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Strategic Advantage: Challengers, Competitors, and Threats to America’s Future

Strategic Advantage: Challengers, Competitors, and Threats to America’s Future by Bruce Berkowitz. Georgetown University Press, 2008, 304 pp.

Some people always read the last chapter of a book first. This is usually not a good practice, but in the case of Strategic Advantage by Bruce Berkowitz, it is recommended. Berkowitz is at his best here, reiterating probing questions that he introduced in earlier chapters, while pointing out potential solutions. Dominance (“Staying on Top”), or rather continued dominance by the United States, which the author concludes must be the goal, takes multiple forms, including the political, financial, and cultural dimensions. The early chapters present myriad examples of how the various forms of dominance were achieved, thereby providing insight into how America can face the problems and perils of the future. A frequent theme running through the text is that threats change. Problems and threats, though pressing for the moment, will shift, often dramatically, creating the need for strategies to be dynamic and flexible.

Berkowitz is a solid thinker and a challenging writer in whose works readers can find many nuggets. This important book should be read by strategic thinkers (military and political) to better understand the potential of American power. At times the historical details bogs down the narrative, although with some patience the point is usually made clear. Berkowitz believes that context and history are essential for understanding how the nation’s leadership makes decisions or even perceive the threats around us. There is no argument here, but by starting with the concluding chapter first, the reader is more likely to understand the destination of the literary journey. In other words, the “so what?” question is answered first, making the rest of the text easier to place in context.

Berkowitz states, ‘The overarching challenge is how to develop, select, and combine the various capabilities—military, economic, diplomatic . . . and then recombine them as conditions change—all the while avoiding becoming so overcommitted that we are unable to deal with the next challenge that comes along.” He describes the solution as “military planning and diplomacy a la carte,” which like the dining practice always costs more. The author offers six principles or strategies for the United States to maintain its position in the world, some of which are self-evident. Others are less intuitive, including the use of “special strengths,” which Berkowitz says gives the United States “outsized influence.” This section of the discussion is particularly interesting because it shows the uniqueness of the nation in history and the real potential for its continued influence.

Berkowitz’s second chapter discusses economic, political, developmental, and demographic trends. One might wonder if the author would have modified anything in the text concerning the world economy, given the current world-wide crisis. The section on the effect of demography is fascinating but somewhat trying to the reader. This is unfortunate because it remains a largely under researched domain, which often colors both perception and reaction of political and military entities on both sides. Although one might quibble with the author’s example of the effect of green house gases (GHC) on global warming, the principle is basically sound. How nations perceive problems and how they seek solutions are affected—sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly—by the concerns of the citizenry. Berkowitz makes the mistake of going far too much in depth into the issue of GHC, trying to drive home the point that demographics are important. Although, perhaps appropriate for a environmental policy text, the author might want to seriously consider revising this section in future editions, if only for the good practice of brevity, which is the likely requirement of those busy, strategically oriented professionals for whom this volume is intended. The same problem occurs in other portions of the book where in-depth background (e.g., statistician and author William Playfair) and seemingly overly long quotes are used by Berkowitz to drive the narrative toward a point that might more easily be reached. Given those minor deficiencies, it would be a mistake for the reader to turn away.

One of the strongest and best constructed chapters in the book is “The American Edge,” which discusses the continuing influence of the Jacksonian tradition on the American people. Berkowitz states that the early immigrant values (“self-reliance, respect for anyone who pulls his own weight, individualism, willingness to take risks, and courage”) continue to be valued today by Americans. These values affect what we think about the government and military and how we expect them to act in such matters as the economy and national security. The edge in fact is comprised of a series of unique advantages, unmatched by any previous or current nation. The author points out that the United Sates spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. Widely criticized as a negative by many on the left, this advantage (again a reflection of the Jacksonian mind-set) in fact allows the United States the luxury and “determination to deal with the world on our terms.” Very few other nations can claim that ability.

Berkowitz states that the United States has a military edge borne of tradition, culture, and institutional knowledge, unmatched by any other nation. Although it is perhaps too early to understand all of the lessons that will eventually be learned from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one can imagine future scenarios where potential adversaries to triumph will be forced to go well beyond the strategies and tactics already encountered and overcome by American troops. This will be difficult for them to achieve, but the military should nevertheless prepare now for the unexpected. The author offers the well-known principles of pacing, command capabilities, and agility as essential elements for dealing with the changing strategic environment. These elements are essential both for the battlefield and our nation’s continued place of influence in the world. Berkowitz provides strong arguments for future strategic successes, and this volume is a good starting point for US planners. It is recommended for military officers of all ranks.

Robert A. Norton, PhD

Auburn University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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