In This Review

Superpower: Three Choices for America's Role in the World
Superpower: Three Choices for America's Role in the World
By Ian Bremmer
Portfolio, 2015, 240 pp
Is the American Century Over?
Is the American Century Over?
By Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Polity, 2015, 152 pp

Bremmer’s useful book argues that when it comes to foreign policy, the United States has three basic options. It can limit its commitments and obligations abroad (“Independent America”), become a “Moneyball America” that selectively engages in high-yield, low-risk opportunities, or aim for “Indispensible America” by attempting to uphold the global order through the kind of broad-based global engagement that has typically marked U.S. foreign policy since World War II. In Bremmer’s view, U.S. public opinion is no longer willing to support the “Indispensible” option and much of the rest of the world doesn’t want it. And the “Moneyball” approach demands the kind of cold-blooded realpolitik that U.S. opinion never tolerates for long. In contrast, the “Independent” (neo-isolationist) approach would command support at home and allow the United States to lead by example. Perhaps—but that is what many Americans thought back in the 1930s. To make his case airtight, Bremmer would need to demonstrate more persuasively that U.S. noninvolvement wouldn’t result in another global crisis comparable to the world wars or the Cold War. 

In his clear, short, and closely reasoned book, Nye presents a far different view of American power, making some unfashionable but compelling arguments. Nye believes that the American century is far from over and that for the foreseeable future, the United States will retain a unique ability to shape global events. If the United States is, as many believe, trapped in a cycle of inevitable decline, then developing more modest foreign policies around narrower goals would seem mandatory. Nye argues, however, that the economic and geo-political foundations of U.S. power remain sound and that none of Washington’s adversaries is well positioned to take on the costs and risks of a head-on challenge to the United States. At the same time, Nye argues that American strength is not so great that Washington can afford to dispense with prudence and caution. Excessive or ill-fated engagements, he warns, can create an isolationist backlash as public opinion recoils from unpopular and drawn-out wars. The greatest danger to American power, Nye suggests, may be Washington’s inability or unwillingness to use it wisely and well.