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Journal of Cold War Studies 3.3 (2001) 96-97

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Book Review

Mixed Messages:
American Politics and International Organization, 1919-1999

Edward C. Luck, Mixed Messages: American Politics and International Organization, 1919-1999 . Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999. 374 pp. $49.95 (hardcover), $19.95 (softcover).

Periodically, a spate of commentaries is published on the role of the United States in the United Nations (UN). Written by Americans with an internationalist bent as well as by foreign analysts, such works frequently lament the lack of U.S. support for the UN on security, economic, and budgetary matters. On the other side of the political spectrum, those with more isolationist views are highly critical of the UN and strive to protect the United States from being constrained by multilateral bodies. These debates tend to be fought on multiple issues, and they are largely based on different assumptions and political positions. Edward Luck provides one of the first comprehensive road maps to the so-called U.S.-UN debate. Luck is the former president of the United Nations Association (USA) and therefore hardly a neutral observer. Nonetheless, he is generally fair and nonjudgmental.

Perhaps because Luck believes that critics of the UN have set the terms of the debate, he organizes his book around eight themes that he identifies as constituting the main sources of American discontent or ambivalence toward the UN. These can be consolidated into three broad, often overlapping categories: nationalism (American exceptionalism, negative attitudes toward foreign elements, and the perceived isolation of the United States at the UN), sovereignty (national security interests, command and control of American forces, and general sovereignty concerns), and UN reform (burden sharing and bureaucratic problems). Each of the eight themes receives a chapter of its own in which the author details the complaints against the UN and shows how they have been expressed over time.

The eight thematic chapters provide a brilliant, in-depth, and well-documented analysis of various American complaints against the UN, surpassing any other source. Wisely, Luck ignores the statements and views of fringe groups such as the John Birch Society, since these generally have had little effect on U.S. policy. Anti-UN commentaries by the Reverend Pat Robertson and by perennial presidential candidate and former State Department official Alan Keyes are the outer limits of extremism presented by Luck. Another strength of the book is that it traces the historical continuity of American skepticism toward the UN. One might have expected examples from the League of Nations era in the 1920s and 1930s and from the post-Cold War era in the 1990s, but Luck also shows how the UN figured in American political debates throughout the post-1945 period. He demonstrates that even during the immediate post-World War II era, when the UN was in its infancy and internationalism was riding high, many of the concerns and criticisms expressed about the UN were remarkably similar to those heard today.

Despite the merits of these chapters, the book is marred by several weaknesses. First, the opinions documented here are almost exclusively those of leading political figures, members of Congress, and other elite observers. On the one hand this may be [End Page 96] appropriate insofar as the UN is not a salient issue for the American public. Public opinion about the UN is addressed in chapter 10, but the treatment is largely inadequate. Luck is correct in noting that the American public displays relatively consistent--though very shallow--support for the UN. But when he attempts to show how support varies by race, class, political ideology, and other factors, his assessment is severely limited by his eschewal of regression analysis. Understanding American attitudes toward the UN requires a multivariate analysis to sort out which factors are statistically significant and which of these are most important. Of course, surveys on the UN are notoriously influenced by question framing and wording effects, so there is some reason to doubt the utility of the whole exercise.

Another problem with the book is its...