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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2013
Joseph Nye is a outstanding historian who has brought some fundamental insights to the field. I bought this book after listening to a talk he gave that mentioned "what if" (counter-factual) analyses as a way to get insight into the importance of Presidents and leadership style. I find counter-factual thought experiments very intriguing.

Unfortunately, I was very disappointed with the book. Nye makes a number of intriguing claims about leadership style -- for instance, that what he calls "transactional" leaders (Truman, Eisenhower) tend to be more effective and more ethical than inspirational ones (Reagan, FDR). He may be right, but his analysis is not sound or convincing.

The key reason I find it unconvincing is that he selects a specific subset of Presidents to examine. He only looks at the 8 of the 17 20th century presidents who presided over the "expansion of American primacy". So, he is taking a very biased sample excluding the least successful presidents. This is a major methodological flaw. If the presidents he excluded are mostly transactional, then the record, viewed as a whole, would point in the opposite direction of his claim. I think this may well be the case because from my, much less knowledgable, perspective I think he would deem all except Kennedy and maybe Carter as transactional. If, on the other hand, most were "inspirational" then his case is strengthened. I don't know and I wish Prof. Nye had addressed this. I realize that the book was originally a lecture series. Perhaps that format did not allow for more thorough analysis but in any case it could have been included in the book.

What's more, how can you analyze the importance of style while excluding Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson. The extensive chapter on ethics has barely a passing mention of Richard Nixon.

I was also disappointed that the "what if" section was brief (about 8% of the book) and superficial

I gave the book 3 stars because he asks fascinating and important questions. He also makes some very interesting points. I just wish he had supported them with more thorough analysis.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 8, 2013
Nye discusses American presidents of the last 100 plus years and their approaches to, primarily, foreign affairs but also, to a lesser extent, domestic matters. His two major formulations of leadership, transformative and transactional (by which he means reactive rather than in response to an overarching purpose) are useful but he has to go to modifying ideas to flesh these categories out. Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt don't get high marks from Nye. Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush do. Wilson's concepts for peace and his stubbornness helped lead to the damaging isolationism of the 1930s, but, conversely, helped clear the way for the American enthusiasm for the founding of the UN. Eisenhower's practical approach, deep knowledge of foreign affairs and full understanding of the devastation of war, kept us from using nuclear power in the Cold War.

My one criticism, and it is not really a criticism since these were lectures, is that his concepts need a fuller exposition. i suspect they are really a major book in the making.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2013
The American president has played a critical role in US foreign policy over the past century. Professor Nye illustrates this salient point in a series of lectures that are available in a concise book format. Nye is not writing a history. Rather, selecting eight presidents, Nye leads the reader to better understand the importance of the presidency and of decisions not taken as well as those taken.
His knowledge of the intersection between policy and personality is unrivaled.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 21, 2013
Not quite a book, this. It's a couple lectures, supported by examples gleaned from American presidential history. Joseph Nye sets up two separate but related series of questions and is not shy about suggesting some answers.

He starts off by putting together a two-by-two table defining the objectives and the styles of leadership.

On one axis, a leader can have transformational objectives or merely incremental objectives. So, for example, George W Bush wanted to bring western style democracy to the Middle East. His dad, on the other hand, George H W Bush, only really wanted to make sure there was some type of workable peace in the Middle East. The former would have been a transformation, the latter merely a laudable goal. Progress, rather than transformation.

On the other axis a leader's style can be inspirational or transactional. An inspirational leader will talk you into following him. A transactional leader will bribe or coerce you. Ronald Reagan talked a big game when it came to fighting the Evil Empire, while Ike Eisenhower (an ethical man and the most adept cold war president) got his hands dirty in a million different ways, all while getting the basics right: doing his level best to avoid offending the Soviet Union and containing his trigger happy generals who wanted to use the nuclear arsenal.

Nye reviews the styles of the eight US presidents who led the nation during the transition from the pre World War I balance of powers to today's US primacy. What is remarkable, of course, is that US GDP as a percent of world GDP is no different today than it was 110 years ago when the journey to primacy started. Nye classifies the various types of power used by the presidents ("soft," "hard" and "smart," if you must ask) and sees how that fits in with the two axes of leadership that wielded the power (transformational vs incremental objectives and inspirational vs. transactional style)

He ends up deciding that transactional style and incremental objectives had a bigger effect in bringing the US to its current status than transformational objectives and inspirational style. And he repeats a number of times that a good transactional/incremental leader will have the mindset and the processes in place to jump onto opportunities to go transformational. The Japanese gifted FDR Pearl Harbour, but he was prepared to seize the opportunity.

Next, Nye tackles the role of ethics.

The way he sees it, ethics operate at three levels: intentions, means and results.

The president can bring an ethical set of goals and objectives to the office. Wilson, for example, was a God-fearing man who saw it as America's role in history, and his in particular, to defend and expand democracy and human rights.

The president can be 100% ethical in the means he employs (George H W Bush would not budge on the Iraq affair without UN approval and support from the Arab nations) or he can be more practical (Eisenhower did not get in the way of the CIA when it got rid of governments in Latin America and Iran), unethically lazy (George W Bush allowed amateurs to run the jails in Abu Gharaib) or have a total blind spot to unethical means being used, like Teddy Roosevelt did in the Philippines. This can happen all while ethical final goals are pursued. The process can range from 100% ethical to very messy. The biggest elephant in this particular room is Hiroshima and Nagasaki, obviously. Truman claimed never to have lost any sleep over them.

Finally, ethical goals and means mean nothing if the result is wrong. No point in losing cleanly to Hitler. Which kind of absolves FDR's various tricks and outright lies when trying to get the US involved in WWII.

Nye wraps up this chapter exactly like the first one. He comes down in favor of the presidents who delivered the goods.

And he declares George Herbert Walker Bush his favorite president, pretty much.

Cost him a star.
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on March 4, 2014
Nye's presentation is spot on. He correctly judges the move of hte office of President from an equal partnership with the legislative and judicial branches to a position of leadership that rises above the other branches. Unfortunately this move brings a stain of incredibility to the Founders plans for this executive office.
The office holders he highlights show their disregard for the Constitutional charges and the foundation laid down by their predecessors from Washington to McKinley. The 20th and 21st century Presidents have stretched and exceeded the boundries established by Constitutional limits. Congress has allowed this to occur with only token opposition, and only then when the other party holds the office. Judicial activity has only emboldened these men due to rulings allowing their expansion of power.
Nye correctly presents the apparent need for a singular, recognized head of state, but he also shows why the Founders established guidelines for each branch to maintain a balance and curb too much power in the hands of one branch. He shows how that has given rise to the "America Era" and how the imbalance in leadership can lead to a mighty fall, or leaders who have no restraints on their desire for absolute power.
This book would appeal to those desiring a knowledge of where we are headed in Presidential power and how it can be curbed or reduced to allow the exceptionalism of America to remain. It will also appeal to those who see in some of our past and present Commanders-in-Chief a blatant exercise of overreach and dimming of America in power, strength and prestige. Mr.Nye's insight correctly forsaw the recent comment of Secretary of Defense Hagel concerning America's day of dominence being taken for granted is over.
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on August 20, 2013
A must read for anyone concerned about the role of U. S. presidents in the "American era" and beyond (the primus inter pares period into which we have already entered).

This is the most insightful brief book on American presidents that I have ever read. Focusing on presidents affecting the "American era," Professor Nye, drawing on his extraordinary historical and contemporary knowledge of presidents, shrewdly assesses the relative foreign affairs success of "transformative" as contrasted with "transactional" presidents. His conclusions remind me of Aesop's Fables regarding the tortoise and the hare.

Nye ranks transactional presidents, such as Truman, Eisenhower, and George H. W. Bush, more effective, in many categories, than such high-profile presidents as Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Reagan. His carefully constructed analysis provides uncommon insights into many of the 20th century U. S. presidents. One may personally object to his commentary on individual presidents. I suggest that you might re-examine your own preconceptions against the criteria set forth by Professor Nye.

I found Nye's chapter on "Ethics and Good Foreign Policy Leadership" the most challenging. Similar issues are discussed in Thomas Cronin's and Michael Genovese's THE PARADOXES OF THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY. I am reminded of a quote ascribed to FDR by Thomas Corcoran: "Great men cannot be good men." How is personal morality linked to how a president should act? Is 'lying' ever an appropriate presidential posture? To what degree must a president appear to be moral and ethical?

This is an ongoing debate as evidenced by the discussion of killing people with drones and the targeting of U. S. citizens abroad. I recommend that everyone, seasoned professionals and concerned citizens, reflect on Professor Nye's shrewd insights, as they wrestle with such moral matters.

Nye focuses both on the "American era" and the three-dimensional 21st century world. President Obama and his successors should read and then re-read Professional Nye's classic treatise.
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on August 20, 2013
The significant role and influence on the global community of the United States in the 20th century is undeniable. During this era, the U.S. rose to primacy, quickly surpassing past empires while eventually eclipsing and outlasting the Soviet empire. In the 21st century, where some see a decline, others, including Joseph Nye, see a resurrection, or a rise of the rest that ultimately lessens somewhat, the dominance of a single nation. What led and sustained this dominance in the prior century? Putting aside geographical, industrial and technological explanations, Nye considers the role a U.S. president had in shaping the outcome and pondering what may have been given a plausible alternative. Examining how the commander-in-chief fared in goals, means and results, Nye examines a handful of traits that help show the relative success of each leader. Framing the question broadly in the area of morals and the net change in human flourishing, both for U.S. citizens and the world community, Nye finds presidents Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush compare favorably as careful, "transactional" presidents to "transformational" presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan who he gives more mixed reviews.

In Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era, Joseph Nye provides a perspective on how to interpret and judge the success of 20th century presidents. In this brief book, Nye first identifies what periods marked major transformations of the nation's role in the world, which helps select the leaders to examine. Nye also prepares the reader with the major themes to be examined in a president's term. Here, Nye reads kind of like many of the management fad books, but for political leadership. The ideas here I found somewhat strained and flimsy, but once into the heart of the matter, where Nye begins explaining his reasoning for the presidents he examines and how they fared in his view, things get more interesting. Part history, part speculation and part analysis, you are taken quickly through the role of presidential power and how it was yielded by many of the 20th century presidents on the world stage.

This quick read many should find enjoyable for seeking Nye's interpretation of U.S. leadership in the 20th century. It may seem surprising to find who Nye highlights, considers favorably in hindsight and those that are largely left out (hint: perhaps surprisingly Kennedy and Johnson both have very minor roles here). It may not be Nye's best book, but Nye is one of those writers who are often worth reading and this short book is no exception.
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on March 13, 2014
I regard this as a good book rather than an exciting one. It is I think a niche book, by an academic and principally for academics. Its scope is carefully delineated, its terms carefully defined and its message utterly non-partisan. Its division of presidential styles into the 'Inspirational' and 'Incremental' was useful for the purposes of analysis but weakened its relationship to reality. The author's use of a more inclusive scorecard returned some of that strength. I would recommend it to students of politics. Anyone interested by the title would probably find it a useful read.
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on April 21, 2014
Nye lays out his theory on transformational vs. transactional leaders, and uses 8 different presidents to discuss the application of this idea. I thought the book brought up a lot of interesting points, and also enjoyed the discussion of how these theories might be applied as we move through the next century.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2013
Any attempt to polarize very complicated issues is fraught. However, I found it a shallow analysis and not serious history, having lived through a great many of the years the book covered. I sent it on to my historian daughter for her take.
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