The New Observer Book Reviews,Reviews A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism – Sachs, Jeffrey D

A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism – Sachs, Jeffrey D


I was attracted to Jeffry Sachs because like Professor John Mearsheimer he is a credible US academic who has spoken out forcibly against Western policy on the war in Ukraine. Sachs comes from a different background to John Mearsheimer. Mearsheimer is a scholar of International Relations and an advocate of realism. Sachs’ background is in sustainable development economics. He is an author, academic and has acted as an economic adviser to several countries. He is also director of a UN initiative, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. 

Because I read this book straight after reading Mearsheimer, there are quite a lot of direct comparisons with Mearsheimer’s thinking, in my response to Sachs’ book. Sachs’ book was published in 2018, before the current Ukraine war. 

Part 1 – US Exceptionalism 

In this section Sachs proposes that there are basically 3 ways of looking at International Relations; exceptionalism, realism and internationalism. Sachs places himself in the internationalist camp. This vision believes that international cooperation is possible in all fields including in the security arena. Sachs believes that realism is unnecessarily pessimistic. Realism, in IR, is the doctrine that states are permanently in a state of security competition. Professor John Mearsheimer explains that whereas within a country individuals are all subject to the higher authority of the state to whom each can turn for protection, this is not the case in the international arena. In the international arena there is no higher arbitrator. Thus, each country can only look to itself for security, and the best way of being secure is to be more powerful than any other state. Furthermore; states can never really know the intentions of other states and have to assume the worst. This can lead to preemptive strikes based on possible future risks. Examples of this would be the US attack on Iraq in 2003 and Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2022. This is John Mearsheimer explaining the theory that states have to compete for power: 

To maximise their survival prospects, those states have little choice but to compete for power, which can be a ruthless and bloody business. Realism does not inspire a hopeful outlook for the future.[1] 


In other words, if the differences are profound and involve important issues, countries will think in terms of winning and losing, which will invariably lead to intense security competition and sometimes war. International institutions have little influence on state behaviour in such conditions, mainly because the theory does not address how institutions can resolve or even ameliorate deep conflicts between great powers. [1]

Mearshiemer explains that the risk of cheating is so great that cooperation in the security sphere is unlikely. Against this one could point to US-Russian Arms Control agreements which held for some considerable time as examples of successful cooperation in the security sphere. Less reliable have been agreements and institutions designed to prevent countries invading their neighbours. Both the US and Russia broke the UN Charter when they violated the sovereignty of another nation; though both also, somewhat tortuously, justified their action on the basis of making a preemptive strike in self-defence. Russia is also accused of breaking the 1994 Budapest Memorandum which guaranteed Ukraine’s security. Again, though, Russia has an answer; the Memorandum was invalidated by the US sponsored coup in Ukraine in 2014. These points seem to confirm Mearsheimer’s view that cooperation in the International security sphere is not possible; states will always, prioritise their own security interests over international cooperation. 

Sachs includes a table in which he extols the benefits of taking an internationalist approach. He highlights the potential gains from countries taking an internationalist approach over a realist approach, in the Foreign Policy. The problem is that Sachs is simply saying, “wouldn’t it be better if we all got along and cooperated”. Of course it would. Of course, “win, win” is better than “win, lose”. But, he doesn’t deal with the realist analysis. Security competition, sometimes cutthroat, is built-in to the system. In Mearsheimer’s analysis there is scope for cooperation in fields other than security, such as trade, when there are situations where such cooperation benefits both sides, but not much scope for cooperation in the field of security issues. In essence then, the problem is that Sachs presents a vision which is cosy and desirable, but not realisable – at least according to realism. And he does not tackle the realist argument. Sachs does acknowledge what he calls the “Security Dilemma” – that one state’s defensive moves may seem threatening to another state. It seems that he believes this dilemma is resolvable. He does suggest that countries should seek cooperation and “if cooperation in fact breaks down, a country can still revert to the ‘realist’ position”. But this seems weak. Building up, or not building up, military power is a long-term project. If a country forgoes this and is then subject to an attack, it will be too late. This is precisely Mearsheimer’s point; a state cannot know the intentions of its enemies and has to assume the worst. 

It is telling that Sachs looks back to Gorbachev’s vision of an integrated zone of cooperation taking in all of Russia and Europe. Gorbachev is widely regarded as some kind of well-meaning but naive actor. (He can even be placed in a tradition of Holy Fools).

Mearsheimer’s theory seems to have explanatory power, for example in relation to the Ukraine war, which Sachs lacks.. Sachs would reply to this by saying that realism lacks a normative dimension; it doesn’t have to be this way. To which, realists will reply – given the nature of nation states, their overriding interest in surviving, the lack of any higher power who can arbitrate (and enforce rules on states) and the inherent problems of trust then in fact it has to be this way. From the realist point of view the best we can do, as Sachs notes in his description of realism, is to practise diplomacy to try to reduce the risk of conflict based on misunderstandings and so on. However; what both realists and Sachs would agree on, I think, is that US exceptionalism, the idea that the US is some sort of overriding wonder country with a mission to save the world, is a mistake. This view has led to the US getting unnecessarily involved in countless regime change operations and wars all around the world. Sachs lists many of these.

What I found valuable in this section of the book is how Sachs explains American exceptionalism by linking it right back to the Puritan fathers and the founding of America: 

As many American historians have noted, American exceptionalism is deeply intertwined in America’s history, or at least in one telling of it. When the first pilgrims arrived, they were not merely looking to establish a colony in the New World (which they regarded as “new” since they left the native Americans out of the accounting). They were establishing a “city upon the hill.” America would be the new Promised Land.


Niebuhr noted that the Calvinist credo that wealth is a sign of God’s providence created an American culture “which makes ‘living standards’ the final norm of the good life…

I think it is important to make this link (vitally important), because when we try to explain US Foreign policy, for example, in their provocative actions towards Russia, bringing NATO ever-closer to their borders, ‘capturing’ Ukraine for the West, and so on, it is hard to believe that these actions are the actions of thinking people. In fact, as Sachs points out, these are the actions of religious fundamentalists. This is the root of US Exceptionalism. Sachs is calling for the US to radically change its Foreign Policy – from fundamentalist-based exceptionalism to internationalism. Clearly, that is a very tall order; though he points to periods in US political history when he thinks that there was a more internationalist approach, for example the US role in building international organisations after WW2.

In this section Sachs also provides data on population and GDP which shows that the US is no longer the world’s sole power. In fact China, in GDP by comparative international price terms, has already outstripped the US. He notes that China is predicted to experience a drop in population, as a share of world population, by 2100 and this will have an effect on its economic status. But, so far, China is clearly rising. In general, Sachs shows that considered as a whole Eurasia is growing in economic importance. Sachs points to China’s Belt and Road initiative as, apparently, an example of a “win-win” approach. This is a programme of investment in logistics and communication across Asia and between Asia and Europe by China. Sachs quotes the Chinese government:

The Belt and Road cooperation features mutual respect and trust, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation, and mutual learning between civilizations.

There are some, probably realists, certainly exceptionalists, who would suggest that Sachs is being rather naive in extolling China as genuinely proceeding on a “win-win” basis. At the very least; they are using the wealth accruing to them from their economic activities to, in true realist style, carry out a massive upgrade of their military capabilities. China is also accused of managing investment projects in an irresponsible way which does not in fact provide a “win” for the local population. (For example; there are complaints of their management of the Greek port of Piraeus. [2])

Sachs takes specific aim at Trump’s America First, (a form of exceptionalism), policies towards China. According to Sachs the problem in US-China economic relations, which leads to poor conditions for workers in the US, is not China’s unfair trade practices (dumping for example, or perhaps acquiring intellectual property by legal coercion or otherwise) but is the result of the fact that the US exports capital-intensive goods to China and imports labour-intensive goods back. In a later section of the book he explains the US’ negative balance of trade with China in terms of a low savings to investment ratio in the US. [p142] The solution, for Sachs, is to continue with the trade relationship but to provide government income support for workers in America. This is “socialist” social engineering. Trump’s plan was more based on trying to reimport jobs which had been outsourced to China back to the US; a market, albeit protectionist, approach. (According to this Reuters report however there is evidence that Trump did not deliver on his rhetoric [3]).

I agree with Sach’s critique of US Exceptionalism. It is very useful to show how this is linked to the founding of America and the religious ideals of the Puritans who started America. I agree that the results of Foreign Policy based on exceptionalism have been a disastrous series of regime change operations, and perhaps, more recently, Trump’s and now Biden’s economic hostility towards China. But I do not think that Sachs has provided a convincing case for the feasibility of internationalism. That is not to say, that we should not have ideals, and not try. But, I think the realist view is a better descriptor. Perhaps a realist approach which seeks to take an internationalist approach where it can is the best way forwards; this means, I think, not in the security sphere. 

Part 2 – America’s Wars

In this section Sachs discusses how US Foreign Policy is orientated towards fighting “wars of choice” for perceived economic advantage. He adds that these wars and regime change operations rarely succeed. The focus has shifted. In the 1950s to 1970s the focus was on South East Asia. In the 1960s to 1980s the focus shifted to South America. Now the US is engaged in the Middle East. Sachs suggests that the US would be wise to withdraw from the Middle East as they did previously from South East Asia and South America. The regime change operations have unfortunate consequences:

The issue is not whether an imperial army can defeat a local one. It usually can, just as the United States did quickly in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The issue is whether it gains anything by doing so. Following such a “victory,” the imperial power faces unending heavy costs in terms of policing, political instability, guerilla war, and terrorist blowback.

The following seems to be incontrovertibly true based on observation: 

Whether the overthrows have succeeded or failed, the long-term consequences have almost always been violence and instability.

One wonders why they keep repeating the same mistake. It could be because they are crazy. Or, because, it doesn’t really matter if the arms industry and military is benefiting and US power is being projected. (These are my comments, not Sach’s).

This section includes a brief summary of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The history of the origins of the conflict are covered. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire Britain took control of Palestine. In 19717 with the Balfour Declaration Britain declared a Jewish homeland in the region. According to Sachs, who seems to have quite an negative view of Great Britain’s role in world history, Britain promised the territory to three different groups; a  sharing arrangement with the French, the Arabs in exchange for a revolt against the Ottoman Empire, and, with the Balfour Declaration, the Jewish people. Sachs traces the roots of the conflict in Palestine/Israel to these contradictory promises. Sachs then turns to the present and discusses the viability of the two-state solution or the reinvigorated idea of a single state guaranteeing the rights of both sides. 

This book was written during the Presidency of Donald Trump and a great deal of time is spent criticising Trump. Not surprisingly, Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel came in for strong criticism. On North Korea Sachs seems to believe that Trump was actually contemplating a nuclear first strike. He also (with justification) berates Trump for his lack of understanding of the problems of Global Warming and his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (Paris Climate Accord). While this chapter is titled “North Korea and the Doomsday clock” it could be called “Trump is a danger to the world”. Sachs shares the characteristic progressive-liberal image of Trump as unstable, impulsive, stupid and dangerous. Sachs hopes he can be reined in by the courts. One problem with this is that by appearing to focus on Trump Sachs may distract from his own criticisms of US Foreign Policy. Trump is not the problem. Sachs knows this: 

Yet if ever a historic opportunity for safety was squandered, this was it. Every U.S. president since then—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—has contributed to a decline of global safety, with the minute hand moving from seventeen minutes before midnight to just three minutes before midnight last year, even before Donald Trump became president.

But, the space given to Trump in particular, slightly distracts from the problem – which perhaps lies deep in the heart of the State Department and corporate America, perhaps even amongst ordinary Americans too. In Chapter 9 Sachs discusses Trump’s new national security strategy. He criticises it for its adversarial and combative tone. He laments that it does not take a more cooperative approach. But, from a realist point of view, this simply reflects an expected reaction of a Great Power facing renewed competition – from China in particular. It is, in the realist perspective, entirely natural for the US to be concerned to maintain its predominance. We have already discussed the view of John Mearsheimer that international cooperation might work in some areas – such as Climate Change, where all sides can benefit from an agreement, but will not work as a model in the realm of security. Realists would say that Sachs is being naive here in thinking that the US and China can simply cooperate openly in a friendly way on all questions. Sachs quotes Chinese President Xi in 2017:

The dream of the Chinese people is closely connected with the dreams of the peoples of other countries; the Chinese Dream can be realised only in a peaceful international environment and under a stable international order. We must keep in mind both our internal and international imperatives, stay on the path of peaceful development, and continue to pursue a mutually beneficial strategy of opening up. We will uphold justice while pursuing shared interests, and will foster new thinking on common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security. We will pursue open, innovative, and inclusive development that benefits everyone; boost cross-cultural exchanges characterised by harmony within diversity, inclusiveness, and mutual learning; and cultivate ecosystems based on respect for nature and green development.

I am afraid that if he takes this at face value that is being rather naive. There is a way of Chinese diplomacy and such cooperative and friendly language has a formal place in it. It may well not correspond to actual actions. The idea that China is really “rejecting balance of power politics” is extraordinarily naive. On the contrary they are developing their military to gain parity with the US and seeking to draw level in technology with the US – including by acquiring Intellectual Property by various manipulative means. (Requiring foreign investors to share technology, infiltrating Western academia, and no doubt direct reverse engineering). They are in violation of international law in the South China Sea and regularly threaten to take or, from their point of view, reincorporate, Taiwan by force. 

Sachs criticises the US for not abiding by the spirit of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty:

The next big military price tag will be the upgrading of America’s nuclear triad (land, air, and submarine). All signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including the United States, are obligated under Article VI to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

But, surely, the same criticism applies to China and North Korea, both of whom are busy developing their nuclear weapons capacity? All this supports, if not proves, John Mearsheimer’s realism over Sachs’ “we should all just get along” philosophy. Without an international policeman all countries understand that security lies in being as powerful as possible. It is inevitable that China will seek to develop its military capacity and equally inevitable that the US will seek to stay one step ahead. Of course, both sides can recognize that both will suffer from an unbridled arms race and logic may lead to arms control agreements; but the underlying tendency to need to be the most powerful player remains the principal driver. It isn’t clear how Sachs believes what he calls the “Security dilemma” – the tendency for defensive moves by one side to be seen as threatening by the other can be resolved in such a way as we can all live without arms. 

Part 3 – Foreign Economic Statecraft 

Sachs continues his anti-Trump theme in discussing recent US economic policy. He explains that the US’s trade deficit with China, a major theme of Trump, is not, as Trump asserts a result of unfair trade practices, such as dumping, by China, but is, instead, the result of internal economic dynamics of the US, if I understand correctly too much spending and not enough saving relative to investment. Of course, both explanations could be true.

A major theme of Trump’s campaign for the 2016 Presidency was that of bringing off-shored jobs home. Sachs criticises this as protectionism and argues instead that the US should continue to allow jobs to be exported but use the fruits of free trade to subsidise incomes of poorer people back home. What I find frustrating about this section of the book is that Sachs presents his arguments as incontrovertibly true and contrasts them with impulsive Trump’s obviously short-sighted ones. In fact Sachs is firmly in the camp of progressive-liberalism and believes heavily in state intervention in the lives of ordinary people and in state social security programmes. He is on one-side of a debate which is not just about economics but also about ideology. It could be that, objectively speaking, in economic terms the argument he makes – to allow comparative advantage to take its course and then use public funds to subsidise those who have lost out, will lead to higher incomes than the alternative; forcing or incentivising companies to bring jobs home. But it is not simply about incomes. Part of Trump’s appeal on this issue is probably that he understands that it is not just about money, but about dignity and pride. In fact, it has to be said, based on some very limited research I did, it may be that Trump did not in fact succeed in reversing the trend by US firms to offshore jobs to any significant extent. [4] Probably, then, it was more about the rhetoric. Sachs criticises the basis for Trump’s thinking, arguing that manufacturing jobs have been falling anyway, due to technological advances; the question of off-shoring is secondary.

Sachs criticises Donald Trump’s large cut in corporation tax, from 35% to 21%. It is clear that Sachs is in the tax-and-spend camp and is affronted by tax cuts to wealthy corporations. He assumes that he is right:

The estimated direct revenue loss plus higher interest payments on the public debt are likely to raise the overall budget deficit by nearly 1 percent of GDP per year during the decade 2018–2027, with the tax savings accruing overwhelmingly to the rich.

However, at this point we have to say that economics is not an exact science. It deals with real-world data with multiple variables. Cause and effect is not always easy to discern. Economics is more like meteorology than physics. With respect to the argument about the effect of tax cuts I quickly found two sources; one deriding them and supporting Sachs’ view that they led to a loss of state revenue. The other supportive and arguing that they will lead to an overall increase in government revenue. We can note that the first source [5] is from a ‘left-wing’ think tank and the second [6] is from a ‘conservative’ think-tank. You cannot separate off economics from ideology and questions of value, matters which are, in the last analysis, a question of taste. The progressive institute looks at data for the year following the cuts in 2017 and shows that actual government revenue was lower than what the projection was prior to the tax-cuts, which, they argue, shows that the tax cuts led to a reduction in government revenue. The Conservative think-tank, which is in favour of the tax cuts, also uses the same basis; comparison with a projection before the tax-cuts and, in this case, with a new projection made in 2022. This comparison shows that the tax cuts overall are projected to lead to greater government revenues. Both approaches can be criticised of course for making certain assumptions e.g. about the accuracy of the projections and the attribution of cause to the tax cuts and not other factors. The Conservative think-tank has the advantage of a much longer time-span. In general we would not expect to see an immediate result from tax cuts in terms of investment and growth the very next year. To be fair, though, the left-wing think-tank does try to analyse the figures to show that the projections were probably accurate based on figures for income tax. Sachs claims that the tax cuts are likely to lead to an increase in the budget deficit over the period 2018-2017. The Conservative think-tank reports, in 2022, 4 years after Sachs’ book was published, that the Congressional Budget Office has revised its projections and projects in the decade 2018-2027 there will be an overall real terms increase in tax revenues. This figure is not directly comparable to Sachs’ because his figure also includes spending projections. All this proves two points. Firstly, economics is not an exact science and it is often possible by selecting this set of figures rather than that to argue the opposite of what someone else is arguing. And secondly, that the motive for doing that is likely to be political persuasion. My sole point is that readers of Sachs’ book should be aware that the economic case he is making in this section against corporate tax cuts is nothing like the incontestable series of facts he would like to have us believe. His views reflect his socialist political allegiance. 

While Trump was firmly in a Republican tradition of small government Sachs is on the other side. He wants to tax and spend:

A key policy step would be to boost national saving by increasing taxes on capital income, carbon emissions, and consumption spending in order to boost public-sector saving and investment in infrastructure, skills, and technology. 

Sachs misleadingly, no doubt driven by his ideology, equates Trump’s cut to corporate tax rates with the practice in some countries e.g. Venezuela of the President raiding government budgets to give hand-outs to his supporters – an obvious short-term practice which will indeed lead to economic crisis, (as usually happens when the UK’s Labour Party gets into government). Tax cuts are not a short-term project, in fact, just the opposite. Taking less of peoples’ money is not, as Sachs says, stealing it, for example, from future generations. Large government debt may be doing that but that is not directly linked to tax cuts in the way that Sachs asserts, or, at least, the link is contestable.

Sachs does take aim at America’s current account deficit (approximately equal to the balance of payments). He says that Trump has not understood the actual reason for this; that the US has a low savings to investment ratio. (If I understand it correctly, the idea is that if savings were higher for the same amount of investment there would be less domestic consumption and therefore more would be exported. The IMF provides an explanation of these themes: [7]). Because Trump has not understood the actual reason for the US’s current account deficit and because he wrongly attributes it to Chinese bad trade practices, Trump’s policies, increasing protectionism, will make matters worse. Increasing protectionist measures will not lead to the needed increase in saving. 

There is no doubt – Sachs is wildly naive about China. Consider: 

While there’s room to be concerned about China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, so far those maritime claims seem mainly designed to secure China’s trade routes rather than to impede the neighbouring countries.


Working through the United Nations, China and the United States can and should work together and with other countries to prevent or end regional wars, stop terrorism, and confront common hazards such as global warming and newly emerging diseases.

A huge and surprising omission is any discussion of Taiwan. I searched the book for ‘Taiwan’ and found three references. One is in a list of Asian Tiger countries which grew in the 1970s. The other two references are in the notes where it is written: “Taiwan (province of China)”. In reality China repeatedly threatens to attack Taiwan. Taiwan is, apart from any other considerations, a hub for semiconductor production. The US has a critical national interest in Taiwan continuing to be independent of China. These are the kinds of realities which John Mearsheimer understands are critical and problematic and which Sachs either doesn’t even mention or when he does, as in the case of the South China Sea where China is in violation of an international court ruling (so much for international cooperation), waves away.

I am in danger of sounding “Anti-China”. I am not; I just think that a realist assessment of International Relations more accurately describes reality and thus is a better basis for policy than this rather idealistic “we could all get along if we tried” view. But this is really going a bit far:

The losses from Trump’s antiscience approach will be global, not America’s alone. Scientists and engineers from the United States, the European Union, China, India, and other countries should be working together to find technical breakthroughs in areas such as low-carbon energy systems, infectious disease control, and global food security.

The idea that the US and China should be working together on infectious disease control is perhaps not a good one since, it is almost certain, that the Covid-19 global pandemic emerged precisely from a US funded Chinese executed research project in Wuhan China. Sach’s book was published before the pandemic. I hope he has revised his view or at least considered what safeguards might be appropriate. Note that the US too conducts, in the US, the type of dangerous and useless research that was being carried on in Wuhan and which, almost certainly, led to the pandemic. 

Sachs argues for scientific-technical collaboration with China and cites various international scientific projects, such as CERN and the International Space Station as examples of successful international scientific collaboration. The issue, of course, is that in these cases (even Russia) the US is not facing a peer-rival who has military designs on a key US partner – Taiwan. The US and China could very well be in military confrontation in ten years time and caution in the field of technology transfer does not seem misplaced. The Chinese are more than capable of benefiting from partnerships but ultimately doing whatever they want militarily in their national interests. 

Sachs explains that US technological growth since WW2 has depended on a partnership between government, industry and academia, which is now under threat because:

Trump and his cronies have their eyes narrowly and obsessively fixed on two goals: deregulation and tax cuts, both of which work against long-term innovation.

It has to be said that most of the agencies which Sachs lists as examples of government involvement in funding research appear to be either military or space related. Space research is, of course, directly related to ballistic missiles and now, satellite defence systems. It is not surprising that after WW2 the government became heavily involved in these areas. Against Sach’s idea that innovation depends on heavy public investment we could point to the new wave of space missions which are funded by private companies, SpaceX and others. Though, of course, these industries rely on the government purchasing their rocket launches.

Sachs contrasts Trump’s reduction in some government R&D spending with China’s state led drive to advance technology. It is clear that Sachs prefers the state led model.  

In the final chapter in this section Sachs discusses regional groupings. He cites the benefits of neighbouring countries cooperating in terms of energy and trade. He gives the example of the EU as the prime example. He suggests possible regional collaboration nexuses: Japan, South Korea and China, and, again, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Sachs does have a coherent vision; he understands that for this to happen the Great Powers (the US in particular) would have to withdraw from meddling in these regions and allow local solutions to emerge. The argument is quite strong; for example, as he discusses in his section on America’s Wars, US military involvement in the Middle East has not led to the results that the US hoped for, namely compliant and subservient regimes, but it has led to blow-back in the form of terrorism, and instability which benefits no one. This summaries Sachs’ views:

In place of dead-end nationalism and warmongering exceptionalism, we should be strengthening regional groupings such as NAFTA, the European Union, the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and cooperation in northeast Asia among China, Japan, and South Korea. In every part of the world, sustainable development will depend on such regional cooperation. Yet such cooperation means moving beyond the conventional assumptions of balance-of-power politics, in which Saudi Arabia “must” compete with Iran, Japan with China, India with Pakistan, and so on. If these neighbours would cooperate rather than compete, they would strengthen their own nations, enhance the region’s security, and contribute markedly to building global peace.

I think if we presented this to the realist John Mearsheimer he would probably sigh and just say that this is a nice dream but the dynamics of nation states existing in a world with no overall policeman are such that there will always be a military-security competition between them; that “the assumptions of balance of power politics” are not so much assumptions as absolutely baked-in realities. 

Sachs’ vision is one of a high-level of state involvement in society and the economy, with state planning, high taxes and high spending on investment, education and redistributive income support. It is a vision of technological solutions, including, apparently, GMO (he does not say so explicitly but mentions genomics and high-productivity agriculture in the same sentence, so probably) and high-tech solutions to global warming, and “personalised medicine”, which latter sounds great but could also mean customised genetic tailoring of babies. He sees a world of regional groupings coordinating with each other via the UN. It is not clear where he sees the US fitting into this system, if at all, but perhaps as one regional grouping together with Canada and Mexico. I may be wrong but I think this package is sometimes called the “Green New Deal”. As I have already mentioned, ultimately, questions of how to run society cannot be decided purely on the basis of economics. There are questions of value or taste here and no one can say conclusively which vision is “right”. As Nietzsche said: “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” [8] 

Part 4 – Renewing American Diplomacy 

Sachs contrasts what he sees as the positive and engaged role which the US played in international affairs in the decades immediately following WW2 when they were involved in setting up international institutions such as the UN, IMF and World Bank, with the more destructive role they have played in subsequent decades. He sees the abandonment of the gold-standard for the US dollar in 1971 as something of a turning point. Since the 1970s the US has been on the one hand more isolationist and, on the other, still engaged in world affairs, but now more likely to seek to impose its will unilaterally through military means:

The United States turned from “soft” power to “hard” power after 1991, especially since the Soviet Union was no longer present as a military counterweight (or so the United States thought, until Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015).

Sachs discusses how in the 1970s the US resisted calls by the developing world for a “fairer” system of trade (one which would have given their commodity exports a higher price than market conditions alone was likely to set). In a wider perspective the US, Sachs notes, has been reluctant to sign or willing to sign but then reluctant to ratify multiple UN Treaties since 1970. 

Sachs notes that the Trump administration (2017-2021) was particularly negative towards the UN and reduced US funding of this organisation. In Sachs’ telling, Trump’s exceptionalism is the worst example of a trend which started before Trump. 

This section contains a long pean in favour of international aid. Sachs is, after all, a development economist, so this is perhaps hardly surprising. Interestingly Sachs firmly locates his own views on this matter to his religious beliefs;

My own support for foreign assistance is based on morality. “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” we are told in the book of Deuteronomy. Those who fail to help the poor cast themselves outside of the moral community. “For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me,” warns Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.

Later, he cites the Old Testament prophets, who were, generally speaking, strong advocates of social justice. There is something messianic about this. Sachs clearly feels sympathetic to the view of the Old Testament prophets that if a people do not practise social justice then this will lead to a bad fate for the country. Sachs of course distinguishes between different types of foreign aid. He argues that foreign aid which is aimed at developing social, health, educational and agricultural capital and infrastructure in developing countries is; a moral duty, very cost-effective, and beneficial to the US in that it will likely lead to a positive return. He contrasts aid with military interventions which lead, inevitably, to terrorist blow-back. When Sachs talks about the relative low-cost of foreign aid one can’t help but think of the billions the US is currently pouring into arming (or weaponizing?) Ukraine; the administration seems to find spending large sums on arms comes more easily than spending large, or even relatively small, sums on aid. 

Sachs discusses Trumps “anti-Muslim” agenda. He is highly critical of Trump’s attempts (partly successful) to control immigration from certain “Muslim-majority” countries. (The “Muslim-majority” characterisation is added by critics of the law who, like Sachs, see the policy as primarily motivated by racism). 

In discussing migration Sachs highlights the links between the destabilising effect of US military interventions, especially in the Middle East and migration. He also points out the indisputable truth that any long-term solution to migration is going to have to involve “promoting economic development” in the countries from which economic migrants come, so they no longer wish to leave their countries. This, as I am sure Sachs realises, will require an absolute upheaval and change of direction in the world economic system. He is in favour of a “manageable” migration policy. I also agree with Sachs, at least partly, that the opioid crisis in the US is not purely the result of supply from South America, but also reflects social inequalities and “desperation” within the US. 

Sachs, to his credit, is not simply a Democrat expressing a partisan knee-jerk reaction against Trump. He discusses how both main political parties in the US would rather not discuss social inequality:

(In a perverse way, the elites of both political parties have tended to favour distinctive brands of identity politics over class politics to divert attention from the massive inequalities of income and wealth in American society.)

Sachs makes a case for sustainable development. He references the UN Social Development Goals (SDGs) agreed in 2015 and known collectively as Agenda 2030. He argues for a large-scale global redistribution of wealth. He eyes the extreme wealth of the world’s top two thousand and argues that the interest alone on their wealth could end poverty and ensure universal health coverage. He makes the well-known socialist argument that the planet has enough resources to make sure that no one needs to live in poverty or without basic services. (One assumes he really means that everyone should be able to live “the good life”). He does not address the counter-argument; that there is only so much wealth around because of competition. Were competition to be replaced with a redistributive mindset and policy, less wealth would be generated and thus there would be less to share. This is the basic unrealism of socialists; they do not understand that the engine for extreme wealth is necessarily not redistributive. You cannot have both. If we have world socialism people may be more equal but there will be less overall wealth to go round. Sachs, as an economist, must be familiar with this argument. He does not address it here and this means that his suggestions for how the world should develop lack credibility. As presented in this book they seem little more than a wishlist. For example: 

First, let us insist that the major companies, especially the fossil-fuel industries, align their business activities with the SDGs.

This requires that either these businesses be nationalised and run for social benefit, or that they be extensively regulated. This is, as we have noted above, an immense political challenge. There is also the criticism that regulation of business will reduce profits and at the end you will have killed the goose that feeds you; you may achieve regulation but there will be much less left to distribute. Sachs’ book lacks a critical discussion around these points. He does at one point suggest that consumer led campaigns could influence big companies, but he does little to develop this idea.

Sachs ends his book with a plea for a significant change in US Foreign Policy. In place of exceptionalism, militarism and CIA covert operations he asks the US to recommit to the principles of international cooperation and sustainable development. 


In many ways I was disappointed by this book. I was attracted to Mearsheimer’s realist analysis which puts most of the blame for the Ukraine war on the US for trying to push Ukraine into NATO, either not understanding, or not wanting to understand, how that would be seen in Moscow, where they at least consider themselves a “Great Power”. Sachs is against the war for completely different reasons. He sees it, as far as I can see, as another example of the US prioritising military solutions over cooperation and diplomacy. Indeed the main theme of this book is a call for the US to shift from an exceptional and militaristic foreign policy to one based on international cooperation.

From Mearsheimer’s point of view Sachs is being unrealistic in his Foreign Policy recommendations. From Sachs’ point of view Mearsheimer’s realism lacks a “normative” component; that is he doesn’t try to make the world a better place than it is. My own view is that Sach’s has not overthrown Mearsheimer’s pessimistic analysis that in the field of international relations the lack of an effective central enforcer, (the role played by the state and the police within countries), means that each nation state is bound to strive to be as powerful as they can so as to guarantee their security against a rival whose intentions can never be known in advance. 

Sachs’ unrealism comes out also, for this critic, especially strongly in his treatment of world economics. Yes; it would be wonderful if big companies, billionaires, and governments diverted a lot more money to foreign aid – investment in education, social and health programmes and agriculture in developing nations. Capitalism is pretty ugly. But, beyond mentioning a moral (religious) case for this, Sachs does not offer any concrete transition path. How is the world to move from capitalism to socialism? If it does, will this not harm wealth-creation? How will large companies which are duty-bound by the logic of the stock-market be persuaded to do things which will lead to less profit for shareholders? Will increasing corporation tax and using the revenue to reduce inequality at home and abroad really lead to the positive outcomes that Sachs believes? 

In his book The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities Mearsheimer discusses what he sees as two sides of liberal ideology. He contrasts progressive liberals with laissez-faire liberals. The former believe that society can be made a better place by the active involvement of the state in social engineering, for example through redistribution of income. The latter believe that the role of the state should be primarily to guarantee the rights of the individual but beyond that the state should not become involved in society. Mearsheimer discusses how it is a tenet of liberalism that no single true answer can be given to the question “how to live”. Thus there is no rational basis for preferring the modus operandi of progressive liberals over that of laissez-faire liberals. It is, essentially, a matter of taste. Sachs is firmly in the camp of progressive liberals.

Sachs appears incredibly naive about China. He says that it would be great if the US could just cooperate with China which is genuinely committed to internationalism and win-win solutions. This is the China who is currently massively building up its military capacity to be able to be on a par, at least, with the US and which is flexing its muscles in the South China seas, ignoring one of Sachs’ international institutions (The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague) in the process, and also threatening military force against Taiwan. All of this behaviour is not wrong at all; it is just that it seems to fit much more closely with John Mearsheimer’s realistic analysis and expectations of how Great Powers behave, than Sach’s morality based call for international cooperation and social justice. 

Having said that I find Sachs naive on several major points there is a great deal in this book which is useful. There is a quick, but quite convincing, recap of the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There is a quick summary of America’s history of military interventions all over the world, usually intended to achieve some economic or political benefit for the US but usually culminating in total disaster. I agree with a lot of his analysis of the roots of the US malaise. For example, I agree, partly, with this assessment of the 2003 Iraq war:

We recall that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, many Americans, including the Bush White House, were uninterested as to whether Saddam Hussein had been part of 9/11. Trauma was trauma, and the United States needed to respond with war, against somebody.

However; i would also suggest that realist logic played a part too. After 9/11 the decision makers had to consider the possibility that Saddam Hussein could give chemical or biological weapons to Al-Qaeda. And the only certain way to prevent this hypothetical was a first-strike. 

I also find it interesting how Sachs links America’s exceptionalism to its founding by religious zealots. He links this to a belief in the value of material prosperity:

America’s strength became the proof of its divine mission in the world. In this, the Protestant settlers of New England followed the teachings of John Calvin: “There is no question that riches should be the portion of the godly rather than the wicked, for godliness hath the promise in this life as well as the life to come.”

I would agree. One of the most dangerous features of American thinking as it applies to Foreign Policy is a fundamentalist belief (which is akin to the thinking of religious zealotry) which has somehow migrated from being about God and a moral life to being about success and money. Many Americans seem to believe in the American Way as a kind of absolute. A given, which is simply right, and does not need to justify itself by reason or be open to other points of view and belief systems. Again, though, Sachs’ book would be stronger if he proposed how he was going to counter this.

There is a lot of criticism of Donald Trump in the book. But Sachs is not particularly party political and he acknowledges that both the two political parties in the US avoid facing systemic issues of class and social economic inequality. 

All in all, I would recommend this book, especially for those who are interested in familiarising themselves with the thinking of international development. But, it needs to be taken critically. 


1. Mearsheimer, John J.. The Great Delusion (The Henry L. Stimson Lectures Series) (p. 220). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.  

2. – Inteestingly, Chinese controlled media sings the praises of this project: 


4. For example: 




8. (I have found the quote on the Internet, sourced to Thus Spake Zarathrustra, but I have not confirmed it. It sounds like something Nietzsche would have said). 

Sachs, Jeffrey D.. A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism. Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition. 2018