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As Ukraine Heats Up, America Needs to Take the Lead

As Ukraine Heats Up, America Needs to Take the Lead

At the beginning of the last century, President Theodore Roosevelt launched the United States onto the world stage with the call to "speak softly and carry a big stick." President George W. Bush perhaps forgot the part about speaking softly. President Barack Obama appears to have misplaced the stick.

In an overreaction to what many viewed as an excessively aggressive stance, we are clearly seeing the costs of believing that America can step back and have someone else pick up the slack. As Winston Churchill observed, "When the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber."

As the world heats up, it is time for America to step up.

Active leadership by the United States in world affairs is essential to preserve the free flow of commerce — including air travel. It adds to our leverage in economic negotiations, preserves the dollar as a world currency, facilitates collaboration to address global threats, and keeps rivals in check.

For those who think "darn it, let someone else lead for a while," I cannot help but recall the story of the Boy Scout who showed up at camp without his rain poncho. When chastised for not living up to the Scout motto to "be prepared," he replied, "I am prepared — prepared to get wet."

The world is getting drenched.

A commercial jet is shot from the sky in the Ukraine, Crimea is seized, Israel launches a ground war, the death toll in Syria exceeds that of the Iraq War, Islamic extremism spreads across Africa, Iraq splinters along sectarian lines, China agitates over territorial claims in the Pacific provoking a determined response by Japan, and North Korean belligerence continues.

On the economic front, the Doha Round of trade talks linger as efforts to complete trade agreements in Europe and the Pacific drift past deadlines, with little prospect of the Congress providing negotiating authority anytime soon.

Are we wet enough yet?

What nation do we expect to fill the void?

A global economic landscape populated by multiple, more evenly balanced economic powers is on the horizon. Many nations jostling for power has historically led to conflict.

"We in this country," John F. Kennedy observed, "are — by destiny rather than choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom." Are we going to relinquish that post to China?

Assimilating China and other rising powers into world leadership without the conflagration that erupted with the rise of Germany and Japan will be facilitated by a strong and active America, not by ceding our place on the world stage.

There is no doubt that America no longer has, if it ever had, the capacity to act alone. Yet it should also be clear that the world needs a catalyst to address common concerns and that no other nation is lurking in the wings ready to assume that responsibility.

America is at its best when it acts as a catalyst for global action on the common problems we face as a planet. A catalyst by definition accelerates action by others. This implies both that it presses for action when needed and that it gathers as many allies as possible in that effort. That requires keeping our current alliances strong and seeking closer ties with emerging powers in key regions, especially India, Turkey, and the continent of Africa.

To be an effective catalyst for action, America must make its dual nature clear to the world. It can be your best friend by gathering the support of others to help you fulfill your aspirations and advance win-win policies. It also has the ability to be your worst enemy if you pursue objectives that conflict with the United States and its allies.

President Bush gave people confidence that America could be their worst enemy. President Obama has given people little confidence that America would take the actions necessary to be their best friend.

To lead, America must have both the soft power ability to persuade and the hard power ability to dissuade. Leadership is not soft power or hard power. It is soft power and hard power.

The path for Obama is clear: speak softly (including about when you will not use force), find the stick, and actively engage as a catalyst so that we never have to swing it.