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Questioning the Wisdom of American Restraint
MICHAEL MANDELBAUM is Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the author of the forthcoming book The Frugal Superpower: America's Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era. For an annotated guide to this topic, see "What to Read on American Primacy" at www.foreignaffairs.com/readinglists/american-primacy.See more by this author
"Money can't buy happiness," the old saying goes, and anyone who doubts that this is sometimes true should conduct a Google search for "lottery winners horror stories." He or she will find accounts of people for whom a great financial windfall led to misery, bankruptcy, and even suicide. In international relations, power is the equivalent of money -- highly desired, actively sought, and eagerly used. The theme of three new books about power and U.S. foreign policy is that as with money, so with power: a great deal of it does not necessarily bring success.
It can even have the opposite effect. Powerful countries can and do carry out foreign policies that fail, making them less prosperous, less respected, and, ultimately, less powerful. In each of the books, the prime example of the dangers of power, the equivalent of the lottery winners destroyed by riches, is the United States during the George W. Bush administration. For all three authors, the essence of what Christopher Preble calls "the power problem" is that the United States has too much of it.
Each author advocates a foreign policy different from the one Bush conducted. Each calls for more modest aims and wider international cooperation. And although each severely criticizes the Bush administration, all find evidence of the drawbacks of power in the policies of other administrations and in the histories of other countries as well. The three books have another important feature in common: each is backward-looking. Although they do not seem to recognize it, the era in which U.S. foreign policy could be driven in counterproductive directions by an excess of power is in the process of ending.
Jack Matlock is one of the most accomplished U.S. diplomats of the last half century. His specialty in the Foreign Service was the Soviet Union, where he served four tours of duty -- the last of them, from 1987 to 1991, as U.S. ambassador. Prior to his final posting in Moscow, he advised President Ronald Reagan on Soviet affairs.