The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation
by Strobe Talbott
(Simon & Schuster, 495 pages, $28)
Now that so many people within the media and outside of it assume that the next president of the United States will be a Democrat, the race is on to become his or her next secretary of state.
One candidate (at least in his own mind) is Strobe Talbott, a former Rhodes scholar who went to England with the young Bill Clinton and who served as Deputy Secretary during the latter’s first term and well might have succeeded retiring Warren Christopher as secretary in 1995 were it not for a particularly revealing article by Charles Lane which appeared in the New Republic. Lane had gone back through Talbott’s paper trail as a columnist/commentator for Time magazine and discovered just how much animus he harbored towards the state of Israel.
The Clintons got the message; Talbott was quietly moved off to academia. He has since assumed the presidency of the Brookings Institution, where he wrote this book, his opening salvo in the campaign to recover his place in line.
The Great Experiment is really three books in one. A good half of it is a potted history of international relations, bringing the story down to the end of the Cold War. It is full of debatable propositions, but every man has the right to his own version of the past. Another tranche is a memoir of the author’s participation in Clinton administration foreign policy, drawing up a wildly favorable balance sheet, and superficially strengthening his argument by casting a few approving glances at previous presidents, even Republican ones.
The final section deals with the Bush administration and its apparent failure to live up to Talbott’s views of how American foreign policy should be conducted. Particular emphasis is placed on the need to pursue U.S. national interests through multilateral institutions, particularly the United Nations, in which Talbott has reposed a kind of religious faith. Obligatory stops are made at various Stations of the Cross — preventing nuclear proliferation, Kyoto, AIDS and malaria, the International Criminal Court. Talbott often talks about the so-called “international community” as if it were largely made up of countries like Belgium, Sweden and Canada instead of Syria, North Korea, Algeria, Iran, Egypt and Zimbabwe.
This is obviously a very personal book. Talbott reveals that he is a distant cousin of President George W. Bush and attended Yale at the same time. His distaste for the president is understandable; from the point of view of people like him, George W. Bush is a traitor to his class. He is not enlightened; he does not love the United Nations; he does not understand.
Worse still, Bush has surrendered control of American foreign policy to a combination of populist yahoos (who did not go to Yale) and the evil neo-conservatives (we know from where).
To be sure, all of this is said with slightly more discretion and even elegance than I have sketched out here, but also with considerable pomposity, condescension and tedium. As Buffon once said, “Le style, c’est l’homme.”