Josef Joffe. Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America. W.W. Norton and Company, 2006.
Überpower opens not with a narrative of the steady rise of U.S. hegemony in the twentieth century, but rather with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire in the early 1990s. Appropriately, Joffe, uses this event as a prelude to America's assumption of sole superpower status in a world that no longer revolved around bipolarity as it did during the years of the Cold War. Notwithstanding all its flaws, the international framework of the Cold War did hold at bay both U.S. and Soviet designs of global aggrandizement. With the downfall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. remained the single giant left standing, as Joffe puts it, "a Gulliver among the Lilliputians, and an unbound one." (20)
Prior to examining the manifestations and impact of American primacy in world affairs, Joffe wisely traces the evolution of the Cold War, identifying key historical moments that shaped that era. Viewing the conflict primarily as a power and ideological contest, he explores its dynamics in both Europe and other regions with the main focus on the former. He covers the intricacies of superpower diplomacy, strategy, tactics, as well as other outgrowths in a very accessible manner which does not overburden the reader with excessive details and overbearing analyses. In short, the bipolar framework of the Cold War did succeed in maintaining a fair degree of international stability, specifically as a result of nuclear deterrence and what was called mutually assured destruction or MAD. "To shoot first was to die second," Joffe reminds the reader. Hence, bipolarity was an uneasy stalemate between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, or perhaps "another name for history frozen in its tracks." (26)
Having delineated the contours of the Cold War in the first section of Überpower, Joffe moves into the terrain of the post-Cold War period. He cites numerous U.S. government documents relating to foreign policy initiatives and makes the case that the U.S. set out to create a new international framework, what many hoped would be a 'New World Order.' During the nineties, (the Bush and Clinton administrations) the U.S. agenda included the following concerns according to Joffe: the maintenance of U.S. military strength, the concerted effort to thwart the reemergence of a rival power, and facilitating the global triumph of democracy and free-market capitalism. His coverage includes the main military interventions of the decade, from the Gulf against Iraq in 1991 up through to the 1999 war in Kosovo and Serbia. Perhaps one shortcoming of this section is that Joffe does not give ample treatment of the events, less than thirty pages on a very 'busy' decade in the realm of U.S. foreign policy. An important observation that he does make is pinpointing the critical shift towards unilateralism during the Clinton years, a shift made possible due to the abrupt disappearance of the Soviet Union. Acknowledging Clinton's unilateralism is essential in understating his successor's approach to foreign policy, particularly after 9/11 and the proclamation of the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war.
While his coverage of the Bush 9/11 foreign policy is equally brief, Joffe appropriately pivots his discussion around key political concepts such as power and legitimacy. He considers the two key interventions of Bush's first term in office, the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the case of the former, Joffe represents that war as a justified application of military force. Further, he accurately depicts the high degree of authorized approval for U.S. actions against the Taliban regime and Al Qaeda. While this war was U.N. sanctioned and multilateral in character, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was void of international support; put simply, the U.S. had lost legitimacy. This was a war of choice, he explains, not a war of necessity. Any residual international support gradually evaporated with failure in locating any weapons of mass destruction, let alone despair over the general execution of the war itself. U.S. power and legitimacy was and is in a state of crisis as a direct result of the war in Iraq.
At the very moment that Joffe's narrative should be placing focus on contemporary U.S. foreign policy dilemmas and international crises, Überpower abruptly moves in a different direction. Rather than fully developing his analyses of America's rise as a global hegemon, he devotes the next section to the topic of anti-Americanism. In seventy pages the author systematically explores the full range of discourses of anti-Americanism including the motifs, themes, and symbols deployed around the world. Joffe identifies five components of anti-Americanism: stereotyping, denigration, demonization, obsession and elimination, giving illustrations for each category. Primary focus is on the European expressions and forms of this phenomenon, a phenomenon, he points out, is as old as the American republic itself. Since the late eighteenth century Europe has been preoccupied in representing the U.S. as morally deficient and socially-culturally retrograde. Over the years, especially following the conclusion of World War II, Europe has been seduced by American culture and has sought to imitate aspects of American society. As Joffe states, this attraction to American culture and society has simultaneously generated contempt and repulsion, hence an array of anti-American discourses. Interestingly enough, the articulation of such sentiments is voiced across ideological barriers, whether we are speaking about the Left or Right, or politicians, artists and intellectuals. They all essentially preach the same message that Europe "has risen to a higher moral plane" and that Europe's ways and social patterns are inherently different and superior to that which is across the Atlantic in the U.S.
Readers of Überpower will easily detect its author's lack of support and sympathy with Europe's anti-Americanism. Instead, Joffe is rather critical of Europe, specifically its inability to forge an identity, its continued economic stagnation, its lack of political unity, and its failure to cultivate a global vision. As an apologist of the U.S. and "Americanism," Joffe argues that the U.S. has managed to succeed where Europe has been all but successful. It has a growing economy, an increasing population with constant waves of new immigrants eager to become Americans, and a society and culture that is universal. The U.S. he claims, is a "universal nation" with the world's first truly "global civilization." Such a perception, one can point out, fails to acknowledge the complexities of cultural globalization and how localities play a dynamic role in the formation of cultures. Continuing, he suggests that unlike world powers of the past, from ancient Rome to the Nazi Third Reich, the U.S. "does not seek real estate" and has intervened liberally around the world since the early 1800s. Just look at the trajectory of American history, the U.S. did not "conquer," but instead had "settled" the North American continent. Furthermore, he suggests that both these continental 'activities' and 'adventures' beyond the continent were merely manifestations of American "expansionism." Terms such as imperialism or colonialism are hard to come by in Joffe's narrative of American history. His conclusions, to put it mildly, are both misinformed and unfortunate. Nevertheless, with such a reading of American history, Joffe naturally concludes that the U.S. is ideally placed to lead the world. If not the U.S. then who can lead the world and maintain stability? Doe the European Union, Russia, or perhaps China have the necessary credentials? All except for the U.S. are incapable of world leadership.
According to Joffe, we need not worry too much about the American quest for world dominance. Unlike other powers, the U.S. is more like a "restless elephant than a flesh-eating dinosaur." (233) In his conclusion of Überpower, Joffe reiterates the point that America needs to use its power in a more responsible manner and not rely on coercion and the wanton use of military power without legitimacy. This is constructive criticism and helpful prescriptions for what direction the U.S. and its foreign policy ought to be heading. Joffe's overall practical analyses along with a highly readable, intellectually sharp and insightful narrative make Überpower a book worth reading. One might wonder, however, why Joffe devotes such extended coverage on anti-Americanism; it does seem to be a detour from the titled focus of the book. Furthermore, one might react to his monolithic reading of anti-American discourses as too simplistic. His dismissal of legitimate European concerns and objections to U.S. policies and practices is equally bewildering. Finally, in regard to the subtitle of Überpower, The Imperial Temptation of America, one might inquire the following: hasn't the U.S. already crossed that bridge? The 'American Adam' has been out of the 'garden' for some time now, having embarked on an imperial quest from the moment of its inception. Whether "elephant" or "dinosaur" it has left a deep, indelible imprint; an imprint that is familiar to more and more people around the world instigating both concern and fear.
Joseph Michael Gratale
The American College of Thessaloniki