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The world is awash in debate about the course of the United States in this century – socially polarized, politically deadlocked, economically wounded and strategically confused. Are we witnessing the inevitable decline of an empire, overstretched and inner-spent? Or will the "genius of America" confound its doubters yet again, and reaffirm its arching dominance in global affairs?

Many books in contention for the 2014 Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book in international relations address these questions, reflecting the Zeitgeist. Some worry about the eroding economic foundations of American power, others about the quality of U.S. foreign policy decisions. Several argue that digital technology and the rise of competing powers undermine American hegemony from a purely contextual point of view. Readers of major news sites and journals will be familiar with these discussions. For deeper perspectives on America's political dynamics, the shortlist of five books for the Lionel Gelber Prize offers valuable historical context.

The vitality of American democracy is portrayed with cinematic clarity in Lynne Olson's Those Angry Days, which describes the domestic battle over U..S participation in the Second World War in the 27 months before Pearl Harbor. Today, we tend to see the checks-and-balances structure of the U.S. Constitution as debilitating and enervating, preventing smart, decisive action in the face of pressing needs. Not always so.

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From September, 1939 to December, 1941, Ms. Olson describes an intensely functional democracy, organized into highly competent factions for and against U.S. participation in the war. The level of community and national organizing, the quality of debate and, ultimately the hesitant role of Franklin Delano Roosevelt when the struggle for public opinion was clearly won is a revelation. Not until the movement against the war in Vietnam did we again witness such credible street politics in the context of dispersed political power.

Reading this book, you will question whether the current "deadlock" in U.S. politics is but a stall in an otherwise demanding but functional system – a system much less prone to complacency and autocratic tendencies than Canada's parliamentary mode of government for example. (Still closely tied to Britain, Canada waited a symbolic week before declaring war on Germany in September, 1939, with little public debate.)

Following hard-on in The Battle of Bretton Woods, Benn Steil describes the exercise of U.S. diplomatic power from inside the beltway, wresting control of the post-war financial world from Great Britain in 1944 with mostly genial but brutal intent. Here, Britain's John Maynard Keynes is clearly bested by America's new globally-focused bureaucracy, out to make the world safe for American capital and values in the emerging American century. There would be no more U.S. flirtations with world leadership, a la Woodrow Wilson in 1919, only to fizzle. This time, through the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and United Nations, the United States would use its muscle to define a new world order with Washington and New York firmly at the centre.

This throws into relief the eroding structures of that order today, challenged by new networks of power and money, substantially weakening the ability of American diplomacy to call the shots in its national interest. Even fully on its feet again, one cannot imagine the United States enjoying the preponderance of diplomatic force on show at Bretton Woods in 1944.

To be sure, it is not just the quantum of power, but the quality of its use that matters in the world. The Blood Telegram, by Gary J. Bass is a searing indictment of the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in the war of independence for Bangladesh, 1971. This is a shocking tale, based on newly available sources, of White House support for Pakistan's brutal efforts to keep East Pakistan – Bangladesh – within the fold. We witness here the best of American diplomatic tradition on the ground – led by U.S. Consul General Archer Blood in Dacca – against the worst in the White House, defined by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on the loose.

Nixon and Kissinger, infected by Cold War paranoia, personal hatreds and intimate dependencies, stood substantially alone in their fervent support of Pakistan's dictatorship against India's democracy over the fate of Bangladesh. Via the "Blood Telegram," Kissinger is fully aware of the dissent from his diplomats on the ground, and of the hundreds of thousands killed in the streets by Pakistani troops to deny them the results of a fair election. Kissinger ignores it all – including Blood's word "genocide" – breaking American law on arms shipments to Pakistan, and goading super-power confrontation between China and the USSR, while preparing his secret visit to Beijing under Pakistani auspices.

By law and convention, the conduct of American foreign policy is somewhat insulated from congressional checks that apply to other initiatives from the executive branch, and this story is a fine example of that with tragic consequences. Not so much has changed in this regard, as White House security operatives project their plans around the world with limited political constraints. The Blood Telegram sends an acidic whiff from the past to the present through a deeply cautionary tale.

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Eric Schlosser's Comand and Control dips beneath diplomacy to explore the operational dimension of nuclear armament in the United States. As Nixon and Kissinger played on the nuclear chess-board upstairs, rank-and-file Americans worked with the real things – Titan missiles in their silos, B-52 bombers in perpetual motion loaded with H-bombs, mobile nuclear launchers in the field. This is a bracing reminder of how thin the gauze is between policy and practice, and how practice can be as risky as policy in the nuclear age.

Who remembers that, in January, 1961, a B-52 with two enormous hydrogen bombs crashed near Faro, North Carolina, releasing one of the bombs that would have exploded but for the function of one safety switch, all the others having failed? The book is filled with hair-raising tales of near-nuclear explosions by U.S. forces all over the world arising from the simple power of Murphy's Law: Accidents will happen. And it reminds us that the world remains awash in ready nuclear bombs, now distributed among rogue or fragile states, and subject to capture by terrorist elements. While nuclear strategy has matured from massive retaliation to somewhat less than massive retaliation, it is the operational policies governing the care and security of the devices themselves that contain the greatest risk of disaster.

From democracy to diplomacy to management, these four books resonate strongly today as we observe the United States in a context newly volatile and constrained.

It is fitting that the fifth book on the Gelber shortlist analyzes the dynamics of power in Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present by Brendan Simms. It is fitting because Europe's failure to manage those dynamics in the 20th Century vastly accelerated the rise of the United States as a global power in a world of deep ideological divides.

The First World War pulled a reluctant America to the European theatre only to see it retreat again with the defeat of the League of Nations treaty in the U.S. Senate. This false start in 1919 set the stage for that remarkable debate twenty years later (Those Angry Days) as to whether the United States should embrace much greater, permanent responsibilities in a newly crazy world.

The Second World War – another European failure to manage the "German problem" – converted America almost overnight from isolationism to messianic global leadership in every field of power, ideas and economics.

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Simms circles back over five centuries to describe Europe's chronic efforts to maintain a balance, based on the immense Germanic fact at its centre. In so disastrously mismanaging that fact in 1914, Europe gave birth to the Soviet Union, and gave America its first taste of (and for) global supremacy. And in so disastrously mismanaging that fact again in 1939 (with precipitate help from the Japanese in 1941), Europe gave birth to the American superpower, intensely set against the Soviet Union across the world.

In effect, in the first half of the 20th Century, Europe created the two protagonists of the second half and set the deadly terms of their engagement. Where else was the cradle of the Cold War fashioned but in Europe by its criminal failure to transcend the practical and psychological issues of its vaunted civilization.

The Lionel Gelber shortlist, 2014, paints a retrospective portrait of the United States in the context of an ultimately dysfunctional Europe, an America now facing potent struggles for supremacy in Asia and beyond. The American response to this landscape in the context of current U.S. domestic politics is fraught with risk. We can learn from history, and there is much to ponder here in the 2014 Gelber Five.

William Thorsell is senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, and chair of the 2014 Lionel Gelber Prize Jury.

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