BOOK REVIEW Fallacy of American cosmopolitan power Cosmopolitan Power in International Relations by Giulio M
Reviewed by Kaveh L Afrasiabi
This book commits a major theoretical error, by distorting the Enlightenment
notion of "cosmopolitan" denoting worldly, trans-national sentiments and
sensibility, and presenting instead a (United States-focused) state-centric
interpretation as "power optimization" that is fundamentally at odds with the
modern understanding of this concept.
This stretches back to Immanuel Kant and counts as its contemporary advocates
such diverse thinkers as Jurgen
Habermas, Fred Dallmayr, David Held, Ulrich Beck and Alexander Wednt, not to
mention the 20th-century literary giants Joseph Conrad and George Orwell.
Lest we forget, as this pertains to a key humanist concept in international
relations worth defending against semantic abuse, particularly by those
enamored of the US hard/soft power, for Kant the term cosmopolitan stood as
"the matrix within which all the original capacities of the human race may
the "idea for a universal history with a cosmopolitan purpose", Kant warned
against the "splendid misery" of local cultures and aspired for a solution for
"the greatest problem of the human species," ie, that of "attaining a civil
society which can administer justice universally." 
Kant's search led him to the idea of federation (foedus Amphictyonum) as
a regulative principle. Following Kant's footsteps, Habermas and a number of
other influential thinkers have used the term in connection with democratic
procedure, globalist ethics, and moral and political reasoning above and beyond
the purview of particularistic nationalism. Warning against pseudo or corrupted
cosmopolitanism, often masking imperial intentions, both Conrad and Orwell
provided literary insights relevant to the contemporary context of global
politics dominated by self-serving hegemonic powers.
Unfortunately, this book's absence of any reference to this rich history of the
concept of "cosmopolitan" and the arbitrary manufacturing of an alternative
notion - which simply centers on how nations can augment or optimize their
power - represents a giant leap backward in the realm of political theory,
irrespective of the book's insights on the complexities and nuances of "soft
power" and its "smart power" propensity ( See
The illusion of American 'smart power', Asia Times Online, November 13,
The introductory theoretical chapters provide the framework for a synthetic
approach that connects the three strands of realism, neo-liberalism, and
constructivism in international relations theory.
But, with two chapters devoted to the realist theory and a rehashing of its
familiar arguments about global anarchy, state security and power optimization,
etc, it is hardly surprising that the end result is a realist domestication of
other schools of thought, reflected in the author's claim, "The realist tenets
about the optimization of power and the quest for security are constant
objectives posited by constructivists and neoliberals." (p 42)
However, there are different strands of both realism and constructivism that do
not fit with this generalization, particularly on the dubious assumption
regarding power optimization, in light of the emphasis placed on "sufficient"
rather than "maximum" power by some nations, not to mention the contemporary
diffusion of power and complex interdependence that render those realist tenets
under serious question marks. The magic of theorizing is that sharp
juxtapositions and inherently contradictory assumptions can disappear by the
strike of the pen and by simply adopting a cheerful attitude toward the stasis
of paradigmatic divisions.
To his credit, the author is not altogether oblivious toward alternative
explanations of power. For example, he credits in passing the Italian Marxist
Antonio Gramsci for providing important insights on "historic power blocs".
However, he is too immersed in the realist and neo-liberalist thinking to
attempt an organic infusion of Gramscian insights.
Had he done so, the author may have restrained himself from an uncritical
celebration of the "pervasiveness of American culture" in "our present age" (p
10), without an iota of attention to the downside of this culture, such as its
individualistic narcissism, Hollywood's culture of violence and even "clashing
civilizations,"  and limited tolerance of the "ethnic other".
Similarly, Gramscian analysis of American cultural and political hegemony would
provide rich insights on how the American superpower uses its colossal
hard/soft power to "manufacture consensus" and to dominate the international
Gallaroti's claim that the US with rare exceptions, such as during the
presidency of George W Bush, has acted as a cosmopolitan power invites critical
scrutiny. First, the author confuses multilateralism with cosmopolitanism and,
second, misrepresents the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as examples of American
unilateralism (eg p 119) when, in fact, in both cases the US has led a
coalition of forces, albeit with insufficient allied "burden sharing,"
tantamount to "superpower vigilantism".
In the fifth chapter on "hard disempowerment" and the lessons of Iraq for US
foreign policy, Gallarotti adopts at face value Washington's and London's
"weapon of mass destruction hoax" without even once distinguishing between true
intentions and (Orwellian) warmongering propaganda to justify an illegal
invasion. He also repeats the fairy tale that a principle objective of Bush's
foreign policy was to promote democracy, and as a result neither bothers with
the contrary facts that depict a different, and much more sordid, image of the
Bush's presidency, focusing instead on the soft power deficits of US diplomacy.
Contrary to Gallarotti's rather sanguine portrayal of American power, a close
scrutiny of post-1945 US interventionist policy around the globe reveals a
deeply disturbing picture of a "rogue superpower" that is addicted to military
intervention and the subversion of sovereign nations that dare to stand up to
War is after all, as the late historian Howard Zinn has aptly put it, "the
health of the state". As for America's supposed promotion of free trade across
the board, subject of Chapter 4 of this book, suffice to quote Zinn: "The claim
of the United States to support 'free trade' was hardly to be believed, since
the government interfered with trade when this did not serve the 'national
interests,' which was a euphemism for corporate interests." 
In fact, the tendency to overlook the hard power uses of economic power by the
US, eg, with respect to the World Trade Organization entry of countries such as
Russia or sanctions on other governments, forms another weakness of this book.
Overall, a critical anatomy of American power is absent in Gallarotti's book,
which simply misses the point that American cosmopolitan power is something of
an oxymoron. A colossal economic and military power that has historically
relied on a self-promoting expansionist ideology, the United States is at best
a semi-cosmopolitan power that is obsessed with global management in order to
safeguard its particularistic economic and geopolitical interests.
Transcending the structural limits and or "systematic distortions" of a genuine
cosmopolitan power by the US superpower makes an interesting subject of
theoretical inquiry that goes beyond the purview of this book and its
restricted theoretical horizon.
On a concluding note, the author lumps Iran with North Korea and Iraq and
claims that all three "have invested political capital in leveraging" nuclear
weapons "as an effective means of keeping potential enemies at bay."(p 260)
But, Iran has no nuclear weapons, its leaders have repeatedly denounced those
weapons on moral and political grounds, nor there is any evidence of Iranian
nuclear proliferation. (See
False bells on Iran's nuclear program Asia Times Online, June 10,
Cosmopolitan Power in International Relations. A Synthesis of Realism,
Neoliberalism and Constructivism by Giulio M Gallarotti. Cambridge
University Press (September 27, 2010). ISBN-10: 0521138124/ Price US$29.99, 326