[This review is scheduled to be published in the Spring 2008 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies.]


Book Review


Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World

Dennis Ross

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007


            The admonition to “think outside the box” is premised on the quite valid assumption that much of our thinking takes place within a self-imposed “box” that confines our understanding to a certain set of insights and alternatives.  If it is a puzzle or mathematical problem we are talking about, going “outside the box” may simply require a consideration of certain less-than-obvious alternatives.  But the constraints on human understanding go far beyond puzzles, and apply to much else.  Entire systems of thought exist that, though extensive in themselves, tend to inhibit the consideration of other facts and concepts.

            There is little question but that such a “box” exists today so far as the “world community’s” understanding of global events in concerned.  (A skeptic is inclined to say that when the fashionable concept of a “world community” is referred to, it is really the thinking of the “world elite,” or what Samuel Huntington has spoken of as the “Davos culture,”[1] that is meant.  The skeptic will further suggest how presumptuous it is for any elite, no matter how widely spread, to equate its views with those of some 6 billion-plus people who have sharply varying worldviews and who live in multiple civilizations.)  It has come to be understood (among the people whose views count) that there is to be a “new world order,” of which the United States is quite naturally to be the leader (if, that is, the United States conforms its actions to the consensus of that world community, which is something it hasn’t altogether been doing under the George W. Bush presidency).

            In Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World, Dennis Ross is clearly not thinking outside the box—which leads us to the point that his book is quite a good one for those who accept the parameters of the new world order or who seek a further understanding of that order.  For those who, on the other hand, find reason to fault the world community’s consensus, the book’s merit lies in providing a well-stated example of what they oppose. 

            Within the mindset of the “new world order,” there are bound to be a number of intramural differences of opinion.  Among them, “neoconservative,” “liberal” and “neoliberal” foreign policies contend for acceptance.  For his part, Ross embraces Francis Fukuyama’s “realistic Wilsonianism” and calls it “neoliberalism,” while acknowledging that the term is his own and as yet describes the views of no recognized group.  Certainly one of the more important functions of the book, as he would see it, is to stake out a “neoliberal” position.  Beyond giving it a name, he sets out to define it and to differentiate it from the other positions.

            Ross is eminently qualified for the task.  He is a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the author of a prior book on peace in the Middle East, and—above all—someone who has extensive “hands on” experience as “Middle East envoy and the chief peace negotiator in the presidential administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.”

            He describes a “liberal foreign policy” as one that (in common with his neoliberalism and with neoconservatism) sees the United States’ responsibility as being “to rescue and remake the world.”  It would pursue this end by, he says, promoting dialogue, restraining aggression through collective mechanisms, strengthening international institutions, mediating conflicts, fostering human rights, undertaking humanitarian interventions, engaging in nation-building, and exporting democratic values.  A “neoconservative foreign policy” also sees the United States as having the task of “hastening the day that democracy triumphs around the globe,” but it places more emphasis on the use of “military force for good” and on unilateral action.  Ross’s “neoliberalism” is somewhere between these two positions.  “Unlike many of today’s liberals, neoliberals are not defensive when it comes to the use of American force.”  This would seem to make his views akin to those of neoconservatives, but he says that “ultimately, what separates neoliberals from neoconservatives is… their doubts about where our use of force is likely to succeed.  Neoliberals are more skeptical than the neocons that force can foster democratic transformations….”  Ross joins liberals in favoring multilateral rather than unilateral action.  The main theme of Statecraft, however, is one that plays upon Ross’s personal expertise and experience: that “soft and hard power” should be applied with finesse.  He devotes chapters to the nuances of good statecraft, negotiation and mediation.  In the course of this, he gives insightful critiques of the presidential administrations of Bill Clinton and the two Bushes.

            The problem with his analysis—at least from the point of view of someone who “thinks outside the box” of the Davos consensus—is that he fails to see how greatly all of this violates one of his own stated imperatives.  On a number of occasions, Ross makes  the point that care should be taken to match ends with means, so that goals are formulated with a full recognition of the limitations that impinge on their being achieved.  But his application of this precept is only to what we might call “micro” issues, as distinct from a “macro” understanding of the world at large.  He does not see that to “transform the world for good” and to “extend democracy everywhere” is to assume a Gargantuan task that is far beyond anyone’s means and that is both, as Huntington warns, culturally presumptuous and imminently dangerous.  Ross doesn’t ponder Huntington’s admonitions that “the West’s universalist pretensions increasingly bring it into conflict with other civilizations” and that “Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multicivilizational world.”[2]

            Statecraft’s message essentially is that the United States should continue in vigorous pursuit of world hegemony and transformation, but should do it better than it has been.  Those who accept the goal will find instructive his advice on how to do it better.


                                                                                                                                                                        Dwight D. Murphey


[1]   Huntington is referring to the point of view found at the World Economic Forum that convenes annually in Davos, Switzerland.  “Each year about a thousand businessmen, bankers, government officials, intellectuals, and journalists from scores of countries meet… Davos people control virtually all international institutions, many of the world’s governments, and the bulk of the world’s economic and military capabilities.”  Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 57.

[2]   Huntington, Clash of Civilizations, pp. 20, 312.