Subversive Ideas on U.S. Power-And How to Keep It Indefinitely

America’s Inadvertent Empire , by William E. Odom and Robert Dujarric. Yale University Press, 285 pages, $30.

There are two things we can count on finding in the daily newsfeed in this sad season. The first is a photograph of gore in Iraq. The second is the cheerful phrase “spreading democracy,” or a variation thereof, recited by President Bush or penned by the likes of Thomas Friedman and David Brooks. In their introduction to their dry and dense but interesting book, William E. Odom and Robert Dujarric alert readers to the fact that they will offer some “subversive ideas” about American power. The most important of these ideas is that the United States should not be in the business of “spreading democracy”-because the only route to real democracy is paved with gore.

Conventional wisdom since the fall of the Berlin Wall has held that teams of bushy-tailed political-science grads and experienced American campaign managers (with, sometimes, a push from the U.S. military) can transform any Third World country into a democracy simply by establishing a working electoral system. The authors of America’s Inadvertent Empire insist that not only are the nation’s “evangelical capacities … limited,” but that true democracies are born of bloody violence.

The authors have impeccablecredentials. William Odom is the former head of the National Security Agency during the Reagan administration and a retired lieutenant-general, and Robert Dujarric is a Hitachi Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. They here identify the U.S. as an empire and offer predictions about its endurance. Along the way, they take apart the principle that the United States should be bringing democracy to dark corners around the world.

Messrs. Odom and Dujarric make a distinction between the countries that have voting democracies (the Philippines, for example, or Russia) and countries that have experienced “constitutional breakthroughs”-that is, where the national government operates on a “durable constitutional basis” (like most of Western Europe, the United States). Only countries that have had constitutional breakthroughs qualify as working democracies by this definition. In countries that have not had constitutional breakthroughs, there can be no democracy, because the elites have not agreed to submit to the same rules as everyone else. For example, the authors write that the United States wasn’t a real democracy until after the Civil War.

In addition to our successful constitutional breakthrough, the authors divide the sources of American power into five parts: demographic, economic, military, scientific, educational and cultural. In all these areas, they show why and how the United States has literally no competition on earth.

The authors also propose a different way of looking at terrorism, popularly held to be the primary threat to American power today. Their most shocking notion is that America “by any legal definition” is the world’s greatest supporter of terrorism since World War II, usually under the name of freedom-fighting. Remember, this isn’t Noam Chomsky writing-and one of the authors used to run the Reagan era national-security apparatus.

The authors decry the “misleading rhetoric” in America about a war on terror and suggest that American power can survive just about any kind of terrorist attack, including the dreaded W.M.D.’s. They definitely won’t win an invitation to hunt duck with Dick Cheney for suggesting that we should welcome a united Europe that could stand in for us in the event that our power does diminish.

Messrs. Odom and Dujarric conclude that the American empire can survive indefinitely, and that the “most serious danger” it faces is from within, in the form of a reckless or corrupt leader. “The power of its leaders is limited primarily by their ideology-that is, by the Liberal norms that guide their use of that power,” they write. “Nor can a set of rules be devised to assure that leaders do not misuse that power, either by intent or poor judgment.”

Military adventurism is one example they cite of such dangerous leadership. “Gross misuse of military power in parts of the world that promise little return for the effort could erode U.S. hegemony in the world,” they write. “President Bush’s invasion of Iraq … and all of the diplomacy related to it appear to constitute a severe test of this proposition.”

Unfortunately, locating these provocative ideas takes patience and a glossary of government/business-school jargon. A whole section of America’s Inadvertent Empire , for example, is devoted to a concept called “path dependence,” which, it turns out, is what the rest of us call being stuck in a rut. Brain-twisting sentences abound: “The feedback process in an institutional matrix may be ‘negative’-that is corrective, providing for comparisons and evaluations of each choice against alternatives, allowing the less efficient ones to be discarded.”

Nonetheless, devoted wonks in the Boston-Washington corridor could spend a pleasurable evening with this book, and the authors may find, in this election year, that speechwriters are poaching some of their compelling “subversive ideas.”

Nina Burleigh’s The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America’s Greatest Museum-The Smithsonian (Morrow) was published in September.