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on 18 August 2007
This critical analysis of the "imperial" or "militarist" drive in American foreign policy under Bush is written with a perceptive eye for empirical detail and a true social scientist's concern for unpicking claims and exposing power-relations. As a neo-Weberian social theorist, Mann brings a sociologist's and historian's awareness to a field which is usually more "lightly" analysed; hence, he deploys an appropriate breadth of analysis which stretches well beyond the usual focus on policy motives and direct coercive or even persuasive powers, and applies a measured approach to the exaggerations of official discourse, looking in an empirically-informed light at such hyped issues as the scale of international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Mann's analysis takes him well beyond conventional international relations. For instance, he looks at under-explored types of influence such as the popularity of US cultural products, and is rightly concerned with the broader impact of US policies in terms of how they are perceived by allies, bystanders, the global and Arab media and the global and Arab "street". Structurally, the book is divided into eight chapters (nine including the conclusion), which roughly split into two halves. The first half analyses the current US "Empire" in terms of the four types of power Mann theorises, and the latter applies the earlier analysis in empirical detail to four specific cases: Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea and international terrorism.

Deploying his earlier schema of types of power, Mann contrasts America unfavourably with previous imperial powers such as Rome, Britain and even Belgium. Of the four types of power he emphasises, he states that America lacks political, economic and ideological power. Economically America gives too little aid to be influential, is dependent on overseas investment and loans, and is associated with unpopular neoliberal agendas; the best it can do is to blatantly bribe small and weak states. Politically it is unable to control its own client states and unable to act as unilaterally as it would like, and ideologically it is losing its influence through media images of war casualties, the rise of ethnic and religious identities, and the incoherence of its own ideology given its poor human rights record. Only in the military field is America dominant, and here it is still offset by the strength of other powers and by the "weapons of the weak" - the proliferation of small-arms, the possibility of deterrence using WMD and the threat of terrorism. American military power is thus inappropriate for empire-building and "pacification" of conquered territories, and is not supported by any other power-resources.

Sustaining an empire, or pacifying a territory, requires far more troops than overthrowing a regime, and of a different type - able to interact with locals, willing to take risks and venture outside secured areas. America is reluctant to use troops, over-relies on air power and technology, and those troops it deploys are ill-equipped, vulnerable and prone to cause additional instability by causing civilian deaths through atrocities and misunderstandings. Nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan ended up as the manipulation of "tribal" and factional loyalties and did not pacify the countries.

Because of this basic powerlessness, America constantly makes errors of judgement in overestimating what it can achieve with unilateral military force. It also takes an unduly belligerent stance which turns otherwise unconcerned forces (isolated states, national terrorist movements) against it. Thus the neocon strategy has been counterproductive, increasing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by providing a strong incentive to acquire them (the threat of US invasion), expanding the otherwise small and declining international terrorist network and conflating issues in such a way as to draw national terrorists and states such as Iran into anti-US positions.

This is a very strong critique with a lot of empirical detail and a careful analytical account of the power-resources of the US. It is, however, limited in several ways. While more sophisticated in its analytical theory than most Anglo-American international relations works, it ultimately borrows too much from the mainstream model, leaving a lot inexplicable. Mann cannot ultimately explain the drive to empire, or various specific policies (from the provocation of terrorists to massive support for Israel). His normative framework remains limited to a multilateral liberalism. Hence, while he is appropriately scathing in attacking human rights violations, his alternatives derive very much from within the dominant frame. In contrast, Peter Gowan goes further in analysing possible cynical motives behind policies which predictably provoke resistance, and makes more sense than Mann in realpolitical terms, and world-systems theory (such as the Midnight Oil collection and Amin's "Liberal Virus") makes more sense of US goals than the narrower oil/geopolitics/revenge/delusion schema deployed here, and postcolonial theory (which Mann completely ignores) makes more sense of the motives behind colonialism and its impasses. Hence, this is a strong work, but could have been made much stronger if it shared less analytical ground with its adversaries.
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on 16 September 2015
Mann's background in the history of colonial empires gives him a highly realistic perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of the USA as a superpower. Although his assessment is over ten years old, most of his insights remain relevant, especially concerning the counterproductivity of unilateral force in controlling other nations.
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on 8 March 2005
Mann's analysis of US policy is without a doubt taken from a hard-line leftist view. However, this does not deter from its universal importance because the analysis succeeds in its thorough research and explanation. Focusing on the exaggerated size of US military potential, Mann presents US foreign policy as over-stretched and incapable of maintaining more than about 1 & 1/2 wars, if that, and can not continue to globlize itself militarily. He points out that the post-war investment in military personel takes more than the actual war does. Very worth reading.
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on 15 April 2015
Cogently argued and insightful. An up - dated edition would be welcome as the context of several issues examined have changed significantly in the 10 - 12 years since publication.
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