July 3, 2007

HARRISONBURG—In a review essay published in the current ( July/August 2007) issue of the foreign policy journal The National Interest, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, considers Masters of Illusion: American Leadership in the Media Age by Steven Rosefielde and D. Quinn Mills (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Dr. Rosefielde, professor of economics at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, has authored or edited eleven books on Russia and the Soviet Union and served as an advisor to both the Pentagon and several directors of the Central Intelligence Agency. Dr. Mills, holder of the Weatherhead Chair at Harvard Business School, has penned more than twenty-five books on leadership and management. The joint effort reviewed by Dr. Pham is their first work of geopolitical grand strategy.

According to the review, the authors apply modern managerial concepts of leadership to the presidency in order to argue that a president’s success or failure is largely determined by his ability to master the illusions which the American public has created about the world and the role of the United States within it.

Bad enough by itself, when wishful thinking is married to partisan political interests and commercially driven media, the result is oversimplification, distortion and hype. This dysfunctional perspective of the world is responsible, in the authors’ thesis, for the American public’s two most deeply cherished illusions: “harmonism”—the “faith-based” notion that “most peoples and nations are well-intentioned and fair-minded and that as a result conflict among nations is almost always a result of misunderstandings”—and convergence—the equally dogmatic belief that “our system is the best, that it fits anywhere, that we have the obligation to extend it, and that if we extend it successfully, there will be peace and prosperity thereafter.” Needless to say, these illusions confuse reality on a massive scale, leading to an inability to perceive challenges to the national interest, much less to devise adequate responses to them. That national temptation to fashion societies in our own image is perhaps the biggest obstacle to embracing a mature and modest realist foreign policy of protecting ourselves, while recognizing our limits in doing so and helping others who voluntarily choose our path.

The authors contend that the United States not only faces a sequence of significant challenges—terrorism, Russian militarism, Chinese nationalism and European unification—but also wildly varying magnitudes of danger from its potential major rivals, as well as from lesser states and non-state actors, trends exacerbated by nuclear proliferation, the economic successes and failures of different nations, and old-fashioned conventional conflicts around the globe. The solution they propose is:

A policy of strategic independence—that is, of "the military deterrence of potential adversaries achieved by a combination of superior offensive capabilities, arms control, and national missile defense." At its core, this strategy would consist of four elements: a focus on the defense of the United States; avoidance of an arms race with a rival power (or powers) through a combination of arms-control agreements, strategic missile capabilities, flexible conventional forces and missile defense; pre-emption to deal with real threats, especially the threat of attacks with Weapons of Mass Destruction and sufficient conventional forces to allow independence in determining when and how to act in self-defense.

Dr. Pham comments that “as Rosefielde and Mills eloquently illustrate in Masters of Illusion, deflecting threats requires not only keeping them in constant sight but also doing nothing that would impair our freedom to respond to even greater challenges, including needlessly constraining ourselves on the one hand or foolishly overreaching on the other.

The text of Dr. Pham’s review essay, “Beyond the Illusions,” can be accessed online by clicking here.