AMERICA DEFINES itself as the leader of the free world, and there is much truth in that idea. But leadership requires having followers who are prepared to move in the same general direction. And walking a path without followers, allies or partners can quickly become self-isolation-even for the sole superpower.
The fact is, being the sole superpower does not always mean being the sole decider. Allies who are ready to make substantive contributions expect to be consulted seriously; not in a pro forma manner, but in a way that allows them to have real influence in shaping joint policies. Countries that do not have these expectations and are willing in advance to accept whatever choice Washington may make usually have their own reasons for doing so. Some may act out of a strong sense of loyalty to the United States for its values or for past assistance, but most probably hope for something major in return or, alternatively, don't expect to pay a particular price for their support because it is minimal or symbolic.
But many on both ends of the political spectrum seem captivated by a potentially dangerous and flawed assumption: that other democratic countries will, by virtue of shared values, bring their foreign policies into alignment with the American agenda. The trouble is that notwithstanding their common values, democracies-like all other states-have different interests. No one would expect Finland, Australia and Botswana to have identical foreign policies simply because each enjoys a representative form of government. And even when democracies share both values and interests, they often have different priorities. Without understanding these realities and developing strategies to manage them, the United States cannot maintain a position of real leadership, even within the "free world."