Snowden Affair Shows America Must Work Harder to Lead

Snowden Affair Shows America Must Work Harder to Lead

The failed effort to extradite National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has glaringly revealed the inadequacy of America’s foreign policy. Looking past the drama of camping in the Moscow airport’s transit zone and the naivety of the Russian "reset" strategy, one can easily recognize that today’s world is far more dangerous than many assume.

In response, it is essential for America to recognize budding global challenges, take a more international view, and expand its global outreach efforts.

The fact that China allowed Snowden to fly to Russia, which in turn granted him asylum in defiance of the United States’ publically stated wishes, represents more than an opportunity to disingenuously chide America for its transparency transgressions. Both regimes are notoriously opaque and are often criticized on such matters by the international community.

The actions of China and Russia indicate that they are comfortable, perhaps even eager, to openly challenge American leadership in the world. If history teaches us anything, it is that a world where global leadership is being contested or frequently challenged is a dangerous place.

A world without American leadership is a much more dangerous and much less prosperous place. There is no doubt that the world is flattening, but whether the much-heralded post-American world is on the horizon remains within the hands of Americans.

As a Brazilian friend advised me, the United States must act more like the student council president, not the school principal. While we have clearly retreated from the latter role in recent years, we don’t even seem to be campaigning for the former role.

It is in the interest of both America and the world that the United States more actively court allies, both traditional and new, to band together under our leadership to tackle present and future global threats. The focus of these efforts should not be conflict, but rather increased incentives for coordinated action.

The United States’ international alliance has historically included Canada, Europe, Israel, Japan, and South Korea. Europe’s prolonged economic crisis clearly makes it a less robust ally. Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is starting to express more independence from American tutelage. Most of our traditional allies suffer from extremely low birth rates that will impose severe demographic pressures on them for decades to come. Preserving the vitality of this coalition that has already been so beneficial to the world will be a challenge in and of itself, but it must be kept cohesive. This will require more sensitivity to global views on matters such as data privacy.

While the historic American alliance has been sufficient to advance worldwide action in the past, it must grow if global consensus is to be within reach to meet current and future threats as well as encourage countries like China and Russia to be cooperative. When exploring the most appropriate future partners, it is useful to classify the members of the G-20 as Partner, Parochial or Pivot Powers.

  • Partner Powers have a track record of coming together when push comes to shove. These countries include the United States’ traditional international alliance and others.
  • Parochial Powers are those governments that lack the legitimacy with their own people that comes from free and open elections. They must therefore keep a keen eye on parochial interests (measured either economically or through the more intangible element of national pride) to preserve the allegiance of their citizens. Both China and Russia fall in this category.
  • Pivot Powers are those countries that have historically alternated between working with the United States-led alliance, partnering with others, or simply sitting on the sidelines.

In a world where the Parochial Powers will not heed the wishes of the United States, but are more apt to respond to global consensus, the actions of the Pivot Powers are key. Their decisions will determine whether the world acts or remains stymied in response to global threats. The four most prominent Pivot Powers are Brazil, India, Mexico, and Turkey. Each plays a significant role in its region. Each has become too big to sit in the peanut gallery and criticize the actions of the great powers. They are today’s emerging great powers.

In broad terms, the tranquility of the world relies upon the United States-led Partner Powers maintaining cordial relations with the Parochial Powers. Effective outreach to Pivot Powers can reduce Parochial Power overreach.

The appropriate American response to the Snowden debacle is to commence a far more aggressive campaign to get Brasilia, New Delhi, Mexico City, and Ankara to consider themselves members of the Partner Power alliance committed to coordinated positive action. By working to achieve a greater global consensus, the United States can advance its own ends while making the world a safer place for all.