America's role in the world of 2008 is profoundly different from its role in 1991, much less in the immediate post-World War II period. The reasons hardly need to be elaborated: The rise of China and India, Russia's angry return, Europe's evolution, globalization's powerful and unpredictable effects, and national, cultural and religious reactions to globalization are among the most noticeable. Even as the problems we face multiply and become more complex and challenging, our ability to resolve or at least manage them alone or in cooperation with our European allies is diminishing.
This has two broad consequences. First, as already argued, we must establish our international priorities. This is step one in the twelve-step program for recovering globalists. Thankfully, not every global problem is of equal importance to the United States. Instability in Mexico (an origin of many U.S. immigrants) or in Nigeria (a major source of oil) has a greater impact on America than similar problems elsewhere. Conflicts involving U.S. allies, such as NATO members, Japan or Israel, affect U.S. interests more than those that do not.
One way to ensure that foreign policy exertions are proportionate to the interests at stake-and simultaneously to avoid the expensive, dangerous and unwelcome role of global policeman-is to encourage allies and key regional powers to take the lead in addressing crises when important U.S. interests are not threatened. Making clear that the United States is not a guaranteed "problem-solver of last resort" in these cases should help to persuade those most directly affected to accept more responsibility.
Second, America must deal head-on with changing dynamics in the international system that have already provoked questions about the legitimacy and effectiveness of organizations that no longer reflect emerging realities. For example, Washington was able earlier this year to replace Paul Wolfowitz as president of the World Bank with Robert Zoellick, but some asked whether a tradition dating back to the immediate post-World War II era was a sufficient reason to continue to consider only Americans for the post. Debates over the composition and structure of the United Nations Security Council, and who should or should not have veto power, have been under way for some time. Likewise, many question the G-8's exclusion of major powers like China and India-though it is hard to understand why, since the group's visibility usually exceeds its impact. More narrowly, NATO is floundering, the International Energy Agency doesn't include major consumers (again China and India) and the non-proliferation regime is shaky.
Updating and supplementing these and other key institutions will be incredibly difficult and will require creativity, flexibility and determination from the United States. Fortunately, the only other actors in the international system currently capable of designing and trying to create global institutions are in Europe, and they would likely want to accommodate Washington's perspectives to a significant degree. So there is limited risk-for the time being-that someone else would attempt to build systems unfavorable to America. But the costs of waiting could be considerable: Allowing current institutions to lose their legitimacy could damage American interests, as would waiting until less sympathetic powers are in a position to articulate their own detailed plans and proposals. On the other hand, discussing these institutional challenges and defining American preferences now presents a very real opportunity to demonstrate and strengthen U.S. leadership, while also building structures to sustain it in the future.
American global leadership matters because it is a powerful tool in protecting U.S. interests and in shaping an international system that ensures their protection in the future. Some may disagree, seeing this as a time for retrenchment and recovery from the damage done by the Bush Administration's spectacular failures. This is a mistake. From the weakening but still central role of the dollar in international finance to Washington's freedom of action in international affairs and the importance still given to U.S. opinions and preferences, American leadership provides our country with disproportionate and very tangible benefits both abroad and at home. Active international leadership can deter others from challenging America, too.
As a leader, the United States will usually be most powerful and most effective when it is able to leverage the support of others for its policy objectives, whether informally or through key international or regional institutions. But there will be times when America must act unilaterally to defend its vital interests, and Washington should do so unashamedly, including through military action, when necessary. Still, the United States should strive to avoid taking unilateral action, either frequently or casually, because it will undermine America's overall ability to pursue its global agenda. In Henry Kissinger's wise formulation, "It is important neither to be immobilized because of a fear of unilateral action, nor to attempt to create an international system based upon it." America has limited international political and public capital and should spend it deliberately, when it counts.
Many realists may differ with particular elements of the vision outlined here. Hopefully all would agree, however, that it is time for realists to move from repeating critiques of post-1992 foreign-policy blunders to articulating alternatives. This will be difficult when even the advice of influential and respected practitioners like Kissinger, Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft and James Baker sometimes gets only limited traction where it matters most-in politicized and superficial debates within Congress and between presidential candidates that seem disconnected from reality. But if realists are unable to define a positive vision for U.S. foreign policy, others will continue to dominate America's election debate-building support for simplistic, impractical and even dangerous ideas.
Paul J. Saunders is the executive director of The Nixon Center and the associate publisher of The National Interest.Essay Types: The Realist