The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the 21st Century

Michael Mandelbaum
New York: Public Affairs
A Review by Susan Froetschel

Hating America, the sole superpower, is in fashion around the world. But Michael Mandelbaum is unapologetic, even as he compares the US with a villainous giant of biblical proportion.

Mandelbaum, a foreign policy scholar who teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, goes beyond defending the modern Goliath. He wishes that the US - or rather the American people - were recognized for their role and admired. He wonders why no one has ever suggested giving a Nobel Peace Prize to the “American public for supporting the policies of reassurance, nuclear nonproliferation and economic stabilization that have done far more to avoid war and mitigate other causes of human suffering than any Nobel laureate has managed.” It does not matter if the prize was thus given to people who unintentionally fell into a role - confronting threats to democracy, establishing economic order - and then continued the role out of habit.

The book is a history of modern global power, but Mandelbaum’s analysis includes no individual heroes or leaders. Instead, he describes events creating the power, suggesting along the way that the US public is a bumbling Goliath, a de facto world government, providing only partial services to bring order and security to the world.

Mandelbaum engages his readers, not with narratives but with analogies that reveal double standards. For example, he compares nations critical of the US to the French police chief in the film “Casablanca.” Needing an excuse to close a popular night club, the chief blows a whistle and proclaims: “I’m shocked, shocked to discover gambling is going on here.” Immediately, the croupier hands the police chief a wad of cash, “Your winnings, sir,” and the chief mutters, “Thank you very much.”

And such is the thanks that the US receives for its role as world government, according to Mandelbaum. Because the US is a freewheeling democracy, the scope and direction of its foreign policy “is destined to be permanently contested.” Americans willingly pay a high price for their security, and politicians in the US and other countries have learned to frame issues around that single goal.

In describing that desire for security, Mandelbaum does not shy away from US failings. Elaborating these, he adopts a chiding tone, that of a patient professor who must explain introductory economics: for neglecting to secure global approval before military interventions (every choice has opportunity costs), for not taking the lead in conserving oil (price influences supply), or for not taking action on global warming (governments are necessary to fund public goods). In the absence of a formal world government, the US and other countries seek security and stability above all other priorities.

On this chaotic planet a world government is a must. But in a few paragraphs, Mandelbaum dismisses the most obvious candidate for a world government - the United Nations - calling it a “trade association” of states. “For a genuine global government to come into being, the world’s independent countries would have to cede their sovereign prerogatives to it. This they have never been willing to do,” he says. Another possible model for world government is the European Union, which Mandelbaum calls a “world society.” The continent would have the potential to lead on world issues, if it didn’t practice such a parochial outlook on a shrinking world. Instead, Mandelbaum compares Europe to a “retired” person, full of sage advice, but too weary for actual planning and work.

The US as world government and the EU as world society are hardly selfless, and Mandelbaum is most harsh while criticizing the West for not doing more to battle global poverty. As he puts it, “The most valuable contribution the wealthy countries can make [ to alleviate poverty] is not to donate a tiny fraction of their gross domestic products in the form of aid but rather to open their home markets to the things that poor countries produce.” Ironically, the US and Europe do not perceive poverty as an immediate threat to security, yet neglect is a dangerous strategy, because that breeds hopelessness, ignorance and terrorism.

Mandelbaum’s argument - that a Goliath’s power can be positive - is provocative. From the start, he points out that he regards nations as the players in his book and that no David - or group of Davids - has yet stepped forward to challenge the US as Goliath. Yet the book’s title is troublesome and distracting. Readers can’t help but think of suicide bombers putting themselves in the role of courageous underdog. Mandelbaum’s argument is logical for western readers, but could hardly convince those who detest the US or the order it brings to the world. Political leaders who are ruthless and unjust, have learned that they can blame the US for their many problems, deflecting attention from their own faults. And logic is lost on groups like Al Qaeda, fortified with ideology and intent on terror. International agreement is difficult, and Mandelbaum points out that the most civilized nations of the world scrap international law, as the US did by invading Iraq, when it suits their interests.

But perhaps Mandelbaum’s subtle goal is to convince the American public of its own worth. The US still has the potential to solve immense problems - making a transition to a new form of energy that will replace oil, addressing environmental problems like climate change, or fighting poverty.

Goliath has its vulnerable points, and small attacks can fell the giant. Yet Mandelbaum identifies the major threat to the US continuing to serve as world government is its own citizens who will resist paying the tremendous costs. Even if the world was disposed to bestowing any nation with formal global leadership, other countries express no eagerness to replace the US. Mandelbaum bluntly predicts: “They will not pay for it, they will continue to criticize it, and they will miss it when it’s gone.”

So his book ends with nostalgia for the kind of order and prosperity that only empires or superpowers can create. Whether the leader is the US or some emerging power, the world requires leadership at the international level - providing security that truly protects trade and political freedom.

Michael Mandelbaum analyzes the US role as the world's sole superpower, providing global security as a government service.
© 2006 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization