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October 2013

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The Creation of the American Era
Review by John H. Brown, Ph.D.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013 ISBN 978-0-691-15836-5 Cloth, 183 pp., $27.95

Quiz question to bright high school students on the It’s Academic TV show: Who is soft/hard/smart power guru Joseph Nye, Jr.’s favorite twentieth-century American president in the field of foreign affairs?

No, it’s not Democrat Bill Clinton, even if Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs during the Clinton Administration.

And no, it’s not another Democrat, Princeton/USA President Woodrow Wilson, even if Nye graduated from Princeton (B.A., summa cum laude, class of ’58) — and even if the basic ideas of the book under review (published by Princeton University Press) were expressed by Nye at his alma mater’s Woodrow Wilson School in the 2012 Richard Ullman Lecture Series.
It turns out — mirabile dictu — that the reputedly liberal, Princeton-educated Nye’s commander-in-chief of choice is a middle-of-the-road conservative, Republican George Herbert Walker Bush, Yale ’48 — horribile dictu, for any true Princetonian. Our 41st president is certainly not remembered for Wilsonian idealism or rhetorical flourishes. (As Bush put it in 1990, “I just am not one who — who flamboyantly believes in throwing a lot of words around.")

What Nye admires most about Bush are the former chief executive’s high scores in three key elements in the professor’s presidential leadership foreign-policy scorecard: in Nye’s words, incremental/ transactional rather than transformational/ inspirational objectives; contextual intelligence; and ethics.

Allow me to translate: Bush didn’t want to change the world; he understood how the world was changing; and his well-organized approach to managing change respected morality. Eisenhower, Nye contends, shared many of these qualities.

Nye bases his positive judgment of Bush and Eisenhower by examining “eight twentieth-century leaders who presided over …the creation of American primacy in the world” during four periods:

  • Entry into the global balance of power: T. Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson;
  • Entry into World War II: F. Roosevelt;
  • Containment and permanent presence abroad: Truman, Eisenhower;
  • End of the Cold War and unipolarity: Reagan, G. H. W.  Bush, Clinton.

Nye generalizes about the good, the bad, and the ugly of all these former residents of the White House. His least favorite president is none other than Woodrow Wilson, far too transformational and inspirational for his taste.

In his last chapter, “Twenty-First-Century Leadership,” Nye rates George W. Bush and Barack Obama, leaving no doubt that W’s transformational objectives (among them the removal of Saddam) were undercut “by inadequate understanding of the context plus poor planning and management” — a valuable presidential skill in which Bush Sr. excelled, in Nye’s opinion. Bush II reminds the professor of Wilson: “both defined visions that had a large gap between expressed ideals and national capacities.” As for Obama, he started out transformational, but he is increasingly turning incremental.

As I read this slim volume I kept thinking of the statement by William James: "We must be careful not to confuse data with the abstractions we use to analyze them." Put another way, Nye uses a simplified, compressed version of history to illustrate his a priori concepts (e.g., transformational) rather than sheds light on the complexity of history per se. As a result, his book has a PowerPoint quality that does not illuminate or challenge the intellect.

Take, as an example, the below among eight tables in chapter 3 on the presidential “ethical score card” (for F. Roosevelt), which reminds me of a sports announcer evaluating a football player:

Ends/Goals    
  Moral vision: expressed broadly attractive values  good
  Prudence: balanced values and risks good
Means    
  Force: used proportionally and discriminately mixed
  Liberal: respected rights and institutions mixed
Consequences    
  Fiduciary: was good for American interests   good
  Cosmopolitan: minimized damages to others mixed
  Educational: broadened moral discourse at home and abroad good

Despite the silly charts it contains, sections of chapter 3, “Ethics and Good Foreign Policy Leadership,” have passages on the tensions between goals, means, and consequences in politics that could be useful in a college course on the moral dimensions of international affairs.

And in the final pages of his closing chapter, Nye — more strategist, moralist and futurist than historian — speculates on what will happen on our small planet, with declarations that would intrigue inquisitive bright kids on It’s Academic. “We do not live in a ‘post-American world,’” he writes, “but neither do we live any longer in the ‘American era’ of the late twentieth century. In terms of primacy, the United States will be ‘first’ but not ‘sole.’”white star


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imageDr. John H. Brown, a Foreign Service officer for more than 20 years, currently is Adjunct Professor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown University, where he teaches about public diplomacy.

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