Formal Book Review: Running the World

From time to time I write formal book reviews. Below is a 2,300 word review of the highly reccomended Running the World by David Rothkopf. Another book mentioned is The Opportunity: America’s Moment to Alter History’s Course, not reccomended. Thanks to Jesse Berrett for reading drafts of this.

David Rothkopf begins his forceful, timely, and scrupulously researched Running the World with a groan that the average American is clueless about the most powerful governmental committee in the world – the National Security Council – but 500 pages later the reader feels no shame in previous ignorance because it takes a tour guide like Rothkopf to translate the overwhelming web of bureaucracy into an engrossing historical whirlwind. Although the book’s subtitle is “The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power,” it is more accurately a broad look at the actors and philosophies of American foreign policy from Washington to Bush 43.

The big idea Rothkopf seeks to impress upon readers is that human beings are the ones who drive history and that this simple fact is often lost among talk about organizations, political parties, departments, and other abstract language that diverts attention from the people. In this light, he introduces the book as an “impressionistic, collaborative portrait of the leaders of the modern world engaged in the politics, court intrigue, and drama of any Shakespeare play….In short, it is a story of American leaders grappling with American leadership….Of the few serious policy tomes written about the national security apparatus of the US, there is vastly too much focus on policy and process and too little on people, their work culture, their philosophies, the psychology of the interaction, and the psychology of their times.” His chief argument, then, is that understanding the personalities is central to understanding how the NSC and our government in general works. He focuses less on the Council as an organ of the government than as a drama among the players who make it up. The Council’s function as an entity is fairly straightforward; understanding the backstories, the jockeying, the unwritten rules – this is the challenge for Rothkopf.

The National Security Council is usually the most critical part of the Washington national security apparatus, as it’s comprised of the biggest brains from various government agencies. When it’s not the most critical, it is because the President has made it so – since there is no Constitutional guideline for the NSC, the makeup of the group is almost entirely at the pleasure of the President, an oddity that is its most defining characteristic. The Council was the “go-to” group for most major crises, ranging from Bosnia to the Cold War to 9/11. The members (and the National Security Advisor, who chairs the group) reach the pinnacle of American power through ceaseless ambition, powerhouse intellect, and connections (knowing Henry Kissinger helps). And it is the character and values of these members that counts far more than processes, organization, or other factors. For the NSC is the only place in our sprawling national government where its members are stripped of their bureaucratic perches, unshielded by stupid processes or “Robert’s Rules of Order.” Rothkopf recalls his first NSC meeting, when he represented the Commerce Department. He remembers how “unremarkable” it was – just regular guys, with ripped shirts and untended beards, throwing empty soda cans into an overstuffed waste basket. These were the people running the world. With this insider point of view, he reminds us that there is something very primal about the operation; a refreshing dose of transparency and candor in an age when powerful government operatives are conveyed in dark suits and sunglasses.

Rothkopf devotes ink to nearly every major presidency, especially those after 1947 when the National Security Act created the NSC. For Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson his analysis is concise and effectively explains the roots of our foreign policy around national security. From Nixon onward he elaborates in order to accurately represent the drama between the players – made all the richer by those who are still alive and provided the 2,000 pages of interview transcripts. His main use of history is to show times of crisis, when we “watch veneers crumble and even careerlong characteristics fall away and we discover the core nature of the key actors.” An outgrowth of these moments are broader policies and philosophies. A history of crises and the government and NSC’s response is important to Rothkopf as contrast to current foreign policy values and goals. 9/11 is not the first crisis the country has faced, but the response has embraced new philosophies.

Before taking on Rothkopf’s key conclusions on US foreign policy then and now (for this is what the book ultimately strives for – clarity on a topic that is anything but simple– and the National Security Council is merely an interesting twist), let us look at some of the more interesting interludes that back his belief that the character of a nation is premised on the choices of the leaders. In other words, there is no more important factor in advancing our national ideals than the character of the people we put in leadership positions.

Take Henry Kissinger. Kissinger is an archetypal figure for Rothkopf, since he personifies the unprecedented autonomy and power of the National Security Council. According to Rothkopf, Kissinger was practically running the White House while Nixon dealt with Watergate. Even with no distracting crisis, his dual role as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State allowed him to single-handedly make enormous diplomatic decisions (sometimes outright, sometimes through influence on a Nixon who was more than happy to defer). By the time people realized he was grossly overshadowing the president, he was in “a position of power in the U.S. government unrivaled by any non-president in American history.” He stops short of saying it was the greatest abuse of power/influence/position in American history, for Rothkopf withholds judgment and just reports the facts. You do get the sense, though, that Kissinger’s role shows the beauty of a “brilliant” NSA – when the President is distracted, incompetent, or somehow otherwise disabled, the NSA is perhaps the only bureaucrat with the broad, unlegislated authority to make critical decisions (perhaps under the guise of the President’s “orders”) especially since there is no direct congressional oversight.

Dick Cheney is the second interesting in-depth character interlude. Rothkopf draws many similarities to Kissinger, anchoring the comparison in an unprecedented position of power (this time from the Vice-President’s office) that often draws criticism from late-night pundits or Democratic spinsters claiming that Cheney is a “co-president.” With the benefit of real commentary from White House senior staff, the author puts this claim into perspective: according to his allies, Cheney can participate like a principal or cabinet secretary without a bureaucratic domain to defend. But Rothkopf can’t help obsessing about the details. Cheney’s staff is gigantic – never has there been as powerful a Chief of Staff for the Vice President as Cheney’s, “Scooter” Libby. Never has a VP had his own national security team of over 35 people. Never has a VP sent his own representative (in addition to a State and Pentagon rep) to international meetings. Never have so many foreign presidents visited the VP on the stop in Washington. Cheney’s impact is significant, as he is not hesitant to bring his hawkish, neoconservative views to the ear of the President. Here Rothkopf is a little less ambiguous about his feelings, as we sense his unease that Cheney’s overwhelming influence could stymie dissent and disproportionably direct influence from others more able in their respective niches or regions of expertise.

In his element, Rothkopf reveals valuable political aphorisms, as when he describes the development of the Truman Doctrine: “[Truman] had the ability of the practiced politician to adapt to his audiences, to actually hear them and be made better by them, but always to advance his personal agenda.” Or, in describing the failing of State Department entities under Roosevelt, “One of the first laws of Washington is where you stand depends on where you sit.” These tidbits add to his credibility before he enters his own point of view. But when he oversteps such astute observations, his claims move too swiftly from detailed reporting and brief words of wisdom to sweeping proclamations: “It is a measure of the nature of U.S. leadership…to see whether we can overcome our bureaucratic biases toward inaction to lead in those circumstances when the act of leadership is the sole measure of our humanity and of the moral caliber of our society.” Sharp insight but poorly ordered and out of the blue.

To a reader with nationalist political-philosophy leanings, Rothkopf’s recounting of drama within the White House presents an uplifting portrait of public servants: men and women with extraordinary intelligence, gruesome schedules, and endless challenges, working not for money but for the chance to shape the world we live in. A chance to debate the same issues that the most distinguished intellectuals and think-tankers wrestle with, but with massive real-world consequences. And what a debate it is.

After working his way through history, Rothkopf obviously will use 9/11 as a key guidepost. That cataclysmic event has solidified two camps in the foreign policy world: the neocons with Straussian absolutist inclinations – that is, people who see a responsibility to extend American values worldwide, democracy in particular, and the traditionalists. These people believe – and this, according to Condoleezza Rice, is the most important change in strategy since containment – that stability in the Middle East cannot be achieved absent democratic reform. “The collective national response to the confusion and division of the Vietnam era seems to have been a strong impulse toward moral absolutism.”

On the other side of the table are the “traditionalists,” who argue for a more 20th-century approach to reaching out to allies and international organizations, a method declared quaint by “transformationalists.” Traditionalists argue, and here Rothkopf makes clear his bias (later than he could have), that 9/11 simply “awakened America to harsh and disturbing realities that the rest of the world had been living with for years.” Outside of our own war on terror, millions of Africans continue to die, globalization’s impact is still being reckoned with, AIDS is rampant, and so forth. The biggest thing that has changed, say traditionalists and Rothkopf, is our own self-image. “We recognize our vulnerability. We recognize our power and must struggle with strong impulses to direct it wherever threats may lie.” It doesn’t quite ring true. Do Americans now have a strong appreciation for the world’s problems because we were attacked by radical Islamic terrorists? We probably now have a strong appreciation for a need to focus on domestic affairs (which, from a security perspective, will drive us abroad but to locations not related to humanitarian need) and an increased propensity to not worry about external plights. We do indeed recognize our vulnerability. But Rothkopf implies that we have always been vulnerable and now recognize that as part of our self-image. Not so. Once a terrorist breaks the shield, the floodgates are open. More terrorists are training to attack us than before. To assume that we have not become more vulnerable and it’s just a matter of recognizing what the rest of the world knew is inaccurate.

Regardless, it is an essential debate, Rothkopf argues in the last chapter, one of personal reflection. We are at a crossroads – what Richard Haass would call a great opportunity, in a recent book that is not as serious a contribution in either scholarly rigor or imaginative insights – a crossroads of “large historical forces pushing us toward greater integration and deeper degrees of globalization.” A crossroads that challenges some of the most fundamental aspects of political philosophy: the duty of the individual toward a government, the social contract, and so forth. The debate cannot wait, for history has shown that power ebbs and flows and that accumulated power always erodes.

And so, Rothkopf implores, public deliberation must ensue immediately, and it must be driven by the great questions. The ideal approach is a Socratic-style system of questioning. The best national policy wonks, says Rothkopf, look at the world as a puzzle that’s constantly changing and try to predict its next turn. The worst work the other way, fitting the world into a preset ideology and connecting the dots, no matter how forced. Rothkopf believes it is critical to step back from the day-to-day political quarrels and “come to grips with the philosophical underpinnings of our actions,” a responsibility thrust upon us after the events that one blue September morning and our subsequent actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a touch of pragmatism, Rothkopf acknowledges the immensity of the issues he wants debated. The next few decades will showcase an overwhelming number of challenges, ranging from nuclear proliferation, to the rise of China, India, Brazil, and Russia, to positive and negative effects of globalization, to the on-going crisis in Africa, to genocide and humanitarian decisions, to energy supplies and its resulting tensions on alliances.

In the end, Rothkopf probably intended his book to help inform millions of uninformed Americans, to replace the “surfeit of pseudo-knowledge surrounding the issues and institutions governing our decisions” with real facts and expert analysis. He does so admirably. But its length and accompanying detail only reinforce the awesome complexity of foreign policy, the mind-numbing minutia that constitutes our bureaucracy, the broad historical understanding necessary to grasp current issues. Indeed, the bar that is to be met in order to be an informed, engaged citizen under Rothkopf’s definition stands quite high. Only a sliver of the population can meet this standard. Here, Rothkopf faces a marketing challenge. He sets off with a goal of informing a populace that views foreign policy as esoteric mumbo jumbo, a state he views as tragic given the enormity of the issues and the future consequences of any actions. The book, though, refuses to stoop to the level of cheap political debate. It refuses to make it easy for the reader by delineating good guys and bad guys, a multiple choice list of options, or an extreme opinion that can be adopted as one’s own. In this light it is a fine scholarly contribution that is required reading for a serious, engaged citizen. But I’m afraid it will fail in persuading the masses.

1 comment on “Formal Book Review: Running the World
  • Ben,

    Insightful review. I generally agree with your conclusions. In particular, the book demonstrates the enormous complexity inherent in political affairs and policy making. Let’s hope our leaders are up to the challenge…


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