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Power Rules Versus Laws of Power

How many laws in Robert Greene’s “48 Laws of Power” does Leslie Gelb, the former senior Pentagon official, follow or flout?

Niccolò Machiavelli is the ultimate power maven.  I’ve read books on him to learn how to gain power and to defend myself against it.  Leslie Gelb’s book “Power Rules: How Common Sense can Rescue American Policy” (HarperCollins, 2009) draws extensively on Machiavelli’s cunning political treatise, “The Prince.”

While editing Gelb’s Big Think interview, I wondered: How powerful would Machiavelli think he was?

Robert Greene’s “The 48 Laws of Power” (Viking Press, 1998) also draws on Machiavelli’s ruthlessness.  Greene’s book includes, for instance, laws that teach you how to manipulate people (“Law 12: Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm your Victim”) and how to be merciless (“Law 15: Crush Your Enemy Totally”).  By mastering the laws however, one can use them for good.  For instance, one can learn to avoid manipulation (“Law 12”) and to be merciful (“Law 15”).  

I analyzed Leslie Gelb’s Big Think interview to judge how powerful he is according to Robert Greene’s schema.  That is, how many of Greene’s 48 Laws of Power does Gelb follow or flout?  For instance, does he abide by “Law 14: Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy”?

Following is my analysis, tongue firmly in cheek.

Law 2: Never Put Too Much Trust in Friends, Learn How to Use Enemies

Gelb hints at the effective use of Law 2 by saying, “President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of State Baker, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft did a brilliant job of ending the Cold War without war.  They helped Gorbachev relinquish his own empire in Eastern Europe and then helped him dismantle the Soviet Union while people in this country [the US] were screaming. […] [T]hey handled the demise of the Soviet Union by helping them kill themselves off, another brilliant act of diplomacy.”

Law 3: Conceal Your Intentions

Gelb, who was the director of the project that produced the controversial Pentagon Papers, refers to Law 3: “I think that most of what’s been written about Pentagon Papers just isn’t true.  They say that the Pentagon Papers show that history of United States and Vietnam is the story of lying.  That’s what the Pentagon Papers prove, our leaders lie to us.  There was lying that went on from time to time, to be sure.  But by and large, we got involved in Vietnam because that’s what we believed.”

Law 7: Get Others to do the Work for You, but Always Take the Credit

Gelb abides by Law 7 by saying, “[Power [is] the ability to get others to do something they don’t want to do.  It’s a political and psychological relationship.  It’s using carrot and sticks to create an impression in someone’s mind of what you can do to help them or to harm them.  It’s about pressure and coercion.”

Law 9: Win Through Your Actions, Never Through Argument

Gelb hints at Law 9 by saying, “[O]n the right side were the neoconservatives who said, hey, we’re on the top of the mountain, we’re now the sole superpower.  We can threaten military force to get our way.  Or if they don’t observe our threats, we can actually use military force.”

Law 11: Learn to Keep People Dependent on You

Gelb discusses the concept of mutual indispensability, which relates to Law 11: “The United States is the indispensable leader but we don’t have the power to dictate solutions.  We need to get things done to solve problems, exercise our leadership effectively.  We need equally indispensable partners.  And those are the other key nations of the world.  I say in the book that there are eight of them, Germany, Britain, France, Japan, China, Russia, India, and Brazil.  If you can put together some coalition of those countries, those become the equally indispensable partners.  So we’re the indispensable leader, they’re the indispensable partners.  Together, we can succeed.  Alone, we fail, time and again.”

Law 12: Use Selective Honesty and Generosity to Disarm Your Victim

Gelb talks about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and hints at Law 12 by saying, “She’s going around the world saying, by and large, good things to leaders […] to try to dispel this anti-Americanism that built up over the last eight to ten years, the sense that America didn’t know how to be a leader, thought of itself solely as a dictator. […] And they’re doing it by acknowledging that the United States, we can’t bear to admit this, actually made mistakes, didn’t understand them, didn’t spend much time trying to understand them.  […] I know [the Obama administration has] been accused of abandoning American power because they admitted past mistakes and they shook hands with people we disagree with.  But they haven’t given away a thing yet and they are getting the publics around the world on our side.”

Law 15: Crush Your Enemy Totally

Gelb states the following, which aligns with Law 15, “We [the US] spend as much on defense, by the way, as the next 25 largest spenders on the military put together.”

Law 23: Concentrate Your Forces

Gelb seems to agree with Law 23 by saying, “[At the end of the cold war, Harry] Truman, [George] Marshall, and [Dean] Acheson concentrated on building up the economic power of Germany, Japan, along with that of the United States.  The presumption, which was absolutely correct, that once you added up those three economies, strong economies, that we would have 75%, 80% of all the economic, military, and diplomatic power in the world.  And we did.  And they figured out if you had that, you couldn’t lose.”  

Law 25: Re-Create Yourself

Gelb hints at Law 25 by saying, “The people I found to be the greatest [were] President Harry Truman, Secretary of State George Marshall and his successors, Secretary of State Dean Acheson.  These guys were so brilliant, it makes me jealous.  […]  [T]hey set up all these international institutions, the UN, the World Bank, IMF, NATO, and the like, real international institutions that we led.  We didn’t try to dictate.  We couldn’t dictate even then but we led them.  And these institutions were so good, they helped us prevail in the Cold War.”

Law 26: Keep Your Hands Clean

Gelb refers to how George W. Bush failed to follow Law 26: “[S]ome of the things the Bush administration did fall into the same category of torture as the Japanese we tried after World War II.  The legacy of the George W. Bush administration will be calamity.”

Law 31: Control the Options: Get Others to Play with the Cards You Deal

Gelb abides by Law 31 by saying, “Effective foreign policy [is about] understanding what’s attainable, which power can produce, and what’s not attainable.  It’s understanding how to use your power because you understand just what power you do have and how it’s going to affect other societies and other political leaders.”

Law 36: Disdain Things You Cannot Have: Ignoring Them is the Best Revenge

When asked about what role think tanks should play in US foreign policy, Gelb touched on Law 36 by saying, “Policy is figuring out what problems you can solve and how and what problems you cannot solve and then what you do about them.”

Law 37: Create Compelling Spectacles

Gelb alludes to the effective, though unintentional, use of Law 37 by saying, “[T]his country [the US] went crazy over Sully Sullenberger.  I went crazy over Sully Sullenberger.  What did he do?  He landed a plane safely on the Hudson River.  And the country thought this was absolutely marvelous […] because it was an act of simple competence.  And this had been seen so rarely in our country that they went nuts over a guy who exhibited it.”

Law 42: Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep Will Scatter

Gelb flouts Law 42 by saying, “[In] the modern age, in the 21st century, in fact, at the end of the 20th century, our superior military force will be sufficient to conquer capitals, to get rid of dictators, but not to conquer countries.”

Law 43: Work on the Hearts and Minds of Others

Gelb hints at Law 43 by saying the following about liberals, “[A]t the end of the Cold War, […] the left thought that meant, finally, we could deal with the world the way they also wanted to, through love.  And so you had this idea of soft power being conceived.  And soft power was understanding and leadership and morals and the like, all good things.”

Law 47: Do Not Go Past the Mark You Aimed For; In Victory, Learn When to Stop

Gelb agrees with Law 47 by saying: “The global economic meltdown is the most serious threat to American national security and to our democracy.  So this has got to be our first priority, to restore our economy and the global economy.  And that’s a strategic decision I don’t believe President Obama fully grasps.  He says the economy is the most important thing, but to exercise real strategic leadership, to understand power, you have to make choices and set priorities.  You can’t do everything.  I know it’s fashionable in the White House to say we only have a 100 or 200 days and we got to get everything in before the tide turns against you.  That’s not right.”

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By Lee Bob Black.


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