Hubs, Spokes and Public Goods

Hubs, Spokes and Public Goods

What has really changed since last September 11? Not very much.

This would be nothing so new. American diplomacy during the Cold War executed this task in exemplary fashion by providing the world with essential services. In social science parlance, the United States acted as foremost producer of global public goods. Just to note the acronyms that stand for those goods-un, imf, gatt, oeec/oecd, nato, wto, PfP-is to recognize that all were "made in the U.S.A." These institutions upheld international security and free trade and thus cemented America's preponderance by giving other key players potent reasons for choosing cooperation over ganging up.

Alas, during the Cold War it was obviously in America's interest to deliver the goods and, in a certain sense, to contain itself as well as the Soviet Union. The problem today is that the United States seems to take more out of the system than it invests in it. The clumsy but benign elephant of yore has donned a lion's clothing, and America's response to September 11, inevitable in some ways, has only made the change more obvious. America is no predator going a-conquering like yesterday's hegemons, but by the intermittent growl of his voice and swipe of his prank, this beast tells the rest: "I am the king; go along, or I'll go it alone."

True leadership, however, is not forged in bouts of petulance and hauteur, and power is most effective when it need not be demonstrated. Nor is true greatness exemplified by transparent domestic maneuvers like punitive tariffs on steel and grossly expanded farm support payments; such moves do not even improve the welfare of America as a whole, the largest exporting nation with a commensurately large interest in free trade. Good leadership is to lift one's own boat by providing a rising tide for others. The quest for relative gains, as always, risks degeneration into zero-sum politics.

These are not outlandish insights. They occur to any would-be leader whilst still in kindergarten. At a minimum, acting with others is more economical than acting alone, even if the costs of cooperation exacted by lesser players with parochial interests sometimes seem too high. Those who drop most of the ordnance in Kosovo or in Afghanistan do not acquire thereby a license to withdraw from the more mundane, but also more important, task of maintaining postwar order. After all, the reward of war is not military but political victory-as the United States demonstrated in Western Europe and Japan after V-E and V-J Day.

But these observations, obvious as they may be, do not abound in contemporary Washington. They are overshadowed by a heady sense of America as Gulliver Unbound who must slap away those pestering Lilliputians. But why wait until they seek to match or constrain his strength? "Take care of others in order to take care of yourself" is the proper course for the "indispensable nation" that wants to do better than Bismarck. To lead is to heed-that is not a counsel of wimpishness, but of wisdom. It may be harder for American leaders to accept such discipline after September 11, but not to do so risks the twin peril of overstretch and counter-containment.

Josef Joffe is publisher and editor of Die Zeit in Hamburg and Associate of the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University.

  1. The "Kissinger Diktat" has nothing to do with either Henry Kissinger or an act of imposition. It refers to the spa, Bad Kissingen, Bismarck liked to visit, and "diktat" is (also) the German word for "dictation."

This essay originally appeared in THE NATIONAL INTEREST, Issue 69 (Fall 2002