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Taming American Power: The Global Response to U. S. Primacy Hardcover – 6 Sep 2005

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (6 Sept. 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393052036
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393052039
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 3 x 24.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,090,522 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"This is a pathbreaking book for both the informed public and policy makers, for whom it should be required reading and who would do well to follow its recommendations." -- Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Stephen M. Walt is the academic dean and the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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Format: Hardcover
A good book, but it raises many points that are no longer new. It should be read, but it won't excite.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x91351870) out of 5 stars 15 reviews
64 of 77 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x90ff9f30) out of 5 stars Good old-fashioned Realism to the rescue 23 Oct. 2005
By Autonomeus - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Walt is a long-time proponent of Realism in international relations, publishing especially in the journal International Relations. This is his latest brief for U.S. foreign policy, and not only is it a rebuke of the Bush Administration's disastrous war on Iraq, "GWOT," and "preemptive war doctrine," which of course is really *preventive*, offensive war, but it outlines a more sensible course of action -- a strategy based on Realist principles.

The bulk of the book examines how the rest of the world is actually responding to U.S. primacy, and why, from the eminently logical point of view that countries pursue their own interests, not ours. Walt looks at examples of the whole range of possibilities, from balancing (including asymmetric strategies), to "balking" (footdragging), "binding" (to alliances, institutions and norms), and delegitimation (what we call in sociology a "framing" strategy), in the cases of Europe, China, Russia, Arab states, and the whole cast of characters on the world stage.

Only at the end, based on this primer on Realist analysis, does Walt turn to his eminently sensible prognosis for U.S. foreign policy. He indicts the failed Global Hegemony strategy of the Bush Administration, which has led to active attempts by virtually everyone else to counter the U.S. After a brief survey of the Selective Engagement strategy of the Bush Sr. and Clinton Administrations, he recommends a return to Offshore Balancing, which was U.S. strategy through most of its history, and which Walt says is perfectly suited to this (no doubt temporary) period of U.S. primacy. Offshore Balancing is not isolationism, but it would minimize permanent commitments and bases in places like Europe and Asia where our allies should take up their share of the common burden, and will in their own interest if forced to, according to Realist theory.

In lamenting the feckless Bush Administration policies that have put the U.S. in a deep hole in terms of its international standing and alliances, Walt observes that the U.S. is "a remarkably immature Great Power," and that "Americans remain remarkably ignorant of the world" (p. 245). In contrast to the spate of immature, ignorant books currently flooding the market, calling for a global War on Islam, among other amazing hare-brained ideas, TAMING AMERICAN POWER is a refreshing voice of sanity.
28 of 34 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9115d540) out of 5 stars Back to the drawing board! 8 Nov. 2005
By fCh - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Ask folks outside the US if there is something wrong with it and what that is, and chances are that you'll get a good many little piece of the big puzzle characterizing the relationship between the US and the World. Since the "mission accomplished" moment, similar pieces have made it in the US media taxonomy, as high up as editorials. It is the merit of Stephen Walt's, to have been gathered a lot of little pieces in a framework that would capture the situation like this: 1) Why other states fear the US primacy? 2) What strategies can states pursue in response to US primacy? 3) What can the US do about #2? If not much can be debated about points #1 and #2 in Walt's framework, point #3 comes along the lines of a growing conversation meant to supplant the neocon doctrine, as the latter one loses steam by the day.It should be briefly noted that the answer to point #3 had preoccupied the US foreign policy makers even before the neocon doctrine - recall Clinton's 'indispensable nation.'

The relative novelty Professor Walt brings into consideration, when looking for answers to point #3, is the need for openness and public debate about the activity of political lobbies - especially those steering the US foreign policy. Michael Scheuer might have been the first one, in this round, to raise awareness about political lobbies as factor influencing the US foreign policy. However, it is only now that we have a proposal on how to deal with the shortcomings of what, Walt reminds us, is a fundamental feature of the American democracy - interest groups. It should also be added that, in a recent report on overall nations' business competitiveness, released by The World Economic Forum, the US occupies only the second place due also to the perceived negative influence of business lobbies on government policy. So, here we have a complementary instance where interest groups, the same ones Tocqueville was first to write about, are exacting their price on the American system.

I would sum up the value of this book in terms of: (a) Taking a snapshot of the world's perception of the US through the lens of the American foreign policy; (b) Building a framework of the relationships between the US and the other nations; (c) Bringing to public attention several prescriptions for maintaining US primacy while addressing (some of) the world's concerns. As for Walt's prescriptions for US foreign policy, the part of the book that's open widest to debate, only time will tell what and how. Somehow, I have a feeling, the next executive is taking notice.

For those still undecided customers, have a look at "Taming American Power," an article the author published in Sept/Oct issue of Foreign Affairs.
23 of 29 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x911561bc) out of 5 stars Using a chair and whip? 23 Dec. 2005
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on
Format: Hardcover
A new genre of foreign policy writers is emerging in the United States. They are called "realists", but defining the term defies precision. Following the "neo-con" works extolling the idea of the US flexing its military and economic might came the "soft power" advocates. The latter declared that overbearing foreign policies were counterproductive. Power must be curbed or withdrawn in favour of more conciliatory policies, preferably multilaterally decided and applied. Stephen Walt's approach is a middle ground, without being conciliatory to either of the previous stances.

Walt opens with a summary of all the aspects of might available to the USA. This is the foundation of the "realist" genre - the power is there and Walt catalogues it nicely. The USA is at once the strongest power militarily and economically, influencing many by sheer presence. It has far outstripped whatever competition it might have had. A military defeat is out of the question and even economic challengers can only hope to share, not dominate, markets. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the USA in the role of world primacy. That unique position has led other nations to view such solitary might with distrust and resentment. Walt explains brilliantly why these countries are suspicious. Any nation confronted with such prowess will naturally be wary. He generally avoids value judgements in the depiction, but he notes how poorly informed the leaders and general populace of the USA are about the resentment. How other nations do and should react becomes the theme of most of Walt's remaining chapters.

Once he's described what he calls "the roots of resentment", Walt describes the reactions by nations uncomfortable with the USA's "primacy". He lists various "strategies of opposition" and "accommodation". Opposition to such prowess must range across many options. Can it be direct? Walt shows how resistance to US demands might depend on the severity of the issue, whether other distractions command greater attention or whether the resistance might reach across more than one nation. Excessive power is a fine tool for forging opposition alliances. Where open and direct alliances may be lacking or impractical, various forms of "balancing" may be established to offset US hegemony. The most extreme form of "balancing" is the terror attack, but many other methods are available, from "balking" to blackmail. It's important to note that with a single power to contend with, continuous or sustained tactics to counter US strength are unlikely. There will be shifts and rearrangements until new balances are struck. Pejorative references to "Old" and "New" Europe, for example, are counterproductive. They only serve to demonstrate inflexibility and increase disaffection toward the US leadership.

Where direct opposition to US hegemony fails or is impractical, there are various forms of accommodation that may be adopted. Understanding that each nation has its own interests to follow, "accommodation" is a term of wide and flexible definition. One strategy is to call in the "debts" of past cooperation. That may lead to modification of the original demands by the US. "Bandwagoning" is Walt's term for a nation agreeing to a US policy, but with an eye to later possible challenges. It's a rare tactic, but one used effectively in the proper circumstances. "Regional balancing" is another form of manoeuvering. It was used successfully during the Cold War, and lingers in some of today's national alignments. A more blatant form of accommodation is the use of "penetration" of domestic politics. Here, Walt treads on shaky ground as he depicts the extensive lobby groups run by Israel and India. These forces have gone beyond seeking accommodation to actually guide US policy-making. His recommendation to banish these groups as inimical to US long-term interests will certainly lead to protest by vested interests. Walt further recommends the blatant and unhindered support of Israel in the Middle East is causing more problems than benefits. The US should cut Israel loose and strive to broker a new arrangement based on the establishment of a Palestinian nation.

Walt stresses a point often lost in discussions of US power and policy. It is a mistake, he notes, to think other nations resent or "hate" the people of the US. Except through the leaders they elect, the people of the US aren't held accountable for mistaken policies. The failures of successive administrations are regrettable, but the peoples of other nations generally accept the foundation of "good intentions" in US actions. What is needed, Walt suggests, is to prove that good intentions work. This can be accomplished by the US using its might with circumspection. "Offshore balancing", the solving of problems by negotiation with the might of the US present in the background, has been successful and should be applied more often. The present administration has abandoned "offshore balancing" in favour of a declaration of "preventive" war against nations it deems unaccommodating. This, in effect, is a declaration of war against the rest of the world. Instead of asserting its power, Walt argues, the US should assume a stance of playing "hard to get". Other nations should be welcomed in bringing problems to the US instead of the US intruding unilaterally. He calls this approach a "mature foreign policy".

Who will tame this powerful eagle? Chairs and whips are for lions, so something else must be applied. It is the ballot that will curb excess or foolishly applied power. Walt intends this book as a non-partisan prescription for improving the awareness of the US electorate. He notes that many of the problems in international affairs his nation is facing are of recent origin. It isn't too late to employ corrective action, but voters and their representatives must be better informed of the issues and how policies are irritating other nations with which the US must coexist. Read this book and learn where to start. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x91071f30) out of 5 stars Learned, Low-Key, Somewhat Disappointing 5 Oct. 2006
By Robert David STEELE Vivas - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I would not normally have bought this book, but the dogmatic criticisms of the work from what appear to be very angry Zionists compelled me to support the author and see for myself. I can certainly understand their objections: the author provides a very fine overview of how Israel has bonded and penetrated the U.S. Government at all levels including junior staff levels in both Congress and the Executive, and how this, in combination with what I consider to be an unholy alliance with the Christian Zionists (the author names Gary Bauer, Jerry Fallwell, Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, Tom Delay, and Richard Armey), has shifted U.S. policy between Palestine and Israel from being a balanced peacemaker to unleashing Israel and not holding it accountable. The author is at his best when discussing how to cease our support for Israel if they cannot be sincere in seeking a two-state or shared state solution. The author does not, as far as I could see, discuss the complete failure of the Arab nations to provide support to Palestine where it counts: aid, passports, land rights, etcetera.

On balance I was somewhat disappointed. The book is a tour de force at a very high level, but it is rather simplified, primarily state centric, an executive summary of a great deal of the literature, but missing important slices of the broader literature. Nothing here about the ten threats, twelve policies, or eight challengers.

The author does well at making the point that it is US actions, not US values, that are the catalyst for attacks, and he is quite explicit in discussing how specific terrorists attacks follow consistently from some specific US action in the Middle East. He lists the problems with US Foreign Policy, including double standards, short attention span, historical amnesia, and ambivalence about respect for international law, but there is not as much substance in this book as in, for example, David Boren's edited book on "Preparing American Foreign Policy for the 21st Century"--see my review for an 18 point summary--nor is there the fullest possible discussion of grand strategy. The author breaks new ground in defining strategies of opposition and strategies of accommodation (mostly state-centric) but all things being equal, I think Colin Gray's "Modern Strategy" is better.

The author is at pains to state that pro-Israel organizations, but not most American Jews themselves, egged the Administration on toward the elective invasion and occupation of Iraq. He tries very hard to be politically correct, to the point that the scholarship is weakened--note 97 on page 283, for example, avoids stating the obvious and documenting Greg Palast's "Best Democracy Monday Can Buy" case, i.e. that George Bush stole the Florida election in 2000.

The author touches lightly on the reality that you cannot do public diplomacy using dogma and propaganda--it must be based on substance, and he correctly identifies education as the key--something the Broadcasting Board of Governors not only does not understand, but they are actively keeping their head in the sand while the battle rages over where the Open Source Agency will be (in the spy world or in the diplomatic world).

Just when I thought the author was going to reach a cresendo, after a review of Joe Nye's soft power ideas, stating that no other state is capable of withstanding the full weight of US power, I ended up with a cream pull. No real discussion of how that full weight can be defined and manifested.

See also my reviews of Derek Leebaert's "The Fifty Year Wound," Jonathan Schell's "Unconquerable World," Chalmers Johnson's "Sorrows of Empire," Robert McNamara and James Blight "Wilson's Ghost," Tom Hammes "The Sling and the Stone," and Mark Hertsgaard's "The Eagle's Shadow," among many many other books.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x91f93234) out of 5 stars The Taming of the Shrew 19 July 2006
By Friedrich Schroeder - Published on
Format: Hardcover
"'Taming American Power' - Why would one like to do that?" This seems to be the standard tongue-in-cheek reaction one gets from a fellow American student who has spotted the reviewer reading Stephen Walt's latest book. Granted, it is a bit hard to swallow Walt's line of argument at first. As the author, academic dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, himself admits, "by virtually any measure, the United States enjoys an asymmetry of power unseen since the emergence of the modern state system." And more than that: It is highly likely that it will remain the most powerful player in the international system for some time to come. So who would go about trying to tie down this omnipotent Gulliver? Walt does a good job in pointing out that reactions from across the world to America's "primacy" position (the author defines this as "being first in order, importance, or authority") are often lukewarm at best - large parts of the population in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia do as a matter of fact detest everything the United States stands for. And even seemingly close allies in Europe and Asia look like they have lost their (Cold War-) love for Mr. Big.

But is it just the "rise in the power of [modern-day] Athens and the fear it causes in the world" that makes America so unloved at the present moment? According to Walt, who is a neo-realist at heart but doesn't shy away from making use of other theoretical models on the way, the answer to the question of "why they hate us" is not so much what America stands for, but what it has done in the past, especially ever since the George W. Bush Administration took office in 2001. But his seminal book is more than just one of the many polemics on the current executive. It is a lucid, and often provocative, account of the current problems U.S. public diplomacy faces in the world. It is a profound analysis of the way states deal with American power, something that "has become an essential element of statecraft for every country in the world." More importantly, Walt gives clear recommendations for policy action as well, something that is so often missing from comparable works.

The author starts by shedding light on how the U.S. got into the position it is recently in. How did the "preponderance of power" (Melvin Leffler) come about? Walt attributes geography, shrewd diplomacy, but also pure luck for the unique situation America is in now. Starting with the end of the Cold War (here an analysis of earlier developments such as the Spanish-American War might have brought further insights) Walt goes through the development in the growth of U.S. influence and primacy. He then sets out to analyze the difference in perception the United States has of itself and that other states have of it. Americans and their political leaders are quite often ignorant of the fact that their country is not well liked in other parts of the world. Worse than that: On a regular basis, they simply do not care about other states' opinions. Walt considers the various strategies that states use if they indeed intend to oppose U.S. primacy. Balancing ("soft balancing" with other states or "internal balancing" on their own), balking (foot-dragging), binding (using norms and institutions), blackmail (threatening to take some undesirable action unless the U.S. offers compensation), and delegitimation (portraying the U.S. as morally bankrupt) are the various means that states put to use, very often in combination with each other and during different time periods. Although theses categories have large explanative value per se, it is however not quite clear whether they really cover the entire spectrum of political action. For example, a state could just refuse to hear what the U.S. has to say, thereby falling under none of the above categories.

But what if a state decides to go along with U.S. primacy? According to Walt, it can then either bandwagon (appease), follow a regional balancing strategy (use the U.S. to balance against neighboring states), bond with (establish close personal ties) or try and penetrate American politics (manipulate the U.S. domestic political system). But here, too, other categories seem to exist. A state can for example go along with U.S. policies while at the same time thinking very little of the nation's administration or even its president. The relationship between former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter serves as a prime example.

It is at this point that Walt gets to the heart of his controversial reasoning. He lays out an argument against political pressure groups and ethnic lobbyist movements - in itself not necessarily a new argument. Yet although he also talks about the Indian and Armenian lobby groups, his main thrust is directed against the various kinds of Israeli groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). He blames them for having an undue influence and for pursuing a national interest that is "national" only in Israeli, not in American terms. Yet his argument about the "power of the weak" rings a bit hollow and is only thinly veiled by devoting very few pages to the Indian and the Armenian case. Although Walt rightly states that a solution to the problems of the Middle East is essential to "win the hearts and minds" of the Muslim world and to achieve one of the main objectives of U.S. foreign policy, he walks on thin ice when he makes sweeping statements about the influence of the Israel lobby in the United States such as "Israel is the `gold standard' by which transnational penetration should be judged." Granted, the road for the solution of the Israel-Palestinian problem did not "lead through Baghdad" - U.S. involvement in Iraq turned into a quagmire situation, as Walt rightly points out. But does it really lead through K Street in Washington, D.C.? This seems hardly likely. Lobbies are influential, especially in the United States, but they surely cannot be the sole explanatory variable for why America has so many problems with public opinion in the world.

Bearing these caveats in mind, Walt is at his best when he comes to the actual policy recommendations in the last part of his book. Most importantly, he states, U.S. foreign policy "must be molded with [other states'] reactions in mind." Although this might sound like a truism to European ears, it is something that has not always been at the center of the U.S. foreign policy decision making process. There is hope, however: Consulting with allies and taking their opinions into consideration seems to have been taken up by the current U.S. administration recently - just look at the State Department's new efforts in "transformational diplomacy", increased student exchange and language learning. Walt also makes the important point that the strategy of "pre-emption" - which really is just another word for "preventive war" when the Bush administration uses it - must be abolished at earliest convenience if the U.S. doesn't want to ruin relations with the rest of the world in the long run. For large parts of the global public (especially the European part of it), this seems to be a matter of highest urgency.

The drawback of Taming American Power is that its analysis is extremely state-centered. It is perfectly alright to view states as the principal actors in international relations, but even the most hard-boiled realists will have to acknowledge that the U.S. will increasingly have to deal with non-state actors such as al-Qaeda in the future. Also, Walt seems to be a bit too sympathetic to John Mearsheimer's theory of "offensive Realism" to make it fit with his call for a "mature U.S. foreign policy" that takes the opinions of others into account when pursuing policy goals. It is because of theses inconsistencies that Walt's analysis can only serve as a starting point. But it is a good starting point and leads into the right direction. Therefore, it can be recommended highly.
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