The Great Experiment, by Strobe Talbott, is one in a broad family of books written by former executive branch officials about their experiences with power. These books often contain some theoretical noodling, bits and pieces of biographical detail, a few mildly interesting anecdotes within a jury-rigged “idea” that purports to hold the whole thing together. Probably 90% of the members of this family are almost suicidally boring, but occasional you’ll find one by someone who really has something to say, and manages to do so in an interesting and forthright manner.
Tragically, The Great Experiment is not one of these outliers. Rather, it is firmly within the ersatz Ambien family. The great experiment, according to Talbott, is the group; the idea that ever larger communities of people can hold together in more or less stable groupings over an extended period of time. From the dawn of agriculture until now, such groupings have included empires, city states, and nations. The future of such communities is, according to Talbott, international organizations such as the United Nations. This story fills the first half of the book, and contains a few tangential citations of the extraordinarily vast literature on statebuilding and community formation; Talbott indicates, for example, that he’s read at least some of the works of Benedict Anderson, although the book betrays no great understanding of the arguments contained therein. As such, the first half of the book is pretty much entirely worthless to anyone with an academic knowledge of the subject, and pretty misleading to anyone without such a background.
The second half of the book concerns Talbott’s direct experience in and around the Clinton administration, and is mildly more interesting. We learn a bit, for example, about the influence that Al Gore had in the administration, and about the White House’s relationship with the media. On the latter Talbott is careful to demonstrate his credentials as a Washington insider, noting that he regularly plays chess and conducts civil political conversations with Chucky Krauthammer. Talbott also includes a series of critiques of the Bush administration from the point of view of a Clinton administration official, critiques which are somewhat interesting but not terribly novel or illuminating. They are the sort of wonky, margin-emphasizing critiques that you would expect from someone who is, broadly, within the community of Democratic foreign policy thinkers that found itself flummoxed by the charge for the Iraq War, and utterly incapable of understanding what the Bush administration was trying to do.
I am largely sympathetic with his basic policy argument, which is that the continuing institutionalization of the international system is a positive thing, and ought to be pursued. To make this case in the contemporary American context, however, you have to do better than painting a broad historical stroke, then explaining that international institutions are the natural end state of human kind. It simply isn’t true that we’ve steadily been moving towards larger human groupings; the Roman Empire, the China-centric state system that held in the Far East, the Habsburg Empire, and perhaps most notably medieval Christendom all represented quasi-institutional efforts that waxed and waned over time. The historical story doesn’t tell us what Talbott wants it to tell us, and consequently can’t carry the weight that he places on it. International institutions can be argued for on their own merits, apart from any teleological narrative that’s supposed to make them quasi-inevitable.
To sum up, if you have trouble sleeping but can’t get another prescription, check out The Great Experiment. If not, avoid it like the plague.