Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008
America: The Lost Leader
By MICHAEL ELLIOTT
In the U.S. presidential election campaign, the speeches of the candidates on foreign policy have often turned on a single word, and a shared analysis. The word is "leadership," and the analysis is this. After World War II, the U.S. built an international system that protected those who signed up to its values, and that provided the means for contesting Soviet communism. Now, with the end of the Cold War, and in the messy world that has taken shape in its aftermath, it is time for America to show leadership again. In his set-piece speech on foreign policy in Chicago in April 2007, for example, Barack Obama identified no less than five ways in which the U.S. should lead the world. But John McCain made the point with greatest clarity in his speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in March.
McCain said this: "President Harry Truman once said of America, 'God has created us and brought us to our present position of power and strength for some great purpose.' In his time, that purpose was to contain communism and build the structures of peace and prosperity that could provide a safe passage through the Cold War. Now it is our turn. We face a new set of opportunities and also new dangers ... The United States must lead in the 21st century, just as it did in Truman's day."
Beyond the assumption that the world today needs to see U.S. leadership just as it did after 1945, there has also been a second item of implicit agreement between the candidates: that the performance of the U.S. in its leadership role has been less impressive of late than it was following World War II.
It's hard to argue with that. During and after World War II, the U.S. encouraged the formation of multilateral institutions which spread a sense of collective political, military and economic security around much of the world. The Bush Administration, by contrast, has not been good at multilateralism or institution-building. Let's take some examples. It invaded Iraq without formal support from a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. While the U.S. has welcomed a host of post-communist nations into NATO, it has been unable to rally its allies, new or old, around a clear vision of what NATO's role is or what its future might be. And though, in the wake of the financial crash, President Bush has endorsed the French suggestion of holding a conference that might lead to new arrangements to govern the international financial system, it was the British government, not that of the U.S., that first understood that recapitalization of financial institutions was the key to short-term amelioration of the crisis.
This record of unilateral action and standoffishness has borne bitter fruit in terms of America's reputation overseas. The polls don't lie; even among its staunch allies, the U.S is seen as untrustworthy and dangerous. In his speech in Chicago last year, Obama said "I still believe that America is the last, best hope on earth. We just have to show the world why this is so." But in March, in an interview with the International Herald Tribune, Bernard Kouchner, France's Foreign Minister — and a true lover of America — took a different view. When the rest of world now looks at the U.S., Kouchner said, "the magic is over." Asked if the U.S. could repair the damage done to its reputation over the last few years, Kouchner replied sadly, "It will never be as it was before."
So why has American leadership been so disappointing in the post-Cold War years compared to the period after 1945? What has changed?
Leadership, we should note, is a word and a concept that is used much more often in and about the U.S. than it is anywhere else. The French have so much trouble with the idea of a leader that they often revert to using the English word. The Germans — for understandable reasons — do not boast of their own nation's führerschaft. But American politicians, of all stripes, have no problem in claiming a leadership role for the U.S. — in fact, they regard it as axiomatic that the U.S. should "lead" the world. As David Rieff argued recently in World Affairs, "President Bush has argued that the war in Iraq was a demonstration of America's moral leadership, whereas his liberal opponents claim that Iraq was where the U.S. forfeited its moral leadership. What no one questions is the certainty that we are capable of, indeed accustomed to, exercising such leadership, and, more basically still, that our ideals as a nation entitle us to do so."
The factors that once underpinned this claim, however, do not seem as strong now as they once were. Why not?
The difference between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War cannot simply be one of personality. Those who put together the international settlement after 1945 — Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dean Acheson and the like — were indeed, in the title of a marvelous book by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men. They were aware of their responsibilities and understood that American power would best be protected if it was shared in a network of institutions that made up a new liberal international order. Granted, George Bush is no Truman, nor Condoleezza Rice a Marshall. But to pin everything on personality ignores social and economic forces that have reshaped the shores of our world and our imagination. And in any case, it misses a significant change between the first term of President Bush and his second, during which the U.S. has relied much more on diplomacy, and much less on the use of force, to advance its objectives.
Underpinning much of that diplomacy has been the idea that democracy is a long-term cure for the instability that spills across national borders, as happened on 9/11. That intuitively makes sense. Democracies, because they institutionalize and internalize bargaining and the representation of different interests, tend to be peaceable. And democratic rights are popular. If the question is simply: Do people all over the world want the same trappings of liberal democracy that we enjoy — the right to choose our leaders, to think and say what we like, to worship how we choose? Then the answer is: Well, of course they do.
But liberal democracy is not all that people want. They want security — that is, quite simply to know that they and their families are safe. And they want justice.
That should not be surprising. Justice, after all, is an older concept than democracy; societies which had no conception of democracy as we know it nonetheless had sophisticated systems of justice. But it is important to distinguish two ways in which justice is relevant to claims of American leadership. First, there is a search for equity between the competing claims of individuals — the sort that might be made by a Palestinian farmer, for example, who has seen water from the local aquifer appropriated by an Israeli settlement. We ignore such claims, and the sullen outrage that accompanies them, at our peril. But there is a second sense in which people make a claim of justice, and this is as a collective — asking that a group to which they belong should receive their just deserts of respect, dignity and influence.
This gets us to the heart of the matter. When the wise men looked at their world in 1945, it was one of ruins. Germany and Japan had been destroyed. Britain was tired out; France shamed; Russia bled white. In China war would continue for another four years. Of the industrial democracies, only the U.S., Canada and Australia had been spared misery in their homeland. The U.S. economy accounted for nearly a half of total world output in 1945, a proportion that it has never approached since. Crucially, the U.S. defined what it was to be modern. The U.S. was big shouldered and handsome, the U.S. wore nylons and lipstick, the U.S. enjoyed a level of prosperity of which others could only dream. In Manhattan '45, her love letter to New York, Jan Morris writes "The old brag biggest and finest in the nation more and more evolved into biggest and finest in the world. Battered and impoverished London, humiliated Paris, shattered Berlin, discredited Rome — the old capitals towards which, before the war, Americans had so often looked with sensations of diffident inferiority now seemed flaccid beside this prodigy of the west."
In this context, it made sense to think, and speak, of "American leadership." If you were an American policymaker in 1945, you did not actually need to make a moral claim to leadership. You did not need to argue that because America was an idea, a city on a hill, the last, best hope of mankind, it had a right and responsibility to remake the world. It was much simpler than that. American leadership in the post-1945 world was not a moral aspiration, or a policy goal, at all. It was, as the Marxists would say, an objective reality, a fact that needed neither justification nor proof.
But that does not even come close to describing the world today. The American domination — economic, social, cultural, political — that was such a feature of the post-1945 world is missing now. Plainly, there are material aspects of modern American life that still inspire admiration from overseas, and features of American innovation that nobody else can match. But I spend about half my time outside the U.S., and I have to say that in many ways, like Bernard Kouchner, I think that the magic is gone. You want modern transportation systems? Try France or Japan. New airports? Half the cities of Asia. The old assumption that American culture would sweep the planet no longer holds good. In Africa and Asia, they don't cluster round TVs to watch baseball's World Series, but they do hang on every minute of every football game in the European Champions League.
Beyond anything else, though, it is the shift of the world's economic center of gravity from the Atlantic to the Pacific that has changed the environment. In 1945, Asia was typified by the rubble of war and the languidly racist torpor of colonial rule. Today, even making all appropriate allowances for a downturn in economies after the financial crisis, Asia remains the most dynamic part of the planet. Both India and China are growing at annual rates of more than 8%, and modernizing at a ferocious clip. China Mobile, the world's biggest mobile-phone company, adds more than 7 million new subscribers to its network every month. Companies like India's Tata and China's Lenovo — to say nothing of the sovereign wealth funds of Asia and the Gulf — routinely snap up icons of Western industry and commerce.
It is not really Asia's economic dynamism that is so important, however. It is the psychological consequences of economic success. The world, I often say to myself when I come home to New York from Asia, just looks better from over there. In Asia today, millions of people have a clear sense that their life is improving — that each year they will have some more creature comforts, maybe a car, maybe air-conditioning, and be better able to look after their aging parents or support their childrens' ambitions.
This economics made flesh is not just terribly moving — though it certainly is that. It also produces a sense of intense pride in those who are living it. It is that sense of pride — quite palpable throughout Asia today — that provides the demand for respect, for influence, for the nations that have achieved such economic success to receive their just deserts.
Nowhere is this more keenly marked than in China. I spend enough time in China to be able to say without equivocation that many of its cities are dystopian, that much of its natural environment is a poisoned wasteland, and that its government can be arbitrary and cruel. At the same time, never in human history are so many people improving their life chances so rapidly as in China today. Understandably, that is a source of immense pride to ordinary Chinese (not just in China, incidentally) and to their leaders. Sometimes this pride manifests itself as old-fashioned nationalism. But more usually it shows itself as a demand for recognition, for — to use that phrase again — just deserts. To be sure, Chinese leaders will often tell you that in some ways, great power status has come too soon to them, that they do not yet have the skills or expertise to handle difficult diplomatic challenges. But though modern Chinese will often ask for understanding, they will always ask for respect. They think they've earned it. And they're right.
This self-confidence of modern China, and other Asian societies, too, has had profound implications. At the most basic level, it has encouraged a wide-eyed admiration. In 2004, the World Bank held a global conference on poverty reduction in Shanghai, and I remember press reports describing the scene each evening. African delegates would gather on the Bund and look over the brown waters of the Whampoa to Pudong, gazing in wonder on an unearthly tableau of neon and skyscrapers built on marshes and paddyfields in not much more than 10 years.
What those Africans were seeing, of course, was not just a collection of extraordinary buildings — the world's highest hotel or a funky reworking of the Eiffel Tower — they were seeing a way of being modern. And that goes directly to the problem with claims of American leadership today. In the post-1945 world, the U.S. had a monopoly on modernity. Now it does not. There are, we have learned, many ways of being modern, and they do not all follow the path blazed by the U.S. This isn't just because in China — or in Russia, for that matter — the social and economic attributes of modernity have taken shape without the trappings of democracy, American style, though that is important. The same phenomenon is also evident in countries that are recognizably democracies. I have written before in TIME about a village in Crete that I have been visiting for more than 30 years. In the mid-1970s, there was just one paved street, the priest was the most important local figure, and there was a crisis among the local families when a girl student returned from college in Athens one summer wearing cut-off jeans. Now the streets are all paved and village children sunbathe in thong bikinis. The village is part of modern Europe. And I do mean Europe. Its sports and cultural heroes are not American, the political issues it cares about are not American, and its sense of the good life is not measured by 500 TV channels and huge McMansions. It has become modern, but its sense of modernity is largely unshaped by anything that the U.S. has done or has been.
This matters, because you cannot be a leader without followers. The end of America's monopoly on modernity, coupled with the pride that other nations and cultures take in their own versions of modernity, has changed the game. What the U.S. faces in the world now is not a crisis of leadership so much as one of followership. To be sure, the fiasco of Iraq has meant that there is no new generation of people and nations keen to follow America's lead. But the fundamental point transcends Iraq. It is that the conditions which created leadership and followership in the post-1945 world are gone, and they're not coming back.
None of this means that the U.S. is not the strongest power on earth; plainly, by any combination of measures it is. Often, other powers will want the U.S. to play a role far from its borders because that is the only way of getting things done. And I am certainly not arguing that the rest of the world should be anything but grateful for the leadership that the U.S. took on in the period after World War II. But the world has changed; the language and the concepts that made sense 50 years ago do not make sense now. The U.S. cannot expect an old debt of gratitude to be paid in the coin of perpetual deference. Nations outside the U.S. have no special need or want to hear claims for American leadership today. If those claims are made, they are likely — in American eyes — to be met with nothing more than a sullen ingratitude. Better for all if we just dispense with the whole idea and come up with something better.
It would be too much to ask those seeking the Presidency to embrace this reasoning. The leadership gene is too firmly lodged in the DNA of American politicians. But both McCain and Obama have stressed the need for a new and heartening approach to international relations. Even as he was calling for American leadership on everything from nuclear proliferation to global warming, Obama in Chicago spoke of the need for the U.S. to adopt "the spirit of a partner — a partner that is mindful of its own imperfections." And in his Los Angeles speech, McCain redefined leadership in a sophisticated way. "Leadership today," he said, "means something different than it did in the years after World War II, when ... the United States was the only democratic superpower. Today we are not alone. There is the powerful collective voice of the European Union, and there are the great [democracies] of India and Japan, Australia and Brazil. There are also the increasingly powerful nations of China and Russia. In such a world, where power of all kinds is more widely and evenly distributed, the United States cannot lead by virtue of its power alone ... We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies. When we believe international action is necessary ... we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But we in return must be willing to be persuaded by them."
The America that is sketched in passages such as that — one that does not claim a monopoly of wisdom; one that recognizes that the world has changed; one that does not argue that simply because America was founded on a great idea 232 years ago, it has a moral superiority over everyone else today — is an America to which others would listen. We will soon know if such an America is taking shape.
An earlier version of this article was given as the Howard Higman Memorial Lecture at the University of Colorado at Boulder in April, 2008.