Twenty years ago, Hart was more than just the presumed Democratic nominee. Some thought that he was the second coming of Bobby Kennedy. With deep experience in national politics, including a strong profile on foreign policy and military affairs, many believed that the Colorado senator would be the next president. But his quick ascent was matched only by his dramatic and depressing fall. Rather than entering the Oval Office, Hart retreated in disgrace to the comfortable wilderness sinecure of many former officials–making good money, dabbling in politics, and writing books.

So, as the Democrats face a reality in 2006 very similar to the one Hart tried to lead them through two decades ago, it is entirely appropriate that he offer ideas again, this time through his pen. In The Shield and the Cloak, Hart returns to a subject that he knows well: America’s national security policy. In the 20 years since leaving government, he has continued to play an active role in this debate, whether through his prolific writings (including for this magazine), his co-chairmanship with former Republican senator Warren Rudman of a bipartisan commission that famously warned of the dangers of terrorism before the September 11 attacks, or even as an active member of Sen. John Kerry’s national security kitchen cabinet during the 2004 presidential campaign. His credibility on this subject is well-deserved–which makes this slim volume must-reading not just for Democrats, but for any American who is struggling to make sense of today’s global challenges, and what policies we need in order to meet them.

Part history lesson, part chin-stroking policy paper, part partisan manifesto, Hart’s book is based on a few basic ideas: That in the 21st century, security is about more than military muscle, and that since security must be understood more expansively–including the usual list of transnational threats like weapons proliferation, environmental degradation, global poverty, diseases like HIV/AIDS, and economic power–America must work with partners around the world. What Hart describes as a “security of the commons” can be neatly summarized: We are all in this together. While far less original and controversial than Hart claims, these ideas are worth repeating–especially as a critique of the Manichean “with us or against us” political climate created by George W. Bush and Karl Rove.

Hart’s doubts about the security provided by America’s military “shield” are hardly dovish–his point is simply that, as any general will tell you, a strong military alone can’t solve all of our security needs. His critique of the Bush administration’s preemption doctrine is stinging. But he also calls for new policies to strengthen the shield itself to make it more capable of handling current threats–such as creating more agile, flexible, rapidly-deployable units, beefing up special forces, and giving the National Guard a greater role in homeland security. Hart has been talking about many of these ideas for more than a quarter-century when he created the congressional military reform caucus, and some he wrote about in his 1986 book on defense policy, America Can Win. As evidence that this kind of thinking seems to be catching on, many similar proposals (such as the emphasis on special forces and developing better capabilities for irregular warfare and peacekeeping) have been embraced by Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon in its recent “Quadrennial Defense Review.”

But most of Hart’s book concerns those issues that fall outside the narrow perspective of military affairs, in what he calls the “cloak” of security–things like deft multilateral diplomacy, new and improved international institutions, and reformed intelligence. Arguing that all of these have been undermined by the policies of the Bush administration, Hart offers several proposals to strengthen them. Some of these ideas are worth considering: Creating a standing international organization to protect vulnerable critical infrastructure like bridges, tunnels, and computer networks around the world would be a good use of American diplomatic leadership. Other ideas, even he admits, need some work: for instance, a proposal to create a United Nations-run Persian Gulf security force of oil-consuming countries to guarantee the free flow of oil–perhaps worthwhile to protect from terrorist attacks on oil refineries or transit points, but hardly the solution to deal with Gulf countries’ internal threats that would jeopardize supplies, such as an overthrow of the Saudi royal family by Islamic extremists.

Hart also argues that America’s security cloak needs more than just better policies abroad. It requires a fundamentally different approach to challenges at home. He explains that we have to expand the very idea of security into something that encompasses nearly every aspect of American life. Personal security matters just as much as national security. Hart’s stress on the elements of U.S. competitiveness–a strong domestic economy focused on savings, better education emphasizing science and math, and more opportunities for civic engagement–will appeal to many progressives. So will his argument that President Bush’s focus on political freedom alone is not enough to make us secure because freedom means little if one cannot provide for their family, educate their children, or have access to clean water or health care. By emphasizing issues like poverty and the threat from global warming, Hart places himself squarely in the progressive mainstream, echoing the warnings of those like former President Bill Clinton and British leaders like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

This is where Hart’s book is less fulfilling than hoped. As important and convincing as many of his arguments are, they are less innovative than he makes them out to be. He certainly overstates the originality of both his description of the new world defined by globalization and the policy proposals that flow from it. Hart cogently summarizes much of what is already accepted as the conventional wisdom in foreign policy and progressive political circles and widely understood among the general public. He could have written much of this book years ago–and in many ways, such writers as Thomas Friedman, Joseph Nye, and Clyde Prestowitz already have.

In a 1993 interview with the writer David Remnick, Hart joked about his own “death struggle with ego,” an acknowledgement of the knock many had against him years ago when he was a rising and brash presidential aspirant. One of the unappealing qualities of this book is that, in some places, ego tends to win. Too often, the subtext theme seems to be “I was right,” as Hart goes out of his way to show that he has been ahead of the curve, from predicting the end of the Cold War, warning of the 9/11 attacks to arguing for much greater efforts in homeland security before it was fashionable. To be sure, Hart the elder statesman has a fair claim to hand-waving attention–in these ways and others, he was right. But these diversions give the book an element of apologia that is distracting.

That said, The Sword and the Shield is about big ideas–and a reminder that they matter. Gary Hart was one of those rare politicians who believed deeply in ideas and ran for office on them. Looking ahead to this November and beyond to 2008, as both Democrats and Republicans try to articulate their policies for the post-Bush world, experts and common citizens alike would be well served to read this book closely and heed Hart’s core message and his example.

Derek Chollet is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of The Road to the Dayton Accords: A Study of American Statecraft.

Derek Chollet is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of The Road to the Dayton Accords: A Study of American Statecraft.