Spring/Summer 2015
Number 28

Book Review - America’s Path to Power

Todd Johnson

Derek S. Reveron, Nikolas K. Gvosdev and Mackubin T. Owens, U.S. Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy: The Evolution of an Incidental Superpower (Georgetown University Press), 262 pp. $29.95.

In today’s world, it is sometimes difficult to imagine a time when America hasn’t had a preeminent place on the world stage. Since 1945, the United States has grown from a regional power into a hegemonic, global superpower that currently boasts the largest economy in the world and arguably possesses one of the most capable militaries the world has ever seen. But this transformation didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t occur without mistakes being made along the way.

Along these lines, some in the international affairs community believe that the rise of the United States has been the result of a nation responding to radical changes in the international system that occurred in the wake of World War II. It is this thesis, of the U.S. as an “incidental superpower,” that forms the central argument of U.S. Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy.

Published by Georgetown Press and written by a trio of prominent national security affairs experts (Derek Reveron, Nikolas Gvosdev and Mackubin Owens), the book “explains how the United States became a superpower, examines the formation of the national security establishment, and explores the inter-relationship between foreign policy, defense strategy, and commercial interests.” Designed to serve as a supplemental textbook for international affairs students, this readable, accessible tome makes a cogent argument that the emergence of the United States as a superpower following World War II wasn’t necessarily planned or anticipated.

The term “superpower” first emerged in the early 1940s, when it was coined by geo-strategist Nicholas Spykman. From that time on, it has been used to describe nations that have both global reach and global commitments. To be sure, many books have been written since then about America as a superpower, and its resulting predominant role in global events (and the responsibilities and authorities that accompany it). But U.S. Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy differs from most writings on the subject, because its authors illustrate how the creation of a stable national security establishment, enduring national interests and a vast network of international powers have led the United States to occupy the position of prominence that it enjoys today.

The chapters follow a systematic approach, with the authors covering the “American Way” of organizing for defense, of conducting civil-military relations, of warfare, of peace and of finance. One of the more interesting chapters is the one on civil-military relations in the United States and how they have changed over time. As a serving military officer, the book’s analysis of the topic struck me as being both insightful and balanced. It is doubly significant because it tackles some of the most pressing contemporary policy issues relating to the subject. To wit, with the advent of combatant commanders and the vast resources attached to their commands, some have come to believe that U.S. foreign policy has been quietly militarized. The authors address this issue by acknowledging that the traditional paradigm of civil-military relations “is in flux” and may need to be renegotiated by those in power.

If there is one criticism of the book, it is that it doesn’t devote enough space in its conclusion to the topic of cyber security and the threat of cyberterrorism. These issues have grown exponentially in the last decade, and—whether in the guise of an individual (Eric Snowden), a group (world-wide hacking network Anonymous) or a nation-state (China)—now have far-reaching effects on foreign and defense policy. By not fully exploring the issue, the authors missed an opportunity to demonstrate the very real linkage that has emerged between the cyber domain and U.S. commercial interests.

This deficiency aside, U.S. Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy is even-handed in its analysis and rigorous in its methodology. It also provides and important glimpse into how America attained its current place in the world, and just what it will entail if we hope to keep it. That makes it a valuable resource for students of international affairs and American history, as well as for those who are involved in the shaping of U.S. security policy today, both today and tomorrow.

Todd Johnson is a policy analysis instructor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and an active duty Army officer. The views expressed here are his own.