Jonathan Power: Lead the World by Following?

By Jonathan Power

Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, was harping on an old theme at her Senate confirmation hearing last week. She said her top international principle was to ”strengthen America’s position of global leadership.” This reminds one of her Clinton administration predecessor, Madeleine Albright, who famously said that ”America is the indispensable nation” and that we “stand tall and hence see further than any other nation.”

This swagger suggests that other nations are somehow dispensable, and that American indispensability is the source of all wisdom. ( So what about Iraq, global warming, Palestine/Israel, the International Criminal Court, and financial probity?)

In the United States, ”one reads about the world’s desire for American leadership,” a high British diplomat once told me. ”Everywhere else, one reads about American arrogance and unilateralism.” (And this was said before George W. Bush came to power!) Today, even the instinctively pro-Washington British Conservative Party has sought to step back from American hubris, which is clearly not a vote winner on this side of the pond.

Change may come, but even President Barack Obama wrote only two years ago that the United States ”must lead the world once more.”

Just over two weeks ago, the eminent Harvard professor, Samuel Huntington died. In 1999, he penned an article in Foreign Affairs which caused almost as much shock as his earlier essay, the controversial ”The Clash of Civilizations.”

He writes: ”In the past few years, the U.S. has attempted unilaterally to do the following: prevent other countries from acquiring military capabilities that could counter American conventional superiority; enforce American law extra territorially in other societies; grade countries according to American standards on human rights, drugs, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and religious freedom; apply sanctions against countries that do not meet American standards on these issues; promote American corporate interests under the slogans of free trade and open markets; shape World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies to serve the same corporate interests; intervene in local conflicts in which it has relatively little direct interest; bludgeon other countries to adopt economic and social policies that will benefit American economic interests; promote American arms sales abroad; expand NATO; and categorize certain countries as ”rogue states.”

He finishes off this massive indictment by saying that in the eyes of many countries it is America that is becoming ”the rogue superpower.” Perhaps the best way to sum up Huntington’s thesis is that America has become a master of ”do as I say, not as I do.”

Phew! And Huntington was an instinctive conservative. Those of us more to the left have even greater scorn for the eight years of President George W. Bush.

One of the more surprising books of the last two years is Dangerous Nation authored by Robert Kagan, who made his international reputation with Paradise and Power, in which he said America was like Mars and, more scathingly, Europe was like Venus, unwilling to take on its international responsibilities and leaving Washington to police the world. The whole of Kagan’s new book is a history of the violent, imperialistic tendencies that have governed U.S. rule since its inception. He concludes by saying that the Declaration of Independence ”reflected Americans’ view of themselves as the advance guard of civilization” and that this has continued to be so every since—the words of another formidable conservative writer.

It may be true, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has said, that the United States ”will be the first, the last, and only super power.” But this certainly doesn’t mean that it will make much progress in the world by seeing itself in unipolar terms. In history, only the classical world under Rome and, at times, East Asia under China, approximated this model.

During the Cold War, the global structure of power was bipolar. Now it is multipolar—with several sovereign and regional powers rising to the fore. The European Union (economically) is certainly a potential equal to the United States. Right now, the euro is beginning to overtake the dollar as the currency investors prefer to hold. Already there are more euros in circulation than dollars.

As Huntington observed, ”virtually all major regional powers are increasingly asserting themselves to promote their own distinct interests, which often conflict with those of the United States.” One need only look at how French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently led the European Union to settle the Georgia/Russian war—with minimal consultation with Washington. Today, it is trying to do the same with the gas dispute (although this time with less success, as EU leadership has passed to the less hefty Czech Republic).

Despite previous rhetoric, it seems that President Barack Obama has grasped the nature of our changing world.

Whether Hillary Clinton has, or other high officials (who may with difficulty locate Kosovo, Burundi, or Bhutan on a map) have, is a good question. Obama will have to turn around a whole mentality, one that holds a place deep in the American psyche, in short time. This week he starts.

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Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).

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