A slogan and signature phrase of US diplomacy is the world’s need for ‘leadership’, which is ‘global’ in magnitude and centered in Washington.
The idea is conceptually an ancient one. Great powers of antiquity might claim that they had conquered the known world, or were the rightful ruler of the earth even beyond their formal borders. According to the Mongol Khans, peoples outside their frontiers who did not submit were ‘rebels.’ The Persian King Darius claimed that as appointee and agent of the god Ahura Mazda, his rightful kingdom was the cosmos itself.
American Presidents don’t quite use those terms. But unlike ancient empires, they have a domain that is literally worldwide. The US has had a global military presence in the form of bases, far flung mobile forces, and a panoptic satellite eye. They have allies and clients on five continents. Their dollar is the international currency. Their diplomats are busy brokering settlements and signing treaties the world over. And the US as the world’s most far-reaching power assigns itself the responsibility for responding to global problems, such as pandemics or terrorism.
Unsurprisingly, such a country presents its power as legitimate leadership, a moral burden solemnly shouldered for the good of mankind. Rogue players that disobey or flout international accords, such as Iran, rebel against the standard of international governance laid down in Washington, and America asks emerging powers such as China publicly to conform to American policies as a sign of their own role in the Pax Americana. America works hard to legitimise this state of affairs and often to win consent. But it is a claim to world authority.
So what’s the problem? Leadership implies that others do not lead but follow. The corollary of global leadership is collective ‘followship.’ Which entails subordination. But states do not always wish to be lead. They often wish to act autonomously and independently. China doesn’t think Iran is as much a problem as America does, finds benefit in trading with that state, and also has strong reasons to prolong the diplomatic struggle over the country to keep America tied down and distracted by the issue. India would like to have its industrial revolution no matter what the EU prefers on carbon emissions. Japan flouts opposition to whaling, no matter what the international community feels.
By claiming to be the world’s sheriff, the US can lose sight of how others want to do their own thing independently. Secretary of State Clinton’s claim that the US is indispensable to resolving conflicts is actually quite untrue. Just ask Singapore and Malaysia, for example, who brokered a resolution to their long-standing differences without US mediation. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process was largely an indigenous affair.
None of this is to say that American action in the world is never beneficial or welcomed. The Marshall Plan or the international agreements recently on securing nuclear materials are projects of great value that won consent. But other states will be selective and sometimes sly as they pick when to run with American leadership and when to depart.
There is also a basic strategic problem with the concept of American leadership. Its too big. It admits no limits. It stretches beyond the resources of a country that struggles to sustain two wars simultaneously, that is now the world’s biggest borrower, and which can barely afford to rebuild its own decaying cities, let alone reconstruct impoverished states abroad. In fact, the pursuit of hegemony has probably helped to accelerate these problems. And of course, the pursuit of global leadership also presents other states with the opportunity to ‘free ride’ on American efforts, while undertaking their own risky behaviour.
Its hard to imagine a world not organised around dominance, but one of balance and negotiated space. A Concert-Balance strategy would hardly be flawless. But prudent shared power is a better long-term bet in a world that remains unconquerable.