The Case for Goliath

How America Acts as the World’s Government in the


By Michael Mandelbaum

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How does the United States use its enormous power in the world? In The Case for Goliath, Michael Mandelbaum offers a surprising answer: The United States furnishes to other countries the services that governments provide within the countries they govern.

Mandelbaum explains how this role came about despite the fact that neither the United States nor any other country sought to establish it. He describes the contributions that American power makes to global security and prosperity, the shortcomings of American foreign policy, and how other countries have come to accept, resent, and exert influence on America’s global role. And he assesses the prospects for the continuation of this role, which depends most importantly on whether the American public is willing to pay for it.

Written with Mandelbaum’s characteristic blend of clarity, wit, and profound understanding of America and the world, The Case for Goliath offers a fresh and surprising approach to an issue that obsesses citizens and policymakers the world over, as well as a major statement on the foreign policy issues confronting the American people today.


Praise for The Case for Goliath
"The Case for Goliath is one of those works that invites the reader to look at the familiar in a new way; it would be nice, if optimistic, to think that it will be read carefully by those for whom knee-jerk anti-Americanism is a substitute for thought."
"As a piece of analysis, it is authoritative and wide-ranging. . . . As a contribution to the current debate, it is invaluable."
—GARY ROSEN, Commentary
"In stylistic terms, the book is a pleasure. As in his previous works, Mr. Mandelbaum writes about complex international politics in a tone that is forceful and convincing but at the same time notably relaxed and approachable."
—DAVID A. SMITH, The Washington Times
"Provocative, lucid, and persuasive, this important book will help frame the debate on U.S. foreign policy in the years ahead."
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"His thesis is not only fascinating, it's readable, thanks to Mandel baum's lively style, enriched by similes and metaphors. Surely Mandelbaum is among a mere handful of professors who can work Casablanca and It's A Wonderful Life into a lecture on international relations."
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Michael Mandelbaum probes beneath the fashionable accusations to offer a provocative and surprising analysis of the United States' global role."
The Times Literary Supplement
"The book is insightful in tracing decades of U.S. leadership and in describing the United States' long-standing effort to prevent nuclear proliferation."
Foreign Affairs
"Mandelbaum provides a trenchant analysis of how the presence of American power enhances global security and economic stability."
Harvard Political Review
"This enlightening book about a reluctant Goliath should be at the top of the list of books to read this year."
Huntington (West Virginia) News
"Michael Mandelbaum has written a lively and unique perspective on America's role in the world."
"Provocative and lucid."
"America is the world's 800-pound gorilla, dominating international affairs like no country since Rome. Some like this state of affairs, many don't, but, argues Michael Mandelbaum in The Case for Goliath, almost everyone benefits mightily from it. America's role in the world has produced arrogance, triumphalism, anger, and teeth-gnashing. Mandelbaum brings to this discussion a clear eye, a sharp mind, and lucid prose."
—FAREED ZAKARIA, author of The Future of Freedom
"Michael Mandelbaum has never shied away from the biggest questions. His new book, The Case for Goliath, is an extraordinary contribution to our understanding of the coming new world, offering a compelling and important argument about the indispensable role for the United States that will make any reader sit up and think."
—LEE HAMILTON, President and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Vice Chair of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
"Michael Mandelbaum makes the case that the United States is less an empire than it is the world's government—and that, on the whole, this is a good thing for Americans and non-Americans alike. This provocative, thoughtful book is just what one has come to expect from one of this country's leading foreign policy thinkers."
—PETER G. PETERSON, Chairman of The Blackstone Group and author of Running on Empty
"Michael Mandelbaum's The Case for Goliath responds to the growing chorus of anti-American criticism with a quiet question: What would the world be like without the United States as its most powerful state? His answer, convincingly argued, is: not a better place. A wise reminder, therefore, of the risks of getting what you wish for."
—JOHN LEWIS GADDIS, Robert A. Lovett Professor of History, Yale University

The Nuclear Question: The United States and Nuclear Weapons, 1946-1976 (1979)
The Nuclear Revolution: International Politics Before and After Hiroshima (1981)
The Nuclear Future (1983)
Reagan and Gorbachev (Co-author, 1987)
The Fate of Nations: The Search for National Security in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1988)
The Global Rivals (Co-author, 1988)
The Dawn of Peace in Europe (1996)
The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century (2002)
The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football and Basketball and What They See When They Do (2004)

To Leslie H. Gelb, Vartan Gregorian,
and David A. Hamburg:
scholars themselves and inspirers of scholarship in others;
and to Anne Mandelbaum,
with my love.

It was like an anchor to the floating world.
It is not done well; but you are surprised to see it done at all.

When the Cold War ended, a question arose: What would succeed that great political, military, economic, and ideological conflict as the central issue in international relations? By the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the question had been answered. The enormous power and pervasive influence of the United States was universally acknowledged to be the defining feature of world affairs.
In the eyes of many, American supremacy counted as a great misfortune. The foreign policy of the world's strongest country, in this account, resembled the conduct of a school yard bully who randomly assaults others, steals the lunch money of weaker students, and generally makes life unpleasant wherever he goes. The United States was seen as the world's Goliath.
In some ways the United States in the early years of the twenty-first century does resemble the Philistine giant whom David, the son of Jesse, felled with a sling and a stone according to the Bible and thereby saved Israel. Like Goliath, the United States surpasses all others in military might. And just as Goliath was, by virtue of his size and power, the logical candidate to represent his tribe in its confrontation with the people of Israel, so the United States has undertaken broad responsibilities that redound to the benefit of others.
Although the United States looks like Goliath, however, in important ways the world's strongest power does not act like him. If America is a Goliath, it is a benign one. Unlike the case of Goliath, moreover, no David, or group of Davids, has stepped forward to confront the United States. This book explains other countries' acceptance of the American role in the world by painting a different and more benign picture of that role than the one implied by the comparison with Western civilization's archetypal bully. As portrayed in the pages that follow, it has something in common with the sun's relationship to the rest of the solar system. Both confer benefits on the entities with which they are in regular contact. The sun keeps the planets in their orbits by the force of gravity and radiates the heat and light that make life possible on one of them. Similarly, the United States furnishes services to other countries, the same services, as it happens, that governments provide within sovereign states to the people they govern. The United States therefore functions as the world's government. The origins, the details, and the implications of this twenty-first-century American international role are the subjects of the five chapters that follow. Together, they present the case for Goliath.
Chapter 1 sets out the book's thesis and explains how the United States came to assume the responsibilities of global governance. Chapter 2 describes the ways in which the United States performs, within the international system, the first duty of all governments: providing security. One of the principal American policies during the Cold War—deterrence—was transformed, in the wake of that conflict, into a related but distinct mission: reassurance. Another Cold War policy, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, gained in importance in the post-Cold War period. The United States has introduced two new purposes for the use of force: preventive war and humanitarian intervention. Both led to yet another governmental undertaking, popularly called nation-building.
Chapter 3 concerns the American foreign policies that correspond to the economic tasks that governments perform within sovereign states. One is the enforcement of contracts and the protection of property in their jurisdictions. America's international military deployments have these effects on transactions across borders. Governments also supply the power and water without which industrial economies cannot function. Similarly, the United States helps to assure global access to the economically indispensable mineral, oil. Governments supply the money used in economic transactions: The American dollar serves as the world's money. At the outset of the post-World War II period and thereafter, the United States fostered the conditions in which yet another major economic activity—trade—flourished and expanded. Finally, just as, in the twentieth century, governments took it upon themselves to sustain the level of consumption within their societies in order to support a high level of production and thus of employment, so the huge American appetite for consumer products has helped to sustain economic activity the world over, especially in East Asia.
If the United States provides useful, indeed necessary services to the rest of the world, why does American foreign policy provoke such frequent, widespread, and bitter criticism? Chapter 4 addresses that question, exploring the multiple sources of discontent and explaining the difference between other countries' words and their deeds where the American role in the world is concerned. Whether the United States continues to function as the world's government depends on whether the American public continues to support the policies involved, and this chapter sets out the basis on which the public will make its judgment.
That judgment is not necessarily destined to be favorable. Chapter 5 therefore examines the consequences of a far more modest American global role and investigates the possible alternatives to the United States in providing governmental services to the world. In particular, this chapter explains why Europe, despite its size, wealth, rich historical legacy, and ambitions for global influence, will neither supplant nor support the United States as the world's government. The case in favor of the United States continuing to act as the world's government—the case, that is, for Goliath—therefore rests ultimately on a version of Winston Churchill's argument in favor of democracy. He said it was the worst form of government except for all the others. The United States is the best source of global governance because, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, there is no other.
Understanding the functions that the United States performs beyond its borders as constituting the role of the world's government puts American foreign policy in a new perspective. From this perspective, some things that are widely believed about America's relations with other countries turn out to be misleading or inaccurate. At the same time, some American policies appear less consequential than they are often taken to be, while others, usually unnoticed, assume greater importance.
• Although the term "empire" is routinely used to describe the American role in the world, in most important ways the United States does not resemble the empires of the past. The single indisputably imperial task it regularly carries out—nation-building—has played a relatively small part in its overall foreign policy, has been undertaken with great reluctance, and has been performed, on the whole, badly. (This point is discussed in Chapters 1 and 2.)
• The governmental services that the United States provides that affect the largest number of people—reassurance and enforcement—are the least controversial because they are the least noticed. They go unnoticed because they arise simply from America's global presence. They are vital but also unappreciated; and they are unappreciated because they are invisible. (Chapters 2 and 3)
• The foreign policies of the first two post-Cold War American administrations, those of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, have more in common than is generally recognized. The innovations in international practice with which each is identified—humanitarian intervention in the first case, preventive war in the second—are like fraternal twins: different on the surface but sharing some basic features. Both are the products of American power, American values, and a particular American sense of international responsibility. Both encountered difficulty in gaining international support because they stretch the boundaries of international law. Both had difficulty in winning support within the United States as well, because each led to a task unpopular with the American public: nation-building. (Chapter 2)
• The worst twenty-first-century international offense of the United States—the American policy that put the largest number of people in jeopardy—was not the occupation of Iraq: It was and is the American pattern of energy consumption, which far exceeds that of other countries on a per capita basis and makes virtually every other country more vulnerable than it would otherwise be to economic damage in both the short and long term. (Chapter 3)
• For all their criticisms of it, the American role in the world enjoys other countries' tacit consent. More important than what others say about it is what they do, or rather what they choose not to do. They have chosen not to mount serious opposition to what the United States does in the world, something that they would do if they considered the United States dangerous to their interests. (Chapter 4)
• The greatest threat to the American role as the world's government comes not from the discontent it generates in other countries, or from the assaults of terrorists, but from the huge bill for social spending that the American public will have to pay in the twenty-first century, a responsibility that has the potential to transform American politics in ways unfavorable to the continuation of that role. (Chapter 4)
• The most consequential problem in European-American relations is not the failure of the United States to consult with European governments but rather the failure of those governments to muster the resources to make major contributions to global governance. Their failure means that when the United States acts unilaterally, it does so as much by default as by design. The Europeans endeavor to induce good behavior on the part of potentially dangerous countries by the force of their example, but not by force of arms. They see their global mission as embodying civilization but not defending it. (Chapter 5)
The United States did not become the functional equivalent of the world's government deliberately. It exerted itself in pursuit of one goal—defending itself against the Soviet Union and international communism—and in the process of achieving that goal gained a position of international supremacy.
That position is not sustained by enthusiasm for it in the United States. Americans generally find their global status to be a burden, a chore, or a duty, rather than an opportunity or a reward. No American holiday or monument, or even a commemorative postage stamp, is devoted to celebrating the position of international primacy that the United States occupies or the services that it provides to other countries.
Nor do the recipients and beneficiaries of these services manifest enthusiasm either for what the United States does for them or for the American power that makes the services possible. If anything, the American global presence is unpopular. The approval ratings of the United States in some parts of the world were, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, as low as Goliath's would have been among the people of Israel had opinion polls been a feature of life in biblical times.
Still, in the world outside the United States, the case for Goliath enjoys at least tacit support. For while others may consider that presence annoying, even infuriating, they do not, apparently, find it intolerable. They do tolerate it, and for the same reason that Americans are willing to pay for it. Americans and non-Americans, whatever their differences, find the American international role to be convenient. The world needs governance and the United States is in a position to supply it. Just what it is that Americans are willing to provide and that the world finds convenient to accept is the subject of this book.

Chapter One
And I know it's hard on America, and in some small corner of this vast country, out in Nevada or Idaho or these places I've never been to, but always wanted to go . . . I know out there there's a guy getting on with his life, perfectly happily, minding his own business saying to you, the political leaders of this country, "Why me? And why us? And why America?" And the only answer is, "Because destiny put you in this place in history, in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do."


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a term came into use to refer to the American role in the world that conjured up images of Roman legions with helmets, metal breastplates, and sharp lances keeping order in the ancient world, bearded Habsburg grandees riding on horseback along cobblestone streets in Central Europe, and British colonial officials in pith helmets presiding over tropical kingdoms. The term was "empire."1 Many books and articles appeared advancing and exploring the proposition that the United States had become, without officially acknowledging it, what the largest and most powerful political units of the past had proudly proclaimed themselves to be.2
Applied to the United States, the term "empire" had a jarring effect. For empire had seemed, as the twenty-first century began, the dinosaur of international history, having dominated the planet for much of recorded history but then become extinct, its place taken everywhere by the more cohesive and legitimate nation-state. The ideas that had underpinned the empires of the past—the glory of war and conquest, the commercial advantages of political monopolies, the natural hierarchy of the human race that made some people fit to govern others—had all fallen decisively out of favor.
The United States seemed a particularly unlikely candidate for an imperial role. Although America had once had an empire, it had been acquired later, had been given up earlier, and even at its zenith had been considerably smaller than the empires of the British, the French, the Austrian Habsburgs, the Russian Romanovs, or the Ottoman Turks. Moreover, the United States had been founded in revolt against empire, and even when it was an imperial power had harbored powerful anti-imperial sentiment. Its first and most expansive exercise in imperial conquest, the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the direct possession of the Philippines and indirect control of Cuba that resulted from its victory in that war, aroused considerable opposition in the United States Congress and among such eminent private citizens as Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie.3
What accounts for the revival of a seemingly obsolete and, in the case of the United States, inappropriate term? Behind the use of the word "empire" to describe American relations with other countries lay two motives—one descriptive, the other derisive.
The global status of the United States at the outset of the twenty-first century seemed to require a new term because the American presence in the world had changed. It was an unprecedentedly powerful one. The range of the military, economic, and cultural influence that the United States could bring to bear was impressively wide. Even more impressive was the margin of power that separated America from every other country.4 The American economy produced 30 percent of the world's output; no other country was responsible for even half that much.5 The American defense budget exceeded, in dollars expended, the military spending of the next fifteen countries combined,6 and the United States had some military assets—its highly accurate missiles, for example—that no other country possessed.7
As a term to describe this latter-day colossus, "empire" did have some advantages. America's global role did bear some resemblance to the empires of the past. Its military forces were deployed in many countries—upward of 150 by one count.8 As with the great empires of the past, the language most frequently employed in international discussions was the one Americans spoke: English.9 The American government itself noticed the similarity: The Department of Defense commissioned a study of the great empires of the past, with particular emphasis on how they had maintained their dominant positions—or failed to do so.10
Moreover, if the word "empire" seemed, in some ways, to capture the reality of the twenty-first century American global presence, more familiar and recent terms did not. The United States had surely become more than a great power, which is what the major European countries (many of them, to be sure, also empires) had been called in the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth. It had outgrown the status that, along with the Soviet Union, it had enjoyed during the Cold War, when both were called nuclear "superpowers." The great powers and even the superpowers of the past had, after all, had international peers: The twenty-first century United States had none.
Because it suggested a greater, grander status than either of the other two terms, it was empire that came to seem to many the most appropriate way to describe America's international status.
If one reason for using this term was to describe America's role in the world, another was to denounce it. By the twenty-first century, the word "empire" had ceased, in all but the most academic discourse, to be purely descriptive. It carried a negative connotation. Like slavery, dictatorship, and discrimination, it was widely understood to refer to a political practice that, while once common and acceptable, had come to be seen as an odious exercise in wrongful subordination. Two of the most powerful ideologies of the twentieth century, nationalism and Marxism, defined their respective historical missions as prominently including the defeat and abolition of imperialism. 11 To call the American role in the world imperial was, for many who did so, a way of asserting that the United States was misusing its power beyond its borders and, in so doing, subverting its founding political principles within them.
The use of the term "empire" to describe the American role in the world in the twenty-first century, whatever its advantages, has one major shortcoming: It is inaccurate. Many criticisms may plausibly be leveled at the United States for the way it conducts its foreign policy, but the charge that that policy is essentially an imperial one is not among them.
Empires are "relationships of political control imposed by some political societies over the effective sovereignty of other political societies."12 Over the centuries the many empires that have risen and fallen all have shared three features. One is subordination: Every empire is an unequal relationship, with one party superior, the other inferior.13 The second is coercion. Whereas most empires have involved cooperation, sometimes extensive cooperation, between the rulers and the ruled, behind the relationship always stood the threat, and sometimes the use, of force by the imperial power to maintain its control. The third defining feature of empire is an ethnic, national, religious, or racial difference—or some combination of them—between the imperial power and the society it controls. Empire is a form of dictatorship, but a particular form: a dictatorship by foreigners.
Like other forms of dictatorship, empire violates a basic norm of political justice—self-government—that commands virtually universal allegiance, at least rhetorically, in the twenty-first century. That is why it has come to be a term of disapproval. But it does not apply to the relations of the United States with other countries, vast and varied though these are.
American influence in the world is certainly considerable, but the United States does not control, directly or indirectly, the politics and economics of other societies, as empires have always done, save for a few special cases that turn out to be the exceptions that prove the rule. Where it has exercised direct control it has sought, as in the Balkans in the 1990s, to share this control with other countries, unlike classical imperial powers.14 It has also sought to divest itself of this responsibility as quickly as was feasible, as in Haiti in the same decade. By contrast, the empires of history generally tried to perpetuate themselves and often, as in the case of France in both Indochina and Algeria after World War II, invested a great deal of blood and treasure in this effort.


On Sale
Dec 26, 2006
Page Count
320 pages

Michael Mandelbaum

About the Author

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy; Director of the American Foreign Policy Program at Johns Hopkins, SAIS. He is a former faculty member at Harvard University, Columbia University and the U.S. Naval Academy; his Ph.D. in political science came from Harvard University.

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