The Case for Goliath

How America Acts as the World's Government in the 21st Century

by Michael Mandelbaum

PublicAffairs, 283 pp., $26

EVER SINCE THE END of the Cold War, experts of various stripes have been grappling with the nature of American power. Clearly, with the demise of its only major rival, the United States became really, really powerful. So powerful that the old term "superpower" doesn't seem to cut it anymore. A French foreign minister suggested that "hyperpower" was more appropriate, but that hasn't caught on. Other analysts have called the United States a hegemon, a global policeman, even an empire. I've been known to use the latter label myself, even though the United States is no longer a territorial empire of the Roman type (as it was in the days of Manifest Destiny).

Michael Mandelbaum, professor of American foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, doesn't think much of those who want to cloak the old Republic in imperial ermine. "American influence in the world is certainly considerable," he writes, "but the United States does not control, directly or indirectly, the politics and economics of other societies, as empires have always done, save for a few special cases that turn out to be the exceptions that prove the rule."

He prefers to label the United States the "world's government," though it's hard to see why that's much of an improvement. As Mandelbaum himself admits, "There are . . . many governments in the world and the global role of the United States, expansive though it is, does not look much like any of them."

His case for labeling the United States a global government, rather than a global empire, rests on a rickety foundation. "Traditionally," he notes, "the imperial power has been seen as a predator, drawing economic profit and political gain from its control of the imperial possession, while the members of the society it controls suffer." The United States, he correctly notes, does not exploit any states in this way. Instead, it provides the whole world with valuable "public goods"--principally protection from predators--that are welcomed by most of the world's states. But that hardly makes it that different from the British Empire, which also performed all sorts of public services, such as stamping out the slave trade and piracy. Mandelbaum may see the United States as a particularly benign great power, and he is not wrong to do so; but most empires of the past also saw themselves as advancing a mission civilisatrice.

His assurance that the United States means it--honestly!--is not likely to mollify America's critics. Nor is his choice of terminology particularly reassuring. I can't see some mandarin at the Quai d'Orsay (the French foreign ministry) slapping himself on the forehead and exclaiming, "So they are not an empire after all. They're only the world's government. What a relief. Vive les Etats-Unis!"

The value of The Case for Goliath does not lie in its central conceit--the United States as the world's government--but in the arguments Mandelbaum advances for why American power serves the interests of other countries. The case he makes is not particularly novel (William Odom and Robert Dujarric made similar points in their 2004 book, America's Inadvertent Empire), but it bears repeating at a time when the publishing industry is churning out reams of paranoid tomes with titles like Rogue Nation, The Sorrows of Empire, and The New American Militarism.

Mandelbaum begins by listing five security benefits the United States offers the world.

First, the continuing deployment of American troops in Europe is a reassurance that "no sudden shifts in Europe's security arrangements would occur." Second, the United States has "reduced the demand for nuclear weapons, and the number of nuclear-armed countries, to levels considerably below what they otherwise have reached," both by attempting to stop rogue states from acquiring nukes and by providing nuclear protection to countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan that would otherwise go nuclear.

Third, the United States has fought terrorists across the world and waged preventive war in Iraq to remove the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Fourth, the United States has undertaken humanitarian interventions in such places as Bosnia and Kosovo, which Mandelbaum likens to the "practice, increasingly common in Western countries, of removing children from the custody of parents who are abusing them." Fifth, the United States has attempted to create "the apparatus of a working, effective, decent government" in such dysfunctional places as Haiti and Afghanistan.

Mandelbaum also points to five economic benefits of American power. First, the United States provides the security essential for international commerce by, for instance, policing Atlantic and Pacific shipping lanes. Second, the United States safeguards the extraction and export of Middle Eastern oil, the lifeblood of the global economy. Third, in the monetary realm, the United States has made the dollar "the world's 'reserve' currency" and supplied loans to "governments in the throes of currency crises."

Fourth, the United States has pushed for the expansion of international trade by midwifing the World Trade Organization, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and other instruments of liberalization. And fifth, by providing a ready market for goods exported by such countries as China and Japan, the United States "became the indispensable supplier of demand to the world."

Naturally, the United States gets scant thanks for all these services provided gratis. But Mandelbaum points out that, for all their griping, other countries have not pooled "their resources to confront the enormous power of the United States because, unlike the supremely powerful countries of the past, the United States [does] not threaten them." Instead, the United States actually helps other nations achieve shared goals such as democracy, peace, and prosperity.

Call it what you will, America is still the greatest force for good in the world, as it has been since 1942. That may seem obvious, but there is no truth so basic that it cannot be denied by most intellectuals. With his refreshing willingness to defend the much-reviled "goliath," Mandelbaum is a welcome dissenter from the regnant orthodoxy in his own field.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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