Book Review: Bremmer, Ian (2015), Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World

Reviewed by: Alexandria Reid

Bremmer, I. Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, ( London: Portfolio Penguin), 2015. ISBN:978 0 24121 677 4

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In his latest book, written with America’s 2016 election in mind, policy pundit and LinkedIn favourite Ian Bremmer laid out three competing visions of America’s future role in the world. Deliberately written in layman’s terms, he asked Americans to consider foreign policy when casting their vote. To aid this process, he included what one reviewer dubbed the kind of multiple choice quiz that belongs in an issue of Cosmo at the start of the book. [1] It is the kind of quiz that might be used to assess your personality and tell you which moisturiser to buy accordingly, except instead of your star sign, he wants to know your views on China’s threat to America, the concept of American leadership and ‘America’s biggest problem in the Middle East’. [2]

Offering an unforgiving portrait of Obama’s foreign policy strategy – or lack thereof – Bremmer argues that today’s ‘Question Mark America’ is causing allies and enemies alike to take unnecessary and destabilising geopolitical risks. America is not yet fully in decline, he diagnoses, but Obama’s foreign policy improvisation threatened to change that. Published before anyone had seriously toyed with the previously unfathomable rise of Donald Trump, Bremmer wanted the electorate to put an end to the indecision of America’s post-Cold War presidents by demanding a clear foreign policy strategy from the 2016 candidates. With Trump’s populist foreign policy revealed, perhaps now he regrets ever asking?

Bremmer’s diagnosis of a declining America is deceptively simple, instinctively appealing and therefore utterly convincing at first glance. Whether addressing an elusive threshold for intervention in Syria in 2013, or a once-sovereign border in Crimea and Ukraine, the ambiguous nature of U.S. intentions leaves other players unsure where to locate America’s increasingly retrenched line in the sand. Simultaneously, he projects an America that is overstretched, burdened with leadership and receiving none of the benefits that justify taking the risk. Bremmer’s overarching message is that American foreign policy today jeopardises both domestic and international security. Worse still, it’s leading to America’s preventable decline. The prognosis almost goads people to demand not just an outline of a foreign policy strategy, but one which will Make America Great Again.

The remedy for American decline is an informed choice on foreign policy. Once you’ve completed your quiz, Bremmer handily lays out three options to choose from: ‘Indispensable America’, ‘Moneyball America’ and ‘Independent America’.

Indispensable, the most familiar of the three, is in essence a proposal for the reclamation of the post-1945 American leadership role that has been half-abandoned in America’s recent incertitude. Embodying Neoconservative ideals, but deliberately avoiding the pejorative connotations that come with the use of the label, Indispensable America continues to police world order whilst exporting its liberal values. Why should America bear the burden of making the world safe for democracy? Here, Bremmer could have easily answered in the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt; isolationism would lead America to become ‘a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.’ [3]

Moneyball, by contrast, sees this approach to world affairs as prohibitively expensive in both blood and treasure, and instead advocates ‘a cold-blooded, interest-driven’ strategy akin to that of the Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane after whom Michael Lewis wrote the book ‘Moneyball’. Moneyball America’s interests are defined narrowly, epitomised by the key phrase ‘America’s value, not its values’. Accordingly, its finite resources must be efficiently invested in strategic partnerships, predominantly with China, even at the expense of failing to support democracy abroad or relationship commitments in regions including Europe and the Middle East.

Independent America’s world outlook differs from both alternatives. In one of the more memorable lines of the book Bremmer suggests that ‘[i]t’s time for a new declaration of independence—a proclamation of emancipation from the responsibility to solve everyone else’s problems.’ [4] Much effort is expended to assure the reader that this is not a return to the disastrous isolationism of the 1930s, rather, it is about adopting an unambiguous stance of non-interventionism and leading by example. By making others take responsibility for their own security at last, America can focus on its own values by ‘perfecting democracy at home’, rebuilding American infrastructure and keeping more money in the taxpayers’ pockets. America cannot afford the exceptional role of policing the world, nor should it, because it forces the nation to compromise the liberal constitutional values that made it exceptional in the first place.

Only at the very end does Bremmer reveal that he prefers a foreign policy strategy that delivers an Independent America. Employing the Goldilocks method of decision-making, Bremmer infers that if Indispensable is too expensive and can no longer attract domestic support, and if Moneyball is too secular for a society which still believes in their own exceptionalism, then, in his eyes, Independent America is just right. Picking the option that most resembles a dangerous isolationism might come as a surprise to those who know Bremmer as the founder and President of the Eurasia Group, the world’s leading political risk consultancy.

Bremmer’s personal choice aside, it is the way in which he approaches the debate that should concern anyone reading Superpower. The debate the book hopes to incite is an important one, and candidate and voter alike would benefit from a meaningful and accessible discussion about foreign policy in America today. Yet, this is not what Bremmer offers. Instead, he provides a deeply flawed book which infantilises the reader under the guise of accessibility. This does the reader a disservice because it fails to provide them with the tools of analysis to judge whether Trump or Clinton are capable of actually delivering an Independent or Indispensable America with their outlined policies.

Bremmer’s book might help you decide what you want if you were not sure in the first place, but it will not help you make a reasonable choice about how to get it. By offering three mutually exclusive and easily recognisable categories, Bremmer seeks to eliminate the essence of the grand strategic conundrum that has seen America oscillate between policy characteristic of both Indispensable and Independent America since the end of the Cold War. It is the same conundrum that has left many people to wonder if there has been an ‘Obama Doctrine’, or merely a series of post-hoc rationalisations for a reactionary foreign policy. [5] Yet to an unrealistic degree, Bremmer’s discussion mutes the importance of feasible policy in American grand strategy. This is where Trump’s politics triumph. They promise the unattainable in the pursuit of ‘America first’, exercising flagrant disregard for the constraints of domestic and international politics. [6] Both Trump and Bremmer’s vision of the American domestic project is built on the foundations of a liberal international order that demands American proactivity in ways that contradict their foreign policy analysis. Bremmer’s book encourages the reader to demand what they rightly consider to be their national interests, but offers no roadmap for how to reasonably achieve them in a dynamic and multipolar context.

 

 

Alexandria Reid is a recent graduate of War Studies at King’s College London and recipient of the Sir Michael Howard Award for Best Graduate in BA War Studies. Alex currently works for Strife as a Social Media Coordinator, and as a research assistant for Dr. John Bew. In September she will begin her Master’s education as a Conflict, Security and Development student at KCL. Twitter: @AlexHREID.

 

 

 

Notes:

[1]  Boyes, Roger (27 June 2015), ‘Superpower Three Choices for America’s Role in the World by Ian Bremmer’, The Times, Accessed 5/08/2016, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/arts/books/non-fiction/article4479814.ece

[2] Bremmer, Ian (2015), Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World (Penguin), pp.1-4

[3] Franklin D. Roosevelt (10 June 1940), ‘Address at the University of Virginia’, Accessed 5/08/2016: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=15965

[4] Bremmer (2015), p.50

[5] See, McCoy, Alfred (15 September 2015), ‘The Quiet Grand Strategy of Barack Obama’, The American Conservative, available at: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-quiet-grand-strategy-of-barack-obama/ and Drezner, Daniel (2011), ‘Does Obama Have a Grand Strategy’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 4, pp.57-68, available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2011-06-17/does-obama-have-grand-strategy

[6] McCurry, Justin (21 July 2016), ‘Trump says US may not automatically defend Nato allies under attack’, The Guardian, Accessed 5/08/2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/21/donald-trump-america-automatically-nato-allies-under-attack

Image Credit: http://www.wsj.com/video/ian-bremmer-geopolitics-in-an-unstable-world/6FA80445-CFF1-4437-B7BC-E6AE2A9A028D.html

 

 

 

 

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