America's New Playbook


Power & Responsibility: Building International Order in an Era of Transnational Threats
by Bruce Jones, Carlos Pascual, and Stephen John Stedman
Brookings Institution Press, 2009

In Power & Responsibility, Bruce Jones, Carlos Pascual, and Stephen John Stedman* lay out a practical and theoretical framework for how American leadership can provide security in a world of transnational threats by building institutions for international cooperation. Pragmatic thinkers and experienced policymakers, the authors do not peddle false promises of a utopian global government; on the contrary, all of their arguments are based in the national interests of the United States, which remains the most powerful country in the world. Yet they outline in clear and concrete terms how a multilateral foreign policy, including investing in international institutions and the norm of “responsible sovereignty,” is in the U.S.’s best interest.

The book itself is structured for an informed but non-expert audience: chapters on the overarching institutional framework and the urgency of a new security strategy bookend analyses and recommendations on specific threats. The authors, for example, put forth a plan of action to limit the threat of nuclear weapons. Currently, the primary tool used to prevent nuclear proliferation, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is a compromise between nuclear weapons states, which promised to work towards disarmament, and the non-nuclear weapons states, which committed to not initiate or expand nuclear weapons programs. The authors argue that the NPT has been vitiated by the failure of nuclear weapons states, particularly the U.S., to uphold their end of the bargain. Their plan of action includes reducing weapons stocks both unilaterally and bilaterally with Russia (which, along with the U.S., owns more than 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons) and ratifying the treaty that bans nuclear weapons tests. The authors predict that these actions will diminish the prestige and threat of nuclear weapons and convince traditional American allies to present a united front when using pressure and security guarantees to deal with the toughest cases like North Korea and Iran. In this and other chapters, the analysis is sound and the policy recommendations specific (a noteworthy feat considering each of their recommendations were actually “negotiated” treaty-style through extensive consultations with key governments).

At a broader level, the book presents a clear-eyed view of international institutions that is unusual in the global governance literature. Many who study the United Nations (including this reviewer) have strong, often defensive feelings about the institution. But the authors waste no time chastising the U.S. for a long history of acting (or more often just blustering) with an attitude of American exceptionalism. They also avoid making excuses for the inappropriate composition of the U.N. Security Council (which still reflects the balance of power after World War II, excluding rising powers like Japan, Brazil, India, and South Africa while giving waning European countries like France a permanent seat and veto power). In their own words, “we do not argue that President Obama should embrace existing international institutions, warts and all.” Instead, on a number of issues, they promote the awkwardly-named but effective “G-grouping”—an expanded G-8 with 16 or 20 members—as the key institution needed to foster decision-making between the United States, other major powers, and the rising powers. (Former president George Bush actually called the first G-20 summit when this book was going to print; the body was made permanent at the group’s September summit in Pittsburgh.) It remains to be seen whether the G-20 will take on or effectively facilitate cooperation on issues beyond the financial crisis, as the authors recommend, but this development looks very likely.

On the issue of Security Council reform, which remains the elephant in the international system that will determine whether or not the G-20 fulfills its potential, the authors more or less punt. They argue that there are currently too many divisions—not just between the U.S. and other powers, but also between the powers that aspire to permanent membership and their detractors—for reform to succeed. They suggest smart procedural reforms that could lubricate the authorization of the use of force or peacekeeping operations, but put off expansion discussions. As two of the three authors have been intimately involved in negotiations for reform at the U.N.—from 2002-2005 Stedman and Jones led the most comprehensive effort to transform the U.N. since 1945 as advisers to Kofi Annan—it is difficult to disagree with their assessment. Yet the authors are largely silent on how long the Obama administration can wait to introduce the subject, or how it should approach pre-negotiation of Security Council reform through the G-20. Though the authors may be foreshadowing a sequel (Power & Responsibility II: The Rise of the Aspirant Four does have a nice ring to it), it is disappointing that they give so few indications of when and how the issue will ripen.                       

In a blurb on the book jacket, Anne-Marie Slaughter, then of Princeton University, suggests that “scholars, policymakers, and all practitioners of statecraft should take heed.” If Slaughter, now Director of Policy Planning in Obama’s State Department, and her cohort of recent appointees does in fact take her advice, this book may face another political science rarity—its arguments may actually be tested in the real world. Indeed, to return to the example of nuclear proliferation, one of the early successes of the Obama team was an agreement with Russia to reduce both countries’ nuclear arsenals by about a third. The real challenge, however, lies over the next six months, when two major treaties—START I on arms reductions and the NPT itself—must be renewed or renegotiated. And there have certainly been some early disappointments, including paltry contributions of troops for Afghanistan from European allies. But at this point, the authors should certainly share some of the soon-to-be-earned credit of Obama’s preemptive Nobel Peace Prize for helping to reinvigorate multilateral diplomacy to make the U.S. and the rest of the world more secure.



*In the spirit of full disclosure, I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis under the direction of Dr. Stedman, and have worked as his research assistant. We are also co-authors on a working paper published by the Center for Global Development titled “Can You Teach an Old Bank New Tricks? The World Bank’s Repeated Failures in Post-Conflict Countries.” However, in no way was I involved in the research or writing of Power & Responsibility.

United Nations, Nuclear Non-Proliferation, Barack Obama, US Foreign Policy, United States