How Should a Superpower Behave?

By Stan Crock


Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing,

and Catastrophe in the 21st Century

By Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight

PublicAffairs -- 270pp -- $24


Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century

By Henry Kissinger

Simon & Schuster -- 318pp -- $30

In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War in Europe and ushered in a new era of geopolitics. The pact created the nation-state, which could control its domestic affairs largely free from outside interference. That state of affairs, which lasted more than three centuries, is now crumbling, according to Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight in Wilson's Ghost and Henry A. Kissinger in Does America Need a Foreign Policy? The rise of supranational institutions such as the European Union, the failure of governments such as that in Yugoslavia, international capital flows, and NATO's bombing of Serbia all show how nation-states are being undermined and how countries are no longer reluctant to openly interfere in each other's internal affairs. Both books also say that Washington must replace its arrogance of sole superpowerdom with greater understanding of other nations and a realization of the limits of America's power.

Beyond those areas of agreement, these two erudite and sometimes compelling volumes take divergent paths. Kissinger has written a Baedeker for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a guidebook about every foreign policy issue the Bush Administration is likely to encounter. It is long on detail and context but short on creative prescriptions. In contrast to Kissinger's trek through the weeds of geopolitics, McNamara and Blight fly at 50,000 feet and offer provocative nostrums.

How Should a Superpower Behave?
McNamara, a former Ford Motor Co. executive, Defense Secretary, and World Bank president, and his collaborator, a professor of international relations at Brown University, argue that civilization's survival may depend on taking President Woodrow Wilson seriously. Such Wilsonian notions as the League of Nations were rejected at a huge cost: World War II. Now, the authors believe that an updated version of the League--something stronger than the U.N.--is needed to avoid repeating the carnage of 20th century wars, which killed perhaps 160 million combatants and civilians. McNamara and Blight argue that the U.S. should pledge not to use force unilaterally except to repel an attack, forgoing sovereign rights in favor of the collective security of a multilateral organization. It is folly to think "that sustainable peace will be maintained simply by plotting to achieve an alleged `balance of power' without a strong international organization to enforce it," they write.

This heavily footnoted book--there are more citations in Chapter Two alone than in Kissinger's entire work--argues that the possibility of two nuclear powers miscalculating and going to war is too cataclysmic to permit. The authors contend that a multilateral forum, which would have given allies such as France and Britain greater say in U.S. policy in Indochina, might have averted the Vietnam War. McNamara and Blight also believe nations should move toward eliminating nukes entirely, arguing that working toward that goal, despite its difficulties, is safer than proliferation.

Kissinger, a former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, adopts a far different approach. He seems to take the globe in his hands, turn it slowly, and explain everything he sees on each continent. In doing so, he provides surprisingly micro discussions for a grand strategist, including a bit on the possibility of a rift between Brazil and Argentina because Brazil's currency floats while Argentina's peso is tied to the dollar. Such details, and his illuminating historical analyses of both hot spots and allies, support a central point that policymakers too often ignore: Policies that disregard historical context are bound to fail.

How Should a Superpower Behave?
The substance of the Kissinger book is different, too. He focuses on maintaining balances of power around the world. And he is utterly dismissive of collective security. Noting the workings of the U.N. Security Council, he says: "When all participants agree, the need for collective security is minimal; when they split, it is impossible to apply."

Like McNamara and Blight, Kissinger believes that morality, rather than self-righteous moralism, is a key ingredient in foreign policy. He believes in humanitarian intervention if it is based on a universally applicable principle, has support within the U.S. and internationally, and has some relationship to the historical context of the region. He argues that Washington should have intervened in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, but has qualms about Kosovo. It's not clear, however, how the African crises meet his criteria more than the Kosovo tragedy. The only consistency is that Kissinger regards whatever President Clinton did as wrong. On other major issues, Kissinger offers useful analyses but few edifying recommendations. He says, for example: "Confrontation with China should be the ultimate recourse, not the strategic choice." Duh.

In the end, the value of these books is their historical perspective. A key belief of both the Clinton and Bush Administrations is that democracy and free markets make the world safer. But as Wilson's Ghost notes, prosperity didn't avert World War I. And Kissinger questions whether the U.S. can graft its values onto all other cultures. Policymakers neglect these insights at their peril.

Crock covers national security issues from Washington.

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