At Home Abroad: Identity and Power in American Foreign Policy

At Home Abroad: Identity and Power in American Foreign Policy – Book Reviews

Richard Halloran

At Home Abroad: Identity and Power in American Foreign Policy. By Henry R. Nau. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002. 336 pages. $29.95. Reviewed by Richard Halloran, formerly with The New York Times as a foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington, D.C.

When Henry R. Nau wrote about America in this intriguing book, he filled pages with profound ideas and incisive explanations as he swept across the landscape of American foreign policy. It is especially pertinent to the era that began on 11 September 2001.

When it came to Asia, however, the author stumbled through passages laced with factual errors and dubious judgments. Curiously, he nonetheless turned out trenchant arguments that included a bold prediction: If the United States continues to attend more to China than to Japan, “It will be out of Asia within the next decade.”

Nau, a political scientist at George Washington, served on the National Security Council staff in the early Reagan Administration. His book was eight years in the making, and it shows in the lucid prose that is mercifully free of academic jargon. The author credits Roger Haydon of the Cornell University Press for teaching him “how to say more with fewer words.” Would that more editors cleared the miasma that clogs the writing of so many American academicians.

Early on, Nau asserts that national identity or self-image is as much an element in a nation’s power as military forces and economic strength. “Without a unified and healthy self-image,” he writes, “a nation has no incentive to accumulate or use material power.” He concludes: “The United States and other free societies prevailed in the Cold War because, despite their many faults, they inspired their people to greater sacrifice and achievement than communist societies did.”

In contrast, Nau argues, “The Soviet Union lost because it failed to inspire and unleash the talents of its own people. It lost because none of its citizens supported the use of its vast military power and none had the incentive to work, save, and invest to expand the Soviet economy.” Clausewitz, who saw national power as the sum of a “holy trinity” of army, political leaders, and the people, would have applauded both assessments.

The author includes a critical “but,” however: “America has never felt at home abroad,” Nau declares, because Americans see themselves as separate from the rest of the world. That “creates intolerable tension in American foreign policy,” with Americans divided among neo-isolationists who try to limit US involvement abroad, internationalists who would have the United States reform the world, and realists who seek engagement abroad but only to defend America.

“Terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, did not resolve the basic dilemma in American foreign policy,” Nau says. Rather, they ushered in a realist phase in which international coalitions are intended to serve the nationalistic cause of defending America.

“America wins wars when threats intrude, but loses the peace when threats recede,” Nau proclaims, but contends that this need not be. The United States could be at home abroad “if America can learn to share power and responsibility with the mature democracies in Europe and Asia.”

In writing about Asia, Nau is clearly not at ease. Asia is home to “three quarters of the world’s population,” he reports. About 55 percent would be more accurate. Japan occupied Southeast Asia for more than a decade–four to five years would be more accurate. Kim Dae Jung ousted the president of Korea’s military government–it was Kim Young Sam. “Taiwan is part of China,” the author contends. But that is a Chinese claim unsettled by international agreement and not acknowledged by many Taiwanese, Japan, and the United States.

In some judgments, Nau lacks credibility. He suggests the United States and Japan “could slip back into military rivalry,” a contention that lacks evidence. “America’s military, especially naval and air power, is preeminent,” Nau asserts. Yes, but only on the littoral and not on the mainland of Asia. China’s military power may be able to deter US intervention in the Taiwan Strait or Korea in two decades, he suggests. Sure, if the United States falls asleep for that period.

Despite these shortcomings, Nau’s prescription for America’s future in Asia is sound. While China is important to US interests, he asserts, more important “are Japan and the newly democratizing countries of South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, and eventually Indonesia,” plus the mature democracies of Australia and New Zealand and the democracy in India.

“If these relationships falter,” Nau concludes, “especially the ties with Japan, America has no foundation in Asia.” No quarrel there.

Soldiers or anyone else who wants or needs to understand who we Americans are, where we are headed, and why, would be rewarded by spending a few hours with this volume.

COPYRIGHT 2002 U.S. Army War College

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group