American Power and the Prospects for International Order

October 23, 2008

There often seems to be little common ground between the hyper-realist, often hawkish style of analysis associated with Robert Kagan, and the hyper-critical type of the Chomskyan variety that regards every action taken as being derived from the interests of American corporations. Studies such as this that try to find a middle ground but still maintain a critical edge are therefore to be welcomed. Bromley has written a timely book that looks at various facets of American power and how they fit into the current international system.

Bromley's argument is presented in four steps, identical with four more-or-less self-contained large chapters of about 50 pages each. The argument progresses from the more general and historical context (ideology and empire) to the more concrete level of contemporary problems (the battle for resources and the rising economical importance and future potential of China).

The author rejects the notion that neoconservatism is a new and qualitatively different phenomenon, arguing that neoconservative thought and policies are a natural extension of traditional US foreign policy. Its main ideas and policies can still be located within the paradigm of 20th-century modernisation theory. Neoconservatism took on a radical edge only because it thought of modernisation as having remained incomplete and therefore needed to be pointed in the right direction. 9/11, Afghanistan and the Middle East provided the context for kicking into a higher gear. What makes contemporary neoconservative foreign policy so problematic is rather a kind of hubris. Economically, the US is no longer the only pace-setter, although it remains a major player. But in military terms, the US remains an unrivalled giant. The problem - and hence the hubris - is that incongruity between military might and declining economic power. It creates a political problem of the first order.

Bromley's reflections on empire, in many ways the core of the book, explore this argument of the triangular relationship between military might, economic slowdown and political action. He analyses the peculiarities of US foreign relations, which go back to the fact that America always regarded herself as the first new nation and, in contrast to others, universal almost by design. As Bromley convincingly argues, a short look at the history of American liberal constitutionalism will confirm this uniquely American view of the world. In other words, the US thinks that there is no difference between the universal and American interests.

Yet in a changed world of what Bromley calls "economic multi-polarity", American historical exceptionalism is of limited value and can even create its own blindness. The risk of such a limited self-awareness about America's changed position, particularly in economic matters, is analysed in the remaining chapters on resources (oil) and the rise of the Asian economies (particularly China and India).

This is a good book and should be recommended in particular to those who think they already know everything about American foreign relations. If there is one weakness, it is that it is based entirely on English and English-translation sources. It seems an irony that most of the current international relations literature that criticises the hegemony of the US seems to rely entirely on the empire's language. How international is that?

American Power and the Prospects for International Order

By Simon Bromley. Polity, 288pp, £55.00 and £18.99. ISBN 9780745642383 and 42390. Published 24 June 2008

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