In Washington, DC, one signal that a presidential election year is around the corner is the appearance of books pitching all kinds of ideas for the next president to consider after the election. Ian Bremmer has added to this list with his new book Superpower – Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.
Bremmer has written this with an agenda he promotes about how that role might be best shaped. Although he stresses that there are three choices are for readers to consider, he argues clearly for one.
The three choices boil down to one role, which is constrained and limited; a second one, which is proactive; and a third one, which he labels independent. In many ways this is a debate as old as the U.S. itself. Are we to concentrate on ourselves or save the world? He used new ways to discuss these options. One of them is the notion of the U.S. as the indispensable leader of the world. Another notion is that the “money ball” approach, which is essentially doing only what it takes to serve U.S. interests. And the third is a kind of mix—the United States doesn’t try to save the world but lends its power resources where it serves the global interests of the country. In the end, there’s nothing too new about that last option, as it has been a part of the standard U.S. foreign policy, even if the rhetoric sometimes goes in the direction of more or less engagement.
Bremmer is basically lamenting that the presidential candidates and the presidents elected don’t do a good job at explaining the choices to the American people or to the world at large. As a result, the United States sends mixed messages with mixed results.
There are two important parts of this book for those engaged in transatlantic affairs: his emphasis on China as our key strategic counterpart and on Europe as our key strategic ally. We are doing, in his view, a bad job in managing both equations.
Bremmer sees Europe—led by Germany—as having been disappointed and confused by the presidencies of Bush and Obama, and unwilling to follow Washington’s lead in recent years. He also sees that an ambivalent United States generates an ambivalent Europe when it comes to dealing with Russia or the Middle East. That said, he also points out that Europe needs to realize that a more constrained and “independent” United States means that Europe needs to assume the consequences for its own security and interests, which the U.S. has underwritten for many decades.
Basically, he argues that the U.S. remains a superpower, but can’t be superman on the world stage in all areas. In a world of more power diffusion, there is less capacity for the United States to command and engage in all conflicts and issues. Nevertheless, he says the U.S.’ interests are global. But those interests can only be pursued in cooperation with others.
Again, nothing new—rather, it’s a message Obama has been delivering for six years. Bremmer thinks that U.S. foreign policy is simply too full of question marks for Americans and for the rest of the world, and he advocates that the United States follow a path of more independence in its choices. He stresses that we need to be stronger at home, become a more credible and reliable partner abroad, and lead by example as well as by commitment.
If nothing else, Bremmer has written a set of scripts for the candidates running for the White House. He suggests that Americans and non-Americans watch which scripts the candidates read from and judge them on the basis of how well they match intention with capability, rhetoric with reality.
It is an important election and Bremmer had identified the right questions to put to the candidates. But he also suggests that our global partners and competitors need to ask questions—as well as expect to be asked questions—about their choices regardless of who will be raising them in the White House in 2017.