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Review of “Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World” by Robert Gates


Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World by Robert Gates is a book that I didn’t particularly want to read. Robert Gates was, to me, the epitome of the self-serving and self-important D.C. establishment. But, as my Grandpa had recommended I read the book and his past suggestions, such as Reminiscences by Douglas MacArthur and Memoirs by Ulysses Grant, were reasonably good, I decided to give it a try.

While Exercise of Power is by no means excellent, it is reasonably good and made me slightly less critical of Gates. That might be justified, or it might just be a result of his penchant for self-promotion and “recognition” that he was always right. As my grandpa put it, “it’s surprising how often everyone [other than Gates] was wrong.”

But, in any case, it is an interesting read that will teach you about the levers of American power, how it has deployed that power in the past, and why we have been mostly unsuccessful in our battles and messaging around the world.

Summary of Exercise of Power by Robert Gates

Gates begins Exercise of Power by discussing the levers of power available to America in international battles, disputes, and competitions for influence. He describes that “symphony of power” as being composed of military power, diplomacy and diplomatic influence, economic power and leverage, cyber capabilities, development assistance, strategic communications, intelligence, alliances, science and technology, culture, ideology, the private sector, religion, nationalism, and wise and courageous leadership.

The simple definitions of each are as follows. Military power is our ability to enforce our will through the use of military assets and force; our ability to do enough bombing to get what we want. Diplomacy is our ability to either convince or threaten foreign nations to get what we want. Economic power is access to our economy and economic system. Cyber capabilities are our ability to hack other nation’s online systems and protect our own. Development assistance is the aid we give or loan other nations to help them develop their own infrastructure, economies, etc.

Strategic communications can be thought of as propaganda and advertising; they are our ability to positively highlight what we are doing and what America stands for. Intelligence is the information we have on our enemies. Alliances are the military pacts we have with other nations. Science and technology are prestige and advantage derived from being ahead in scientific advances and new technology. The private sector is the strength of our businesses. Religion and nationalism are self-explanatory. Finally, wise and courageous leadership is the ability of our leaders to do what is best and what they should do, even if it is difficult or would lead to suffering and struggle.

After defining those types of power, Gates spends most of the rest of Exercise of Power describing how America has used that power. He charts the course of our involvement in Africa, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, North Korea, and the Balkans and describes our competitions with Russia and China.

Each of those chapters in Exercise of Power are mainly historical. While Gates’ viewpoints on the issues do shine through, much of the information in them is rooted in fact rather than opinion and describes, in a brief but holistic manner, what levers of power America attempted to use and why we succeeded or failed. Most of the time we failed.

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Finally, the last portion of Exercise of Power is on the lessons learned by those interventions and competitions. Gates’ view is that America has placed far too much emphasis on military power and economic sanctions while ignoring types of power that might be more effective, such as strategic communications and cyber warfare. He also is of the opinion that America needs to take the Chinese threat more seriously and refuse to back down to its predations.

Robert Gates, author of Exercise of Power
Robert Gates, author of Exercise of Power

My Take on Exercise of Power by Robert Gates

As a historical overview of America’s post-Cold War use of its power, Exercise of Power is reasonably good. Although Gates does editorialize somewhat and always notes when he drafted a memo of some sort that ended up being correct (although he never notes the multitude of others that weren’t), the actual history contained within the book is interesting, accurate, and crafts an intriguing narrative about American power and use of that power. In that respect, it complements other books about our foreign interventions that I have reviewed, such as The Great War for Civilization and Hunting in the Shadows.

Additionally, it is certainly a useful companion to Colossus, as Gates discusses many of the same problems with American power as Ferguson did. That problem is that while America can defeat any enemy on the battlefield, we have trouble with capitalizing off those gains to create outcomes that further the American national interest.

However, as a guide to policy, it is somewhat more limited in its usefulness. Gates makes some good points, especially about the limits of American military power and the threat posed by China, but is unable to commit to the realist view of the world that he, at times, advocates for.

Gates’ view is that that problem could be fixed through focusing on non-military solutions to problems, providing substantial foreign aid and investments, and using strategic communications to highlight and publicize whatever good we are doing in the world. In effect, he thinks we should resemble a highly advertised version of the British Empire described by Niall Ferguson in Empire; a global force for individual rights and democracy that sometimes fights, but mainly negotiates and uses economic power to get what it wants.

I think that while that view has merits, it runs counter to one book Gates quotes frequently in Exercise of Power: The Prince. America can not be both a realist nation and an idealistic force for good; we have to choose and I think we should be a realist nation.

It would be unfair to say that Gates’ view in Exercise of Power is that America should be completely idealistic. His view is more that we should be a blend of the two. I doubt that would work; it would just lead to the same schizophrenic approach to foreign policy that he lambasts throughout the book. By focusing purely on our national interest, we could put ourselves in a better position while still implementing many of the programs that Gates thinks we should, such as a more effective strategic communication policy and larger amounts of foreign development assistance.

My view is that we can seem generous to other nations and should encourage that view of us. But, at the end of the day, we need to focus on only helping nations that affect our national interest in some way. We shouldn’t intervene just to intervene and help people; that is wasteful of the blood and treasure of Americans. Gates seems to agree with that view at some points in Exercise of Power, but is unable to fully commit to it because he is obviously uncomfortable with the implications; while he doesn’t think American troops should be sent to restrain Assad or American bombs should have fallen on Milosevic or Qadaffi, he has trouble saying so.

Had he committed more fully to that view of the world, I would have found Exercise of Power to be a better book. But his half-solutions show his D.C. roots; rather than try to develop an actual solution, he crafts a narrative that tries to thread the middle ground and please multiple parties but actually disgusts both the realists and idealists.

Finally, Gates shows his limits in Exercise of Power by never once noting his many failures, the worst of which was the early termination of the F-22 program. That fighter is by far the best in the world, but we have an almost unusably small number of them thanks to Gates’ decision as Secretary of Defense to ax the program.

While Gates may be against purely military solutions, it made no sense to limit our options by destroying our best 5th generation jet program. It is disappointing that he did not touch on the implications of that decision in his sections on China and Russia. His decision not to do so does, in my opinion, detract from his credibility; he freely criticizes the decisions of others, but refuses to note a disastrous decision of his.

When paired with his refusal to endorse any specific view of the world and America’s role in it (namely idealism versus realism), Gates’ analysis seems less than forthright.


Overall, Exercise of Power is a reasonably good book. It is a good history of America’s involvement in the world after the Cold War, why decisions were made, and why our attempts to flex our power rarely worked.

His analysis leaves much to be desired and his refusal to explicitly endorse a path forward shows his D.C. nature, as does his history of working for both Republican and Democrat administrations. But, Gates has dedicated his life to serving America’s foreign policy interests, for which he should be commended, even if his record is somewhat spotty.

So, if you have time, try to read Exercise of Power. It’s not perfect, but it is pretty good and will give you an overview of what America has done around the world recently.

By: Gen Z Conservative