*Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World*

That is the new Ian Bremmer book, with the subtitle Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.  It can be Indispensable America (our postwar role), Moneyball America (pick priorities and accomplish them), or Independent America (limited foreign policy aspirations but lots of nation-building at home and trade abroad), and Ian prefers the latter — “I believe it’s time for Americans to redefine our value to the world.”  Most of all he thinks we have to choose, and articulate the reasons for our choice; right now we are left with Question Mark America, arguably the worst of all worlds.

As you would expect from a focus on foreign policy, he builds a good case for TPP, starting on p.114, from a broadly social democratic point of view, very much worth the read.

The most notable feature of this book is that Bremmer constructs the very best case for each of the foreign policy approaches, not just his favorite, and in this sense he makes the maximum effort to instruct the reader.  We could use a lot more of this approach.  He is also one of the very best people to follow on Twitter.


Just avoid crossing China's interests and you will do fine.

"I believe it’s time for Americans to redefine our value to the world.”

Oh, the world knows all about our values - Utah's reintroduction of execution by firing squad made the headlines in Germany. Much like the freeing of a woman who had been been on death row for over 20 years in Arizona - http://www.dw.de/berlin-born-woman-debra-milke-freed-after-two-decades-on-us-death-row/a-18335320

Our values are on clear display every time Hellfire missiles from a Predator double tap our self-designated enemies. With the person who pressed the firing key going home after another hard day of work rending humans 10,000 miles away into pieces.

As for the NSA? Well, they too know all about what the world thinks of American values. Updating that old chestnut for the 21st century, that what is good for the NSA is good for America.

The number of first generation immigrants lving in the US now exceeds 40 million. Some awful values, indeed.

I see what you're getting at, but I think it's pretty clear from context that he means value as in 'usefulness,' not value as in principle or standard of behavior.

The Germans have also made some foreign (and domestic) policy mistakes in the last 75 years, but I don't see what's to be gained by rehashing them.

I'll stick with Indispensable America.

Some of those are not mutually exclusive - the key is to recognize when you are actually indispensable and when you are not. What gets us in trouble (and wastes our treasure) is the heavy involvement in areas where we are not actually needed, or there is no threat to global shipping lanes.
We spent a lot of effort in Vietnam to prevent the 'cascade of dominoes', but it was fairly unproductive. Same with Iraq - we were supposed to go in, create a democracy, and drain the swamp of extremism (at least that was one of the marketing campaigns). But we just radicalized a lot of Sunnis and created Jihad universities in our Iraqi prisons.

Well the dominos stopped falling. I think the very under discussed aspect of the Cold War was how panicked the Soviets became when they saw our laser guided munitions in action. They knew they couldn't match it and they knew that those laser guided bombs would turn all those Warsaw Pact tank divisions into scrap. Now maybe they efficacy of the bombs could have been demonstrated in some other manner, but basically the upshot of Vietnam was the panicked Soviet expansionism and aggressiveness that collapsed in Afghanistan and ushered in Gorbachev.

You could make an argument that the Cold War's decisive battle was the ARVN's surprise repulsion of the Easter Offensive. At that point it was clear American airpowers advantage over soviet armor was decisive.

"Well the dominos stopped falling." Except Cambodia and Laos. And South Vietnam, obviously.

And? None of the big fish fell and that was what mattered. Thailand, Malaysia, Indoneisa and India where the chief concerns.

And so you were telling lies.

Huh? Look I know the pretentious sneer thing is kind of your thing and it bothers you when someone hits back, but the dominos did stop falling thats a fact. Or are they still falling.

It was Portugal, and not Vietnam, where the domineos stopped falling.

The Cambodian insurgency gained a big boost precisely because the US was bombing the countryside during Vietnam (and the Khmer Rouge were not exactly friends with North Vietnam). It seems more likely than not that the Khmer Rouge would not have taken power but for the US involvement in Vietnam. And the NVA were always rather prickly nationalists; they did help overthrow the Khmer Rouge but aren't expansionist.
As for Laos...not sure what would have happened there. But it's Laos...there's a reason no one says "as goes Laos, so goes the World..."

"it was clear American airpowers advantage over soviet armor was decisive": yet the US government clearly didn't believe that, else why develop the neutron bomb - that most brilliant of anti-tank weapons?

Why wouldn't you develop an even more effective weapon if you could. Anyways development of the neutron bomb began in the early fifties so developments in laser guided munitions obviously weren't taken into account. Nevermind that the USA suspended development of the bomb and only re-started the program once the Soviets detonated their own version.

Since when did trying one thing preclude trying another thing?

I don't think Sam's case is as strong as he puts it, but I don't think this objection has any validity. If I was tasked with planning for a Soviet invasion in 1981, I'd want multiple options and backup plans for all of them.

@Sam Haysom

Responses like this are fascinating to me. You highlight some obscure piece of technology (in this case, laser-guided munitions) and claim that it had a huge effect on the Vietnam war, and thus the Cold War and the course of global history.

Not being an expert on war, I can never tell if responses like this are really insightful and useful, drawing our attention to an important but hidden piece of history, or just the obsession of someone who has studied a particular technical topic too much and is convinced that it is more important to history than it really is.

Being a geek myself, I like the first interpretation, so bravo! I would love to read a long-form article, like a Malcolm Gladwell-ish treatment of the topic.

I think Sam is making the case seem a bit stronger than it actually is, but laser guided bombs did debut very late in the Vietnam War, they did dramatically increase the relative effectiveness of air power, and similar technologies led to things like Hellfire, Copperhead, and Tow. It's not LGB's specifically, but small guided weapons in general that would allow smaller amounts of firepower (that could be carried on an attack aircraft, a helicopter, or a jeep) to meaningfully threaten armor.

I don't think this was immensely decisive in the Cold War, but the Soviets certainly noticed and cared. The situation in the mid-70s was pretty grim for the good guys, but by the mid-80s it looked a lot better. Reactive armor came out in response to this. Obviously there were other things, like SDI, that were a massive contribution to the collapse of communism as well.

"Well the dominos stopped falling. "
You realize that's a completely unverifiable line of causation?

Right now we are left with Question Mark America, arguably the worst of all worlds. Why is that?
One reason why the US could the Indispensable Nation from 1995 - 2008 is most global nations made it a priority to either make stuff to ship to the US or take commodities out of ground to ship to China. This of course was financed by families over-working themselves for big mortgages and that busted in 2008. Now that the US has pulled back (outside of China) from as many exports the rest of the world is struggling. (And the Zero Marginal Product nations as Ukraine and non-oil Mid East nations are hit very hard.)

My take is Obama has moved more to Moneyball America after Clinton& Bush did the Indispensable America although he has not made it clear what his priorities are. (In reality the next Prez will set the priorities as Obama has trying to wind down the Indispensable America.)

Anyway, being an average US worker, I don't mind the rest of the world having problems as I believe the US economy benefits from investor fears.

Are we really Question Mark America? Or Insane America? The country that might attack Iran or ISIS or both at the same time. There's a certain value in being unpredictable. We won't send nukes to Ukraine, but short of that you don't know what we'll do.

It worked for Nixon. With the crappy hand he was dealt playing the madman basically bought the USA enough time to recover from Vietnam and laid the foundation for subduing the Soviets.

Are you sure you don't mean Reagan?

Reagan would have been impossible without the tough choices and foreign policy brilliance of Nixon. Nixon was actually the perfect scapegoat in the OT sense. Assume the negative features of society on oneself and by being banished free society of those failings.

Reagan would have been impossible without the tough choices and foreign policy brilliance of Nixon.

John Podhoretz said when he was in college, he and his friends would make statements like this in a dozens-type game called "The One Minute Intellectual". Cannot figure how it was scored. Many years later, John Judis published a book derived from a thesis which sounded like something you'd say in a game of "The One Minute Intellectual". Podhoretz thought it a hoot. "Instead of just moving on to the next idle thought, he took time off from work, got a foundation grant, and wrote this book..."

Operating Thetan?

The Soviets were subdued by noone but themselves.

Laughable. Pure Soviet apologia.

Washington D.C. is not the center of the world. I've been there; it's nice, but can't consider it the terrestrial equivalent of the sun. Moscow, however, really was the political, cultural, economic, and communications center of the Soviet Union, despite how shitty it is and was. Just like it was the U.S. which gave up the Panama Canal, so it was the Soviet leadership in the late 1980s-early 1990s which gave up the idea of the Soviet Union. Nobody forced it to do this. It did it itself.

playing the madman

Please note the historian Fred Greenstein's assessment of this meme: the only evidence we have that Nixon adhered to any 'madman theory' was a casual conversation with H.R. Haldeman reported eight years later in The Ends of Power ("one of the weakest entries in Watergate literature"). Greenstein points out that if Haldeman's account of that conversation is true, Nixon would have understood quite early in his administration that North VietNam was not influenced by his supposed 'madness', so tell us what was Nixon's plan B.

As hard as it is to believe since you often seem to assume that you occupy a unique vantage point of knowledge I'm more than familiar with Greenstein's argument. The madness was not meant to influence the North Vietnamese it was meant to influence the Chinese and Russians. The point was not that Nixon behaved entirely irrationally, but that he never took any option off the table like mining Haiphong during the SALT talks.

The madness was not meant to influence the North Vietnamese

The 'madman theory' as used by Nixon's detractors (e.g. William Shawcross) did refer to their conception of Nixon's pose vis a vis North VietNam and the vignette reported by Haldeman was a conversation about North VietNam.

Chances are, America won't destroy either for the foreseeable horizon. I agree; in matters of foreign policy, modern America really is Insane America; the Great Satan incarnate.

We get it. You're a nut.

Your point?

The TPP - Yes, trying to destroy innovation around the world and engendering the hostility of entrepreneurs throughout Asia is a great way to accomplish our foreign policy aims.

It's amazing to me that so many policy elites are willing to tie something they care so deeply about to increasing the rent payments to the entertainment industry.


The causal chain, IMHO, is as follows:

1. Obama sold out to the entertainment industry.

2. Obama used the classification system to hide his horrendous IP policymaking in the TPP.

3. The policy "elites" are threatened with the loss of social status if they don't go along.

4. The policy "elites" are cowards who whoreship at the altar of social status signaling, so of course they go along.

Just for fun, read Brad De Long's piggy squealing when he begs not to discuss the "secret" TPP, despite the wide availability of a leaked version.

"Since I don't know what the IP provisions really are, I cannot say."


For further fun, check out Larry Summer's oh-so oblique suggestions that excessive IP might, ya know, be a problem. How about just sacking up and speaking up directly about the issue at hand, fatboy?

Still very much Indespensible America on the seas and in the skies. Tough to see that changing to a paradigm-shifting degree over the next generation (though I don't know the book's timeline). Economically/financially, the interconnectedness which America spearheaded/bullied/required more or less means it cannot get below some hybrid Indespensible/Moneyball America in that sphere anytime soon either. The point is that it would seem to me to take an awful lot of intentional effort and disengagement in a whole lot of major areas over a long period of time in order to get to Independent America as described above. I am not really seeing Question Mark America in to many important spheres right now. Some situations are complicated and emergent, so roles can be difficult to define. But that particular designation seems like a red herring meant to make a solution to a non-problem seem better.

"Indispensible America on the seas and in the skies." I take it that the US has a huge lead "in the skies" over its potential enemies (i.e. everyone else). "on the seas" I'm not too sure about; it just needs someone to sink one of those huge carriers for a formidable fleet to look like just so much obsolete technology. "under the seas" she may be unchallengeable, though.

But does any of that matter when she launches grotesquely expensive wars and then contrives to lose them?

"lots of nation-building at home"

Nation building at home = Thomas Friedman bullshit.

1. Repave/fix up every major bridge in the US.
2. High speed train network connecting all US cities of 400K or more people.
3. Serious NASA program of enhanced space exploration and study (mostly unmanned though, not talking mission to mars stuff)
4. Fund a massive amount of hard science and health research programs.

If Obama proposed that today the response would be mockery and humiliation.

So instead we spent $1T to try to get Iraq's electrical grid working and hold elections while protecting our soldiers from snipers and suicide bombers.

1 trillion wouldn't pay for those four things. High speed trains in a nation the size of ours deserve to be mocked. And the reason are roads aren't repaved is not an issue of money but an issue of people complaining about roadwork. Fixing potholes is easy keeping people from road raging when they are stuck in roadwork-induced traffic is hard.

You probably wouldn't take a train ride from NYC to LA, for that flying makes more sense. But it does make sense to have trains connecting cities that are at an intemediate distance from each other....that line between too far to reasonably drive but not so far as to make anything other than a plane into a time wasting adventure.

Regardless, instead of $1T for trains, potholds and science you got US troops trying to fix traffic lights in Iraq while wearing two hundred lbs of body armour in 110 degree weather. Hows that working for us? Perhaps you'd like to book a vacation there next winter?

High speed rail connecting Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and DC would make sense. In other areas, not so much. In Houston, for example, it might make more sense to construct light rail connecting Downtown and Energy Corridor before a high speed rail line between Dallas and Houston. Same with LA.

I remember reading someone, it may have been Josh Barro or Matt Yglesias but I forget now, saying that an enormous problem with train transit times in the northeast mega-region is gross mismanagement of existing bottlenecks rather than physically slow trains, the implication being that fixing that would be a far cheaper way of speeding up transit times vs. investing in a new high-speed rail system. Not sure if it's true or not.


"Amtrak’s latest Next-Generation High-Speed Rail plan is now up to $151 billion, from a prior cost of $117 billion.
In contrast with this extravaganza, it is possible to achieve comparable travel times for about one tenth the cost.
I propose the following general principles, guiding any future development in the corridor: Rolling stock is cheaper than infrastructure, Speed up commuter trains instead of bypassing them, The regulations should be based on service needs, On shared segments that aren’t bypassed, build infrastructure that allows higher speeds, Make sure station throats allow full speed, Fix curves in higher speed zones, Worry about track capacity when all other capacity factors have been optimized
With the above seven principles, one could come up with a reasonable set of projects of immediate significance. With a total cost in the single-digit billions, they’d eliminate most of the barriers to full-speed travel between New York and Washington, and leave New York-Boston with just one major problem section between Stamford and Milford. Best-practice trains, even ones optimized for a straighter route – for example, Shinkansen or the Talgo, but not the Pendolino, which is both heavier and less powerful but has a much larger degree of tilting – could go from Boston to Washington in about 4 hours, or not much more.

Suggest you remove any residual mercantile regulations on train service, review health and safety standards, restructure their legacy obligations, and put Amtrak on the auction block. They'll find their way.

Is creating attractive vacation spots supposed to be the hallmark of America foreign policy. In that case I agree its been a decade of failure.

I've always wondered why nobody has developed temporary, mobile overpasses so that road repairs can be undertaken beneath them. A Great Stagnation?

"High speed trains in a nation the size of ours deserve to be mocked."

China disagrees. Let's see who's right.

I secretly wish we made #3 and #4 a bigger priority. I have been increasingly swayed by the Robert Frank conspicuous consumption/positional good school of thought*. We so so so much more need a cure for cancer than we need everyone to live in a McMansion.

I think #2 is probably not a good idea on more than a limited regional scale. Though I would be for it in the form of an awesome Hyperloop or other innovative transit form.

*I just bought some Ray Ban Wayfarers. They are pretty much functionally equivalent to sunglasses that cost a fraction as much. Want to guess if the absolute quality of the sunglasses was worth the money I paid for it?

If you are looking for work for laborers, bridgework is surely better than digging and refilling holes.

But building a bunch of trains that no one will ride is just causing a lot of eyesores and environmental damage.

I'd love for the US to say "Mars in ten years," FWIW.

1. Repave/fix up every major bridge in the US.

We have these things called state and local governments who do this routinely.

2. High speed train network connecting all US cities of 400K or more people.


3. Serious NASA program of enhanced space exploration and study (mostly unmanned though, not talking mission to mars stuff)

Another boondoggle.

4. Fund a massive amount of hard science and health research programs.

Boondoggle already in progress.

Was Iraq a boondogle?

I think it ended up becoming so and that it shouldn't have been tried.

So to your logic, anything that benefits the US is a boondoggle.

US Department of Defense central planning success stories abroad and coup/regime changing business with its blood and treasure draining coupled with unintended consequences however are just fine.

On foreign policy and TPP: Exactly how smart is it to weaken the influence of Chinese entrepreneurs through heavy-handed anti-innovation regulation? Do we thing strengthening the hand of the militarist wing in China is the smart way to go? How stupid do you have to be to support the TPP and not think of these things?

Entrepreneur is apparently Chinese for bootlegged copy of the new Star Wars film.

“lots of nation-building at home”

They will name it Mexico Norte.

Thomas who?

"Independent America" is what Germany has been doing lately. Some people is not happy about how Germany dealt with Ukraine's invasion.

With Russia invading neighbors little by little, Indispensable America in a good relationship with China, as the last 40 years, seems optimal.

And what, exactly, can America do to stop a nuclear world power from defending the sovereignty of territories which have declared independence from the borders that were imposed on them in the early 1990s? China is prone to sea-grabs, and is, therefore, not likely to ever have an especially friendly relationship with the U.S., but is the world's manufacturer, and is, therefore, economically fearsome.

Get back to Reagan's policies, America. Please. In the interest of yourself and the whole Western world.

What it means now -

There are true friends: NATO members, Israel, and perhaps a couple of others, such as Japan and South Korea.
There are non-friends, but not enemies: China and Saudi Arabia spring to mind.
There are less important enemies, of which Russia is the most remarkable example. No longer a superpower, even though she pretends she still is.
Then there are principal enemies that hate America beyond death: it's the Islamic State, Iran, and much of the Islamic world.

Actually, Ronnie played a lot more nice with the Islamic World and tended to remind Muslim nations it was the Evil Empire invading one of their own, Afghanistan. In terms of Reagan, he did not hate Iran. Heck, he even sold them lots of weapons.

This is who I consider should be friends, neutral, and foes:
Friends: most NATO members, Israel (but not unconditionally), South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Chile, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and, however reluctantly, Yemen.
One NATO member in particular deserves to be expelled and have its leadership executed by firing squad. Several others aren't really worth having.
Saudi Arabia should be considered an enemy as soon as the oil runs out.
Neutral: Vietnam, Russia, Saudi, Iran, Cuba, Rwanda, China -pariah states too costly to have regimes replaced
Foes: North Korea, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Argentina, Venezuela, Chad -pariah states not too costly to have regimes replaced

It's likely that Saudi Arabia has a lot more oil than anybody thinks. Oil prospecting is forbidden in large areas of the country. I don't think they'll run out of oil during the lives of your grandchildren. By the time they run out, the world will be a much different place.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia itself may change even during our lifetimes. I would not count on the long-term stability of the present government.

"One NATO member in particular deserves to be expelled and have its leadership executed by firing squad"

I see a lot of hostility around here toward Canada, but this is a new advance in confronting the Canuck Menace.

Which NATO member? Genuinely intrigued.

Turkey, of course.

Mark Thorson gets it right.

What has Israel ever done for the US except take the US' money? They have not helped out in any battle against the "existential threat" ISIS and they never helped out in ANY other Middle East conflict.

Israel may be have been the impetus for OIF and is certainly cheering to outsource their Iran invasion to the US. Israel spies on the US intensely and is even running a s subtle propaganda campaign in the US via the Hasbara program.

There is probably more useful and less biased intelligence sharing among the Anglo-American nations if anything.

The conscientious objectors of the Sunni world - nations like Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have not committed more openly and decisively to the war on ISIS, and instead prod the Americans to send their troops to eradicate the Islamic State despite Turkey sharing a 500 mile border and having an army of 500k troops.

Don't be ridiculous, Israel takes very little money in the grand scheme of things and gives back a lot more in terms of intelligence dealing with real enemies in the region.

They also act as a giant flypaper for religious fanatics who would otherwise turn elsewhere.

And they're a free people deserving of protection. If US help is to be predicated on direct self interest US forces could be withdrawn from most of the world, starting with South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and dozens of others.

I suppose Africa too should be left to their own devices.

"And they’re a free people deserving of protection. If US help is to be predicated on direct self interest US forces could be withdrawn from most of the world, starting with South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and dozens of others. I suppose Africa too should be left to their own devices."

Congratulations, welcome to the post Cold War, 21st Century, where the friends are ambiguos at best, the economic competition is global, the US does not carry the majority of World GDP, and the US cannot necessarily afford that level of policing as it has done in the past couple decades.

Israel is rhetorically toxic in the Arab world and would, therefore, seriously hurt whichever side it fought for or was suspected by everyone of aiding. It does help al-Qaeda today, though, but covertly. Nobody's planning an Iran invasion. Too risky. Also, remember, it's the only other democracy in the Middle East.

No objector, "conscientious" or not, belongs in NATO.

Israel, toxic?

Bibi's obnoxious coronation ceremony in the House notwithstanding, should a country with a sovereign wealth fund, potentially large NatGas find be a recipient of US aid?

So why the rush to throw a couple billion to them every year? What have they done for the US? Israel hedges their bets and invites Putin over for trade and pleases the large slavic population of Israel while benefitting from the trade and tourism that entails. That part the Neocons do not advertise of course.

Cutting aid to Israel is the ultimate form of leverage but US has those that insist that the US remain a client of Israel.

Usually there is a norm of reciprocity in foreign affairs and I fail to see any reciprocity from Israel, just whining, demands, and handouts. This sounds like what some Republicans would call a welfare queen.

Israel should never be questioned?

Elliott Abrams, the former George W. Bush deputy national security adviser and “leading pro-Israel writer and policy analyst” has said: “My view is over time it would be healthy for the relationship if the aid diminished. Israel should be less dependent on American financial assistance and should become the kind of ally that we have in Australia, Canada or the United Kingdom, an intimate military relationship and alliance, but no military aid.”

Tyler writes: "Ian prefers the latter."

Did he mean the latter (Moneyball America) or the last (Independent America)? I assume Independent America but am not sure.

The TPP falls under the category of some things are too important to leave to the experts.

Channeling Steve Sailer- in the moneyball option what would be analogous to getting the Giambi bros and Miguel Tejada to inject copious steroids.

Why not just put fires out and otherwise keep your powder dry? (Because saying bland commonsensical things does not make for a career as an academic political scientist, that's why).

Which fires? Claims that foreign policy is easy are dumb.

I've never doubted it's easy to screw up.

I doubt that the US will have the luxury of choosing.

"He is also one of the very best people to follow on Twitter."

Get a daily laugh from the cartoons he posted.

Most of the wars the US are engaged with are not of necessity but of choice. I think these stem from the bureaucratic bias to cover your ass withaction, the hamster must go on the spinning wheel, “something has to be done” otherewise IF something has goes wrong it’s all Obama’s fault. As OIF has proved, doing nothing is a lot better than something. The law of unintended consequences strikes hard again!

None of these wars will protect actual American citizens, skyscrapers, or even US economic interests. Does doubling down on the non-ally Ukraine actually accomplish anything other than angering bona fide allies like Germany?

There is a lot of freeloading among “allies.” There is no spotlight and calling out of these allies for their freeloading and armchair quarterbacking. They (and US neocons) are the blame America first crowd and quick to shame the US for “not doing more” when their countries don’t even spend 2% of GDP on defense or actually fight the threat outside their own borders (i.e. ISIS).

Speaking of spending on defense:

"A German battalion assigned to Nato's rapid response force used broomstick handles instead of guns on a joint exercise due to chronic equipment shortages"



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