- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006


By Michael Mandelbaum

Public Affairs, $26, 283 pages


Centuries ago, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that government emerged from the struggle to overcome the chaotic, lawless state of nature and the decision to live under the control of a law-making sovereign. Subsequent to the formation of individual governments, however, this threatening and anarchic condition remained the case between independent nations, where, with respect to each other, states continued to inhabit the state of nature, where “covenants without swords are but words” and where peace and even sociability were fleeting at best.

Contributing to the ongoing debate about whether any institution is actually capable of superintending relations between independent states is the latest book from Michael Mandelbaum, Christian A. Herter professor of American foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the 21st Century” is a discerning enumeration of the parallels between what a sovereign government provides to its citizens and what the United States provides to the contemporary world order.

Mr. Mandelbaum builds his case on the idea of “public goods;” that is, those necessary goods and services that no individual left to his own devices could provide that are therefore provided by government. In fact, such provision is what distinguishes a government. He asserts that in the very same way, the United States is the only effective provider of things “that all countries would benefit from having but that they will not achieve if left to their own devices.”

The types of international public goods Mr. Mandelbaum discusses are, first of all, those pertaining to international security, and secondly, those contributing to the wellbeing of the global economy. Under the first type we find specific actions dealing with reassurance (in essence what America’s Cold War mission evolved into after the collapse of the Soviet Union), nuclear nonproliferation, humanitarian intervention, policies related to terrorism and preventive war, and state-building. Under the second are American policies dealing with trade, money and monetary stability, oil, consumption, and the general need in a global economy for a source of confidence in and enforcement of a “secure political framework for international economic activity.” America either purchases these goods literally, at the cost of defense spending, or provides them by example and leadership. The similarity between these acts and those traditionally understood as domestic government action becomes more striking as the book proceeds, and as the pages turn, one begins to sense that describing the United States as the world’s government may be the only accurate way of truly understanding its contemporary role in the world.

Mr. Mandelbaum spends profitable time carefully untangling the words “state” and “government,” for such a precise distinction is crucial to his analysis. Here, “government” is not analogous to “a government.” Instead we see government to be almost an action—something that a constituted state does or provides. “World history is by and large the collective and individual histories of the world’s sovereign states,” he writes. “But there is no single overarching world state of which world government could be the instrument. The UN is the trade association of the world’s states, not an entity that governs them.” Government, then, is an instrument wielded by a state. We need to be reminded of this and being this exact serves him well and is much appreciated.

But why Goliath? Can the antagonist of the Old Testament Israelites, ultimately brought down by the young David, the prototypical underdog, ever be seen in Western Civilization through sympathetic eyes? Is Mr. Mandelbaum stacking the deck against our giving his idea a fair hearing by the very title he has chosen? Surprisingly the answer is No. “Like Goliath, the United States surpasses all others in military might.” No argument there, but he continues. “And just as Goliath was, by virtue of his size and power, the logical candidate to represent his tribe in its confrontation with the people of Israel, so the United States has undertaken broad responsibilities that redound to the benefit of others.” We do not have to endorse the Philistines to understand what Goliath was for and among them. Just to be certain, Mr. Mandelbaum adds that “if America is a Goliath, it is a benign one.”

One is tempted to point out this benign nature was largely lost on the Israelites. Mr. Mandelbaum understands this and acknowledges the widespread skepticism to claims of benevolence and the heated opposition to U.S. actions with which we are all so very familiar. Such rhetoric aside, however, Mr. Mandelbaum believes that at least the leadership of other states usually sees the benefit (that is, the desirability of the public goods, to return to that phrase) that the United States provides. He reminds his reader that throughout history, states as powerful as the United States have most often been met with a coalition of other states determined to block the exercise of their power. But today, in essence revealing their understanding of the benefits America’s power confers upon them, other countries do not “pool their resources to confront the enormous power of the United States, because, unlike the supremely powerful countries of the past, the United States did not threaten them.”

But in the face of the skepticism that undeniably exists, the latter part of the book is a muscular defense of the United States taking the role of world government, as he has defined it, and the forthright approach is refreshing. “A substantial contraction of the American global role would risk making the world a less secure and less prosperous place,” he writes. For those who would seek a different seat of power from which these public goods might issue, or perhaps a more equitable sharing of responsibility that could lessen some of the opprobrium aimed at America, Mr. Mandelbaum has little patience. “The plausible alternative,” to the United States assuming the role that it has “is not considerably better global governance but considerably less of it, and the consequences of less government are not likely to be pleasant.” Nor is he reluctant to point out hypocrisy on the part of critics of America when he sees it. “To accept benefits that are available without paying for them is free riding: to accept benefits without paying for them and simultaneously to complain about they way they are being provided shades over into hypocrisy.”

In stylistic terms the book is a pleasure. As in his previous works, Mr. Mandelbaum writes about complex international politics in a tone that is forceful and convincing but at the same time notably relaxed and approachable. Much of his tone comes from his considerable erudition; the book crackles with a broad range of illustrative references—from W.C. Fields, Bill Russell, and Casablanca to Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and the Bible—that are welcome but not necessarily anticipated in such a serious and carefully documented work as this.

But the seriousness of the topic is never in question. Nor is Mr. Mandelbaum’s faith in the power of the United States, acting amidst the global community in the same way that the American government acts in communities around the country, to use its power to achieve broadly beneficial ends. Should the United States “decrease dramatically the scope of its international activities,” he concludes, “the world would become a messier, more dangerous, and less prosperous place.” Upon reaching the end of this book, one would be hard-pressed to disagree.

David A. Smith teaches history at Baylor University in Waco, Tex.

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