What American Leadership?

October 15, 2007 Topic: Great Powers Tags: Superpower

What American Leadership?

Presidential aspirants frequently talk about restoring America’s international influence, but this monumental task will require a lot more than glittering generalities.

When presidential candidates don't have much to say about policy, they are quick to call for new leadership or for "restoring American leadership in the world."

Would-be presidents and their foreign policy gurus declare this revival of U.S. leadership to be our most important foreign policy requirement. Even many Republicans, while uncomfortable with its implicit attack on the Bush administration, are aboard the leadership wagon.

What leadership are they restoring? Is it what the U.S. needs in the 21st century?

It sometimes feels that the U.S. has ruled the international roost for generations and that this will continue indefinitely. Our leadership is, of course, a recent thing-starting with World War II through the Cold War. It blossomed after the war because our enormous power was usually married to realistic goals and polices to achieve them. It produced impressive accomplishments: victory in the Cold War, and the creation of important international institutions-the UN, the World Bank, NATO and numerous others. We led in reducing poverty and promoting human rights across the globe.

But rather than the Golden Age many predicted after the Soviet Union disappeared, our unrivalled power did not translate into much global leadership, let alone towering achievements-quite the contrary.

-The U.S. failed to produce any new international institutions that would further our dominance or spread our values around the world; we failed to reform existing international institutions despite the glaring need.

-Washington was unable to better integrate our old enemy Russia into the world community as a reasonably democratic co-operative stakeholder. We are now paying the price on issues from Kosovo to energy.

-The U.S. watched Yugoslavia disintegrate and failed to lead the world in responding to massive humanitarian disasters from Rwanda to Darfur. Where we intervened militarily we have not established stable or functioning states-Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia.

  -Our vaunted Middle East diplomacy that attracted so much approbation ended in failure and birthed a bloody intifada.

-Our anti-nuclear efforts failed. India, Pakistan and North Korea detonated nuclear weapons, and Iran is on the cusp of making them.

-U.S. efforts to tackle climate change and other environmental issues lagged behind the international community.

-Iraq is the towering disaster of policy, power and leadership. Even if Iraq emerges intact, the U.S. will have lost much along the way

Of course, the U.S. in the post-Cold War era has had to face a different and more virulent form of terrorism, one which was very different and demanded huge resources and attention. While we have had no terrorist incident here since 9/11, Bush's Iraq policy complicated counter-terrorist policy, consumed enormous resources, diverted attention from other important issues and alienated much of the world, including important allies.

The "restoration" of American global leadership will not come from just getting rid of the disastrous Bush Administration. Nor will it come from talking to our enemies or a greater dose of multilateralism as many of the cognoscenti and numerous presidential aspirants insist on. All those may be desirable, possibly achieve some results, win international plaudits and enhance the exercise of leadership. But they are means to an end, not the end itself.

Global leadership, at bottom, requires successfully marrying our power to policy. Without policies that clearly serve our interests and our values and mobilize the necessary resources our global leadership will flounder. Unless policies make sense and win domestic and international approval they will lose their cogency: No amount of charisma or world travel will then get the job done.

In this era of vastly expanded globalization one essential requirement of policy is understanding. Many political leaders and opinion makers still see the world through the lenses of the immediate post-Cold World era-the belief in our indispensable international leadership whatever our policies. But new regional and global powers have burst forth. Our economic and military might, however preeminent still, no longer automatically translates into effective influence. Many more factors enter the equation. That means our leaders must have far greater sophistication and knowledge and work harder to win international support.

Regrettably, we are not likely to determine the most likely global leader from our presidential aspirants. As in most presidential campaigns there is little discussion of policy, whether it is Iraq or China or Russia. The political wisdom is to avoid policy for fear of making a mistake or alienating some interest group and losing votes. Easier to say you will provide specifics when you become president. Rather continue lamenting the "loss of leadership" or taking potshots at the abominable Bush record. Hopefully some candidates at this difficult juncture in our national life will test that wisdom, but we would not bet on it.

Whoever becomes president will have no easy time asserting global leadership. Not only must the winner get the U.S. out of an enormous rut, he or she, after asserting at the inaugural that U.S. leadership is back and sending envoys to inform the world, will find a far less malleable world, the resources constrained and the policy cupboard badly in need of realistic replenishment.


Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a former assistant secretary of state. Leslie H. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former New York Times columnist.