Council on Foreign Relations' Les Gelb on How America Muddles Its Power

Les Gelb speaks with U.S. News about his new book Power Rules.


From managing the op-ed pages of the New York Times to working at the highest levels of government, including serving as the assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs in the Carter administration, Leslie H. Gelb's résumé is all about power. But Gelb, currently president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, thinks American politicians have forgotten how to use it. He recently spoke with U.S. News about how his new book, Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy, offers lessons on navigating the challenges confronting the United States. Excerpts:

Why did you write this book?

I have utter frustration with my profession [of think-tank academics] and with the handling of foreign policy in Washington. Year after year, administration after administration, whether it's Democrat or Republican, we were costing the country in lives and treasure by getting involved in ventures which we could not handle. We overstated our objectives and used our power poorly.

Why does this keep happening?

The notion of power just got corrupted. Conservatives reduced the notion of power to force and the threat of force. Liberals reduced it to soft power—that we could get other nations to do our bidding by persuasion, morality, leadership, understanding. And both are not what power's all about. Power is about getting somebody to do something they don't want to do, by political and psychological means, by creating a sense of what the United States can do to help or harm them. It takes time. It's complicated to do it. But if you reduce everything to force or the threat of force . . . you lose credibility because you don't carry out your threats—as Bush did, time and again in North Korea or Iran.

How has America's power evolved?

The people who used our power particularly well were Truman and Eisenhower. Beginning with Kennedy, we began to define goals that were well beyond our means and to use either force or persuasion as substitutes for power.

You write: "Leaders and people around the world liked Clinton and Clinton's America, but they seldom did as he wished or demanded." What lesson does this teach us about "soft power"?

You shouldn't think of this as power. These instruments—our rhetoric, our leadership, our moral values—are what I call scene-setting instruments. They're ways of lowering resistance to the subsequent use of our power. They're ways of building up support within a political system so that when we use power there's more receptivity to it. But it's not power.

Is Obama's emphasis on boosting America's reputation useless in the same way?

It's useful as long as people don't think that's all he's about.

How should the United States apply soft power to Iran ?

It's important that the president of the United States let the Iranian people know that we stand up for our values. But it's equally important he doesn't start using that rhetoric to meddle directly in Iranian politics. I look at this debate, and, boy, is it typical of how we handle these things. Within a second, the debate really is about us, not about them.

And to North Korea?

Not much. They're closed off.

So can the United States only use threats?

We're going to be back in negotiations with the North [Koreans], and it will be a pain. And we'll see once again whether we can put together the right combination of inducements—threats and rewards—that will change their minds. If not, there's essentially a standoff. And here's why: The biggest restraint on our using force against the North is the South.

Are you talking about collateral damage?

Not collateral damage. The whole Seoul area would be totally destroyed. The South doesn't want us to go to war, and if we did, no one would ever want us to defend them again.

You and then-Sen. Joe Biden were vocal advocates of partitioning Iraq.

We were for the decentralization of power. Americans ought to understand the difference between federalism and partition.

Has that plan died?

No. We were saying that the Iraqis better work out a political settlement; otherwise, they're going to have a civil war when we leave. The way to do that is to decentralize power to the three main groups because they don't trust each other.