'The Frugal Superpower: America's Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era'


Michael Mandelbaum
224 pages | Buy this book

America today equals huge debt. America today equals huge military. Few have seriously attempted to reconcile the two, and Mandelbaum does here, to provocative result. An authoritative thinker on America's role in the world, he makes the case that a slimmer U.S. defense budget will leave a vacuum at the top of the global power structure that no other country can fill.

What's the Big Deal?

For decades, many have believed America's role as global policeman has ensured stability and security. One problem: the country will soon be too debt-ridden to police the world. Social security, Medicare and, well, just the huge cost of debt itself will inevitably force the country to steer clear of regional conflicts and get out of murky businesses like state-building and humanitarian intervention. Some might welcome the restraint, but Mandelbaum argues it could embolden restless regional powers such as Russia and Iran to menace their neighbors, resulting in troubling skirmishes that nobody needs.

Buzz Rating: Hum

Mandelbaum is well known among foreign-policy insiders, and influential commentators such as Thomas Friedman are fond of quoting his work, so it won't pass unnoticed. The book has been reviewed by The Observer and the Financial Times, and Mandelbaum is scheduled to write commentaries for the Huffington Post and Forbes Online.

One-Breath Author Bio

Mandelbaum, director of the American Foreign Policy Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has written numerous books on security issues, including 2006's widely cited The Case for Goliath.

The Book, in His Words

"One thing worse than an America that is too strong, the world will learn, is an America that is too weak" (page 194).

Don't Miss These Bits

1. Money is now an object. Since at least World War II, the cost of America's wars has been measured in lives lost, not cash, Mandelbaum says, and that's about to change. The $9 trillion national debt is on track to balloon over the next decade, at which point the annual interest alone may eat up one fifth of the country's budget. As the population ages, Social Security and Medicare costs will spike, too. A 2009 Pew study showed a record 49 percent of Americans already believe the nation should "mind its own business internationally," and forced to cut spending somewhere, Mandelbaum argues, voters will target defense before slashing their own entitlements.

2. Don't look to the East. Among those pundits predicting a decline in American power, China is a popular pick to surpass it. But Mandelbaum notes that China faces constraints of its own. Despite its meteoric economic rise, its per capita income remains paltry compared to developed countries. That means combating poverty will take precedence over military expansion for the foreseeable future. And China too will eventually face an aging population due to its one-child policy. Mandelbaum concludes, "China's international influence will surely continue to grow, above all in East Asia, but not so rapidly as to displace that of the United States" (page 52).

There is an answer. Or, if "oil is the enemy of democracy," (p. 163), a gas tax is the new containment. Among the countries most likely to take advantage of a more inward-facing America is Iran, which depends on oil for 80 percent of its revenue. Cut consumption and the country's pugnacious, repressive regime will falter. The move would also undercut other governments that pose threats to U.S. interests, from Venezuela to Russia. Considering all that, Mandelbaum contends, "The national insistence on keeping gasoline cheap in the United States is the single greatest failure of twenty-first-century American foreign policy" (p. 174).

Swipe This Critique

Mandelbaum is a lucid thinker and a clear writer, but reading The Frugal Superpower feels a little too much like sitting in lecture hall. There are no characters, no colorful anecdotes to liven the analysis, and many of the assertions are short on supporting evidence, like the tossed-off claim that the United States' post–Cold War foreign policy has been motivated largely by "philanthropist" aims (page 45).

Tic Alert

Pop culture references that try too hard. On the dangers of having too much military power: the Duchess of Windsor says that one can never be too thin or too rich. A section on trends in the defense spending starts with Willie Sutton's quip that he robbed banks "because that's where the money is."


He explains concepts clearly and can turn a phrase, but it's all a bit dry.

Construction: Summary, exposition, summary. Repeat.

Bottom Line: It's no page-turner, but it delivers a healthy dose of expert analysis with a minimum of frills.