The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the 21st Century
by Michael Mandelbaum
Public Affairs. 283 pp. $26.00

When Michael Mandelbaum failed to win a big foreign-policy job in the Clinton administration in 1992, insiders speculated that there had been a personal falling-out between the President-elect and his eminently qualified campaign adviser. The distinguished professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins was apparently a Friend of Bill no more. That there was also a substantive dimension to the split was suggested by the Los Angeles Times, which reported that Mandelbaum simply “did not share the views of top officials” on the new foreign-policy team. It was a taste of things to come.

By the end of Clinton’s first term, Mandelbaum had emerged as one of the fiercest critics of the administration’s record. A rare foreign-policy realist in the Democratic camp, he saw the post-cold-war era as a moment for the U.S. to walk softly and to keep its big stick in reserve, especially in dealing with the other major powers. Clinton, Mandelbaum charged, had wasted American might on peripheral issues, heedlessly pushing for NATO expansion despite Russian objections and engaging in a series of feckless humanitarian interventions in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti. As he wrote in Foreign Affairs, in an oft-cited barb, the administration seemed to view foreign policy as “a branch of social work.”

One might have expected Mandelbaum to be no less stinging a gadfly in response to the brash, go-it-alone idealism of George W. Bush, but that has not been the case. During years in which his fellow foreign-policy realists have grown increasingly alarmed by America’s actions abroad, he has stepped back from the fray, becoming more historical in outlook. In The Ideas That Conquered the World (2002), brought out in the wake of 9/11, he argued that the crisis of the moment should not distract us from the astonishing advance of peace, democracy, and free markets in the decades since World War II. Obstacles remained, to be sure, but the grand trend was what matterd most.

Mandelbaum’s new book, The Case for Goliath, is a sequel of sorts, an assessment of America’s role in maintaining and extending today’s dynamic liberal order. As a piece of analysis, it is authoritative and wide-ranging, if not always persuasive. As a contribution to the current debate, it is invaluable—an eloquent reminder of the difference between a mature realism and its often hysterical present-day imitators.



Mandelbaum’s starting point is empire, or rather his impatience with those who use the term to describe the current international posture of the United States. For all of its power and influence, America simply does not bear comparison with the regimes under which Roman legionnaires, Habsburg grandees, and pith-helmeted Brits once dominated much of the world. As he notes, the hallmark of empire is direct, coercive control—“a dictatorship by foreigners”—and that is not how America operates. The obvious exceptions to this rule, in places like the Balkans or Iraq, have been notable for the eagerness with which the U.S. has attempted to extricate itself. Real empires do not count body bags.

For Mandelbaum, there is a more accurate and benign label for the international role now played by the U.S. We are, in various ways, the world’s government—not an exploitative overlord but, in his view, a too often unappreciated provider of essential services, or what economists call “public goods.” As Mandelbaum puts it, in a zoological metaphor, the U.S.

is not the lion of the international system, terrorizing and preying on smaller, weaker animals in order to survive itself. It is, rather, the elephant, which supports a wide variety of other creatures—smaller mammals, birds, and insects—by generating nourishment for them as it goes about the business of feeding itself.

America provides these benefits not because it is altruistic but because its own interests coincide to a large extent with those of many other nations.

The first and most apparent of these services is economic. It is the U.S. whose navy safeguards the transport of the world’s oil supply, whose dollar serves as a de-facto global currency, and whose loans bail out countries in financial distress. It is the U.S. that provides the primary impetus for free trade, using its leverage to resist barriers among developed and developing nations alike. Finally, it is the American economy that remains, in Mandelbaum’s words, “the indispensable supplier of demand to the world,” making possible, among others things, the rapid, export-led growth of much of Asia.

On the security front, America’s international commitments have evolved since the end of the cold war, Mandelbaum argues, but still form the bulwark of world peace. Deployments in Europe that once served to deter the Soviet Union and its allies now provide stability to a largely demilitarized continent, offering “reassurance” against the possibility of a resurgent Russia or Germany (and allowing Europeans to scrimp on defense spending). In East Asia, which abounds with potential flashpoints, the American presence calms nerves all around, from the Taiwan Strait to the Korean peninsula. At the global level, no other nation has done more to avert the spread of nuclear weapons or to isolate rogue regimes.

And how has the U.S. been rewarded for making the world “safer and richer”? All too frequently with suspicion and even outright hostility, Mandelbaum laments. Part of the problem, of course, is unpopular policies, like the war in Iraq. More fundamental are America’s strength and freedom of action, which breed resentment. Nor does it help that the complexities of a shrinking world are, for many people, most easily understood as the result of conspiracies hatched in the dark recesses of the Pentagon. At best, Mandelbaum suggests, the governing functions performed by the U.S. have earned the world’s begrudging acceptance, a “tacit recognition” that America is no threat and that its role, on balance, is a positive one.

For Mandelbaum, the great surprise is not that others take these services for granted but that his fellow citizens have for so long shouldered the costs of providing them. There is nothing inevitable, he cautions, about America’s superintendence of a range of global goods. Indeed, Mandelbaum closes with a dire prediction: that the nations of the world will never foot the bill for their star-spangled “government,” that “they will continue to criticize it,” and that “they will miss it when it is gone.”



The Case for Goliath is not intended as a paean to American statesmanship, least of all as a tribute to the Bush administration. Mandelbaum recognizes that the U.S. does not always play by its own rules or use its resources wisely. Though he justifies the war in Iraq on realist grounds—as an effort “to prevent Saddam from acquiring weapons with which he could overturn the status quo in the region”—he is deeply skeptical about America’s nation-building ambitions in the region. “Imitation,” he suggests, “is the motor of history,” and the world’s backwaters will soon enough recognize on their own that “power and prosperity” are the fruit of “democracy and free markets.”

There is much to criticize in the complacent passivity of this view, which Mandelbaum is hardly alone in sharing, particularly as it applies to the modern Middle East. It is of a piece with his reluctance during the 1990’s to see the wider moral and political interests at stake in opening NATO to the once-captive nations of the Warsaw Pact and in resisting ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. But that is a discussion for another day. In this book, Mandelbaum’s concerns are not so much prescriptive and policy-oriented as they are broadly philosophical.

His aim, in short, is to recast the basic assumptions of today’s foreign-policy debate. What makes his argument so compelling in this regard is his deft reversal of the principal charge made against the U.S. since 9/11. As he sees it, far more worrisome than America’s occasional reluctance to cooperate with international institutions and abide by their norms—our much-denounced “unilateralism”—is the failure of the rest of world, and of key elements in our own elite opinion, to acknowledge the enduring and widely shared advantages of American primacy.

Whether these services make the U.S. the “world’s government” is a contestable point; after all, as Mandelbaum himself concedes, our various international roles lack the legitimacy that only genuine consent can bring. But the analogy is useful for its boldness, especially at a moment when prominent constituencies at home and abroad are devoted to demonizing America power. To the extent that their overheated rhetoric sways the American public, Mandelbaum warns, their wish for retrenchment may come true, with ugly and predictable consequences.

Among those now marching under the banner of “Come Home, America” are a number of well-known foreign-policy realists, an irony that cannot be lost on readers of The Case for Goliath. Realism’s claim to our attention lies in its promise to take the long-term view, to assess the facts of international power without sentiment or ideological prejudice. The failure of so many of its self-styled disciples to meet that standard only serves to highlight the achievement of Michael Mandelbaum.


+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link