Commentary Magazine


Überpower by Joseph Joffe

Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America
by Josef Joffe
W.W. Norton. 256 pp. $24.95

Josef Joffe occupies a rare perch among Europe’s public intellectuals. As the publisher and editor of Die Zeit, Germany’s mass-circulation, highbrow weekly newspaper, he is a fixture of the country’s Left-tilting cultural establishment. Yet this Jewish son of Berlin—educated at Swarthmore, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard—is a defender of Israel and the United States, as well as one of the keener dissectors of the European conceits and anti-American pathologies so common to his peers. Those virtues go some way toward redeeming Überpower, an occasionally brilliant if ultimately unpersuasive attempt to sketch America’s “grand strategy” for the 21st century.

The point of that strategy, Joffe understands, is not how the U.S. should manage its “inevitable decline,” a theme frequently sounded in books of this genre. The point is how to stay on top. Joffe approaches this question as a foreign-policy “realist,” a thinker more in the mold of balance-of-power calculators like Henry Kissinger or Brent Scowcroft than of democratic idealists like Woodrow Wilson or George W. Bush. As a result, he devotes much of Überpower to tallying up the “objective” political, economic, military, and cultural strengths of the U.S. vis-à-vis its current and prospective competitors.

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This approach is not without its benefits, not least because Joffe, cutting against the grain of much conventional wisdom, underscores just how weak America’s competitors are. Beijing? Even if China’s gross domestic product were to keep doubling every decade—historically an unprecedented feat—Joffe calculates that it would only reach parity with current U.S. GDP in 30 years. Moscow? Russia’s population shrinks every year by 0.5 percent, hardly a sign of national vitality.

What about Brussels? The European Union’s aggregate GDP nearly matches America’s, and its population exceeds ours by about 50 percent. But look closer: Europeans, Joffe observes, “live by the obverse of John F. Kennedy’s fabled injunction, which now reads, ‘Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you.’ ” The EU commands minimal public loyalty—witness last year’s rejection by the French and the Dutch of the European Constitution. Europe’s growth rates consistently lag behind America’s, partly for tax and regulatory reasons, partly because the average European works 300 fewer hours a year than the average American. And then there is the fatal convergence of demography and the welfare state: Europe’s ratio of workers to retirees, currently an economically cumbersome three-to-one, is projected to become a socially catastrophic one-to-one by mid-century.

But while American primacy is a fact, Joffe suggests it is also a mixed blessing. The world reaps the benefits of the U.S. trade deficit, the monetary anchor of the dollar, and “Security Made in the USA.” Yet America’s “singular strength” may tempt it into foreign adventures potentially beyond its reach—fixing the Arab world’s dysfunctional political culture via regime change being the one that Joffe plainly has in mind. In the tradition of foreign-policy realists, he predicts that America’s “unbalanced power” will thus inevitably provoke attempts at counterbalancing.

Indeed, it already has. In Joffe’s reading, the effort by France, Germany, and Russia to frustrate and discredit the Iraq war is only the most obvious instance of what threatens to become a longstanding pattern. Nor are “coalitions of the unwilling” the only means by which the rest of the world seeks to contain American power. For Joffe, the Kyoto Protocol, the Landmine Convention, the International Criminal Court, and similar legal schemes have nothing to do with “good global citizenship.” Their real purpose is to bend “Mr. Big” to the will of the many. The same goes for anti-Americanism, which Joffe sees as a form of “cultural balancing.” At the far end of the spectrum there is terrorism, the most cost-effective way yet devised to wound the U.S. and restrain its power.

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How shall the U.S. respond? One of the strengths of Joffe’s analysis is his awareness that much of the resentment the U.S. generates is neither within its power nor even in its interest to control. American ideals, methods, tastes, and products are attractive and pervasive; the hatred they generate is a byproduct of their success. Thus the notion, popularized by the Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, that the U.S. can ingratiate itself with a wary world by substituting the cultural tools of “soft power” for the military and economic tools of “hard power” is a fantasy. In today’s world, imitation is not always a form of flattery. Joffe wryly recalls

a march on Frankfurt’s Amerikahaus during the heyday of the German student movement. The enraged protester students wore jeans and American army apparel. They even played a distorted Jimmy Hendrix version of the American national anthem. But they threw rocks against the U.S. cultural center nonetheless. Though they wore and listened American, they targeted precisely the embodiment of America’s cultural presence in Europe.

Still, Joffe believes there is a difference between this kind of vulgar anti-Americanism and the sort that leads a Vladimir Putin to supply Iran with advanced anti-aircraft missiles, the main purpose of which would be to defend Iranian nuclear sites against an American air strike. How to keep the former from tipping over into the latter?

Joffe’s answer is for the U.S. to apply two very different strategies as occasion and necessity dictate—or, as he puts it in terms alluding to 19th-century precedents, to “balance à la Britain” and “bond à la Bismark.” The former requires “making sure ambitions fail.” The latter means sustaining “stronger ties with [America's] allies and rivals than they might weave among themselves.” But America’s leaders, adds Joffe, will have to be better balancers than Lord Palmerston and better bonders than Germany’s Iron Chancellor, always recognizing against whom to balance and how best to bond. “By resisting the lure of its unprecedented power,” Joffe concludes, “the United States will husband its strength instead of squandering it on imperial ventures that provoke resentment and resistance.”

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Up to a point, there is not much to gainsay in this recipe for a second American century. The U.S. is and will remain the giant of the international system, and it ought to be, as Joffe urges, a benign giant. Besides, as he acknowledges, the U.S. already balances and bonds. In the Middle East, Washington tacitly supported Iraq against Iran in the 1980′s but turned on Saddam Hussein after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait. At the same time, America bonds with former or current rivals like Egypt and Israel, or Taiwan and China, thereby managing potential conflicts between them.

So far, so good. Yet as a practical guide to 21st-century American statesmanship, Joffe’s concerns also seem curiously beside the point. Yes, the U.S. will have to continue operating within the state system and the various global institutions that, for better or worse, help to define it. Relations with China, Russia, Mexico, etc. will have to be managed wisely. The U.S. will need to set a good global example on trade, farm subsidies, and the like. And to the extent we can employ creative public diplomacy to help tamp anti-Americanism, so much the better.

But the preeminent risk the U.S. runs is not low public-approval ratings abroad but an act of nuclear terrorism, perpetrated by Islamic fanatics colluding with rogue regimes. On this all-important subject, Joffe is nearly silent, devoting to it but two pages of sustained attention in a 240-page book. The attacks of September 11 are discussed en passant. Although they may have pierced America’s “protective bubble,” Joffe writes, they did not alter the fact that the U.S. “cannot be defeated in any meaningful way.” Nor does he have much to say, except tangentially, about current predicaments in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, the ideological challenge of radical Islam, the wisdom of the Bush administration’s democratization strategy, or the means by which it might be carried out.

Surely such omissions cannot be inadvertent. Perhaps Joffe thinks these are properly subjects for another day, although it is hard to see how a book on “grand strategy” could fail to explain to readers why the great obsessions of our era are not such significant concerns after all. A likelier reason is that realism, with its relative indifference to ideology and its emphasis on states as the decisive actors in global affairs, has trouble accommodating such obsessions. And so they are discounted or ignored.

There is in this a symptom of a larger problem, typical of Europe’s general inability to understand that America is not only the world’s greatest power but also the most vulnerable. Joffe’s confidence in the strength of America’s defenses not-withstanding, the explosion of a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb on the Washington Mall or in downtown Manhattan would, in fact, “defeat” the U.S., even if it did not quite annihilate America. A nuclear-armed Iran capable of driving the Fifth Fleet out of the Persian Gulf or fomenting a ruinous Shiite insurgency in Iraq would similarly be a “meaningful” defeat. Such threats may as yet be imaginary, but September 11 was an object lesson in the power of imagination.

The great challenge for the U.S. in this century is to impose a new kind of symmetry vis-à-vis the “asymmetrical” terrorist threat, by devising its own asymmetrical responses. Preventive war is one such asymmetry, as is democratization, as are warrantless wiretaps, as is the “enemy combatant” status assigned to the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The question is whether the U.S. will be able to manage such responses effectively, and in the teeth of public and international skepticism. Concerning this central issue, it would have been good to have some guidance from so acute an observer as Josef Joffe. As it is, his analysis is not so much wrong as irrelevant.

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About the Author

Bret Stephens is a member of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal and the author of the paper’s “Global View,” a weekly column.




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