sometimes wins votes” but “can never be the basis for a coherent foreign policy”.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

–IANS

vd

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