The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Academics, pundits, and popularizers

March 29, 2006

I’ve been catching up on the Daily Show recently. One recent episode featured Michael Mandelbaum plugging his new book, The Case For Goliath: How America Acts As The World’s Government in the Twenty-first Century. Best line of the interview? John Stewart’s statement that American hegemony involves “all the burdens of empire — but without the slaves” (note to self: must work this into an article somehow).

I haven’t read Mandelbaum’s book yet, but based on his comments and the editorial reviews at Amazon, it looks like a pretty standard retread of hegemonic-stability theory as applied to contemporary US foreign policy:

As this strained defense of American power acknowledges, America’s international hegemony lacks the conventional hallmarks of government, like a monopoly of force, the power to tax and legislate, and the explicit consent of the governed. But it does, the author contends, furnish “public goods” to “free riders” in an ungrateful world that likes to gripe about American domination while tacitly welcoming it. U.S. troops abroad act as a “public health service” forestalling outbreaks of war and nuclear proliferation, and as a “pest control service” against rogue regimes. America safeguards the world’s oil supply, like a public energy utility. The dollar is the world’s reserve currency, and Washington organizes bailouts of bankrupt countries and promotes free trade, benefiting all.

A lot of academics, particularly in the Washington foreign-policy cloud, write these sorts of books. I have no idea about the specific quality of Mandelbaum’s book — for all I know, it is the best example of this kind of argument for a semi-popular audience — but I’m not sure what to make of this particular subgenre of professorial writings.

So, my question to you all: how should we assess books like Mandelbaum’s? I know there is a real role for journalists and academics to take academic theories and bring them to bear on contemporary foreign policy debates, but at what point does derivative work become simply superfluous?

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.