The case for American leadership

01.02.06 Publication:

During recent years, it has become harder and harder to find anyone outside the United States who will agree that American leadership is good for the world. The ever-rising civilian death toll in Iraq, the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the imprisonment scandals at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba—all those have combined with American rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming to produce a widespread feeling that America causes more problems in the world than it solves.

Recent opinion polls have even found many people who claim to have a more favourable view of China, which is governed by a communist dictatorship, than America, the world’s flag-bearer for democracy. And a former trade official linked with the ruling Republican Party, Clyde Prestowitz (who in the 1980s used to write books on Japan), has published a book whose title describes his own country as a “Rogue Nation”.

That title is in part a reference to the zoological idea of the “rogue elephant”, which is an elephant, generally male, that has been rejected by its herd and roams on its own, often causing a great deal of damage. Is that really a fair description of America? Is American leadership as bad a thing for the world as this implies?

The answers to those questions are going to become steadily more important during the rest of this decade and beyond. The tough task that America has given itself in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with more than 2,000 US military fatalities, is likely to make the American public reluctant to take on further interventions overseas in the near future. Meanwhile, the balance of world power is shifting, as China and India enjoy strong economic growth, sustained year after year. Just as in the 1980s Japan’s growth and America’s big trade deficit led to an increase in protectionist sentiment in the US, so the same is likely to result from the success of China and India. Indeed, such protectionist sentiment can already be seen.

At the same time, terrorism and political instability are likely to be ever-present around the world. Just as war in former Yugoslavia and in many places in Africa scarred the 1990s, so other wars will inevitably scar this decade, along with the terrible problem of terrorist attacks by militant groups claiming to act in the name of Islam. Although this terrorist problem is not currently increasing, except inside Iraq itself, there is no reason to expect it to fade away, either.

Faced with such an unstable and conflict-ridden world, it is clear that intervention is going to continue to be required. Sadly, peace is not simply going to come to us as a result of us wishing for it. The issue before the world, however, is how that intervention can be organised and made possible: can it be done collectively, without a single country needing to take the lead?

The experience of the 1990s suggests that a collective solution is not anywhere near being attainable. In 1991, as the Cold War ended, President George Bush Senior made a speech in which he said he hoped there would now be “a new world order”, by which he meant one in which the major powers of the globe would co-operate with one another rather than obstructing each other, using their veto powers in the Security Council of the United Nations. So far, it hasn’t come about. Many collective interventions do not take place because of threats by Russia or China to veto them, or the powers given to UN peacekeepers are kept too tightly limited.

No, if ever a decisive military intervention is required, then America is really the only country able or willing to do it. And it is willing to do it outside the UN system, without approval from the UN Security Council. To that extent, Mr Prestowitz is right: America does act as a “rogue elephant”, going out on its own without approval from the herd. In the Yugoslav wars, however, where America led interventions without UN approval, such rogue actions were taken in the interests of future peace and stability. So, on that occasion, the rogue did not do damage.

Sometimes, however, it does. It remains too soon to judge the full long-term effects of the intervention in Iraq, but it is clear that much damage has been done during this rogue invasion.

As a result, what the world has to ask itself is whether in the absence of effective collective leadership it is willing to accept the damage that is sometimes done by the Americans, as a price to be paid for the benefits provided by their overall leadership. Those benefits include interventions at times of instability as well as the fact that the presence of American military power and leadership makes it less likely that other big countries, such as China, the Europeans or Japan, will risk taking military action against other nations. But there is also another benefit: this is that in most non-military fields, America has used its leadership to try to build a system based on rules rather than raw power or interventions by single countries.

By that, I mean that in trade, financial markets and other aspects of commerce, America has been a major influence in building an agreed set of rules to govern these areas, along with organisations like the World Trade Organisation to enforce or police the rules. Perhaps it might be argued that these rules and organisations are now so well established that they no longer depend on American leadership, and in part that is true. But for the time being, with America still by far the world’s biggest economy, further progress for these rules, and even their survival, does seem to depend more on American support and participation than on that from any other country.

As economies such as China and India grow and power becomes distributed more equally in the world, so the case for collective leadership may grow. And democratisation in China, if it occurs, could make such collective action easier to attain. That is several decades ahead, however. For the moment, the world seems destined to rely on America’s flawed leadership, comforted by the fact that although America makes many mistakes, its democracy makes it inevitable that its governments will change and that mistakes will be punished in the ballot box.

From the world’s point of view, there is only one thing worse than having American leadership: not having American leadership.