The Buzz

U.S. Leaders: 'We Are Number One'

Stephen Walt has an entertaining post up at Foreign Policy in which he wonders what would happen if one of our senior U.S. foreign-policy officials took a truth serum and just started talking about America’s approach to global affairs. What impolitic truths would they reveal? He then offers a list of the “Top Five Truths You Won't Hear Any U.S. Official Admit,” which are:

#1: "We're never gonna get rid of our nuclear weapons."

#2: "We don't actually care that much about human rights."

#3: "There's not going to be a two-state solution."

#4: "We like being #1, and we're going to stay there just as long as we can."

#5: "We do a lot of stupid things in foreign policy. Get used to it."

This is a pretty good list, but it’s worth observing that #4 is in fact something that American officials say, and even trumpet loudly, quite frequently. It may not be phrased exactly in the crude terms of “we’re number one,” and it’s more often couched in phrases like “global leadership.” But grand references to America’s position at the apex of world power, along with pledges to maintain and build on that power, are common from leading figures of both political parties. Consider these words from President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address:

Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about. . . . America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairsand as long as I’m President, I intend to keep it that way.

Or, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2010:

The United States can, must and will lead in this new century. Indeed, the complexities and connections of today's world have yielded a new American moment, a moment when our global leadership is essential.

Or, as Mitt Romney put it in his foreign-policy speech at the Citadel in 2011:

I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.

Moreover, this is hardly a new phenomenon. Obama’s and Romney’s remarks both illustrate this point well. In both cases, these men were drawing on other previous, well-known statements. Obama’s “indispensable nation” phrase was first popularized by Madeleine Albright in the 1990s, and Romney’s “American Century” derives from the title of Henry Luce’s famous 1941 Life essay. Indeed, the practice of U.S. officials telling audiences both foreign and domestic how powerful their nation is, and how they intend to keep it that way, is by this point a time-honored tradition.