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March 22, 2013

US Leadership Through Strength
Posted by David Shorr

UN_Security_Council-300x200Recently a bipartisan group assembled by the Project for a United and Strong America released our version of a national security strategy. In the weeks since the report came out, a number of participants have posted their comments: Mark Lagon, Will Inboden, Dan Twining, and me too.  

The most substantive reaction thus far is Paul Miller's perceptive critique over at Shadow Government. One line of criticism hits particularly close to home. Here's how Miller takes aim at hackneyed appeals to American international leadership: 

Sometimes it seems like we demand that American be a strong leader in order to protect America's role as a strong leader, so that American can go on being strong and exercising leadership in the service of our strength and our leadership...and so on. It's circular reasoning, a self-justifying policy of infinite regress. I fear I may be labeled a heretic for asking what we need to be a leader for? Where are we leading people to? The report says the United States "must play an active, day-to-day role in shaping events" to "shape common action on a global agenda." I agree that global cooperation happens more effectively with American involvement, but the report treats "the global agenda" as an intrinsic good. The only intrinsic good of American foreign policy is American security. I'd like to see "the global agenda" and America's burden of leadership justified by how it contributes to American interests, not vice versa. We lead to secure interests; we don't have interests to secure our leadership.

Hey, I resemble that remark! Seriously though, Miller's point isn't heresy but a totally fair question -- and answerable. Begin with what we agree on: the US role in galvanizing international cooperation. Agreement on this is actually significant, because the loudest Republican foreign policy voices expect the United States to lead by fiat; the business of obtaining other nations' cooperation and support doesn't even enter into it. 

My response to Miller is that cooperation is essential to many of America's foreign policy priorities, making it central to our strategy. To some extent, our need for cooperation is a function of lacking the leverage to attain our objectives without others' help. One of the familiar tropes in these sorts of discussions is that "the problems of today's world are too big even for a superpower to solve on its own"; it has the added virtue of being true. [For the last few Democracy Arsenal readers who haven't yet looked at Nina Hachigian and my big "Responsibility Doctrine" article, we see an ongoing strategic push by Obama Administration to gain international support and help.]

More to the point, all the consequential international challenges of our era are basically collective action problems -- issues that aren't particular to the United States, but that we confront along with others. Whenever I've scanned big-think articles and reports in the last several years, the list of major items is the same: restoring and maintaining global economic growth, blocking the proliferation of nuclear arms, stemming global warming, and thwarting dramatic and disruptive terror attacks. And there is your global agenda. 

Instead of talking about the US as a strong leader, let's say we're first among status quo powers. This is why I always go back to Robert Zoellick's definition of a "responsible stakeholder": a nation that contributes to the maintenance of the international system because it benefits from that system. What the four above-listed items have in common is the danger they pose to the international system itself. An economically stagnant world with 15-20 nuclear-armed nations and a temperature rise of 3-4 degrees Celsius will be rough for the United States, China, Europe, and everyone else.

As a framework, the global agenda outlines the international community's norms and civic obligations (Hedley Bull's "international society"). In practical terms, it's about resisting Iranian and North Korean acquisition of nuclear arsenals and attaining a better balance of exports and domestic consumption in the global economy. I'm not sure where that leaves American national interests, and their supposed separateness from the global agenda and cooperation; I guess it's a question I'd turn around and pose to Paul Miller.

What I do know, just for example, is that the global agenda has prodded China to support Iran sanctions and commit to boosting consumption -- two things hard-headed skeptics ruled impossible because they contravened Chinese interests. 

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