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What Do Politicians Really Mean by “Global Leadership?”

(Or: What I’d like to ask all those people who want to be president.)

Republican presidential candidates arrive on stage for the Republican presidential debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. From left are:  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie;  Florida Sen. Marco Rubio;  retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; real estate magnate Donald Trump; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul; and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.  AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidates arrive on stage for the Republican presidential debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. From left are: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; real estate magnate Donald Trump; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul; and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s time once again for the keep-me-on-the-edge-of-my-seat annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. So I’m off to San Francisco, where I’ll be seeing friends and colleagues and participating in a roundtable discussion of Nuno Monteiro’s Theory of Unipolar Politics, along with Jim Fearon, Charles Glaser, and David Lake.

I’m going to turn to U.S. grand strategy and the 2016 election in a moment, but first let me say that Monteiro’s book is a terrific piece of scholarship and well worth a careful read. I like it in part because it is very much a realist analysis, but also because it is explicitly theoretical and not just an exercise in “simplistic hypothesis testing.” Monteiro presents a clear and rigorous picture of unipolarity’s central characteristics: both how it is defined and how states within a unipolar system are likely to behave. His analysis is logical, closely reasoned, and well grounded in contemporary international events. It’s also very well written, which all readers will appreciate.

In contrast to Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth — who have also written important works on unipolarity — Monteiro argues that unipolar worlds are not necessarily peaceful or stable. Whether they are depends on the grand strategy that the unipole chooses, and there is no guarantee it will act with restraint. He favors the unipole adopting a strategy of “defensive accommodation,” maintaining its military primacy to deter new peer competitors from emerging, but trying not to stifle a rising power’s economic development, so that rising powers have no incentive to challenge the unipole’s dominant military position.

And now to grand strategy. Re-reading Monteiro’s book got me thinking about the 2016 presidential race, and what I’d most like to ask the assorted candidates. We’ve already started to hear them offer a lot of pious palaver about America’s “exceptional” qualities and the absolute necessity of preserving U.S. “global leadership, and that chorus will no doubt continue right up to Election Day. Nobody’s going to argue for anything less than complete U.S. primacy, and no serious contender is going to question the wisdom of most of America’s global commitments. (Maybe Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders will lean in that direction, but neither has a realistic chance of ever becoming POTUS No. 45). And you can be sure the GOP candidates will come down hard on Obama for somehow “squandering” U.S. leadership, independent of what the facts might be.

But what I’d like to know is what the candidates actually mean by the phrase “global leadership”? In particular, I’d like to see them offer us something more coherent than Dick and Liz Cheney’s splenetic fairy tale in the Wall Street Journal last week, which was long on invective but pretty devoid of facts and logic. (As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait noted afterward, the Cheneys blame Obama for letting Iran increase its influence and get closer to a nuclear weapon, but the Bush administration in which the two Cheneys served did far, far more to enhance Iranian influence by foolishly invading Iraq and bungling the post-war occupation. They also let Iran go from zero working centrifuges to several thousand, without doing squat to stop them.

In short, I’d like to know what specific policies each candidate would pursue under the heading of “preserving global leadership,” and I’d like each of them to explain exactly why those policies will make Americans more secure, more prosperous, and how they would help promote the core values Americans hold dear. Hey, all you candidates out there: Please don’t offer us a lot of flag-waving references to “rebuilding our strength” or “reassuring allies,” or “restoring our credibility” without telling us exactly how the policies you will adopt will do these things and the evidence on which your confidence in them is based.

Sound simple? In fact, this is a trickier assignment than you might think. The happy truth is that the United States is already very secure, and it enjoys geopolitical advantages that other states can only dream about. It is the only great power in the Western hemisphere, with no strong enemies nearby and no states with nuclear weapons anywhere near its borders. It has a large and diverse economy, and a society that is still a magnet for talented and ambitious people from all over the world. It has strong or wealthy allies in many places, a world-girdling array of security partnerships and military bases, conventional military superiority over any other state, and a large and sophisticated nuclear deterrent. America is not 100 percent secure, of course, but it could hardly ask for much more. Violent crime — and especially handgun violence — poses a greater threat to American safety than the Islamic State, al Qaeda, Iran, or North Korea combined.

This situation is good news for Americans, but it also creates something of a paradox. On the one hand, that basic level of security gives Uncle Sam the freedom to roam all over the world, telling others what to do and meddling in places that it barely understands. Indeed, with the exception of U.S. strategic nuclear forces, most of what the Department of Defense does these days has little to do with defending American soil or U.S. citizens here at home. The defense of U.S. territory is mostly up to the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI; by contrast, the Department of Defense is mostly in the business of defending “vital” interests that are thousands of miles away. You know a country is pretty damn secure when the “front lines” it is defending are oceans away from its own homeland.

On the other hand, that same level of security also implies the United States doesn’t need to be all that actively engaged all over the world. It might be desirable to try to manage events in lots of different places, but it is hardly a necessity. And that means defining and defending a policy of “global leadership” is harder than it looks, unless all you do is intone a bunch of familiar clichés and answer every question with a brooding reference to Adolf Hitler and Munich.

If you’ve been paying attention to conventional discourse on foreign affairs, it’s not hard to think up reasons for why an ambitious and forward-leaning posture of “global leadership” might be desirable. The problem is this approach hasn’t worked that well in recent years, and for some pretty obvious reasons, and so these familiar rationales have lots some of their persuasiveness.

For instance, one could argue that global leadership is necessary to “preserve stability” in key regions like Europe, Asia, or the Persian Gulf. There’s a solid case for that, but notice that in recent years the United States has been a leading source of instability in some of these places. It has done an especially good job of destabilizing the Middle East (see under: Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Gaza, etc.), and the initially successful effort to stabilize Europe by expanding NATO backfired when we (and the Europeans) got greedy and went too far east, thereby triggering the current crisis with Russia. If one of the candidates wants to make the “stability” argument, they need to say a lot more about exactly how the United States can reinforce regional peace instead of pouring gasoline on regional conflicts.

Alternatively, more hawkish contenders might argue that “global leadership” is necessary to maintain U.S. credibility, which in turn is allegedly linked to the reliability of the U.S. deterrent. This is an old chestnut that never goes out of fashion: no matter how many times the United States demonstrates its willingness to blow stuff up, any hint of restraint (or good judgment) leads hawks to complain loudly that U.S. credibility is collapsing, our enemies are on the march, and key allies are about to make other arrangements. I get the logic here too, but there’s precious little evidence to support it. The perennial concern for “credibility” is mostly an excuse that lets allies free ride on Uncle Sucker, or a rationale that leads America to fight for things that don’t matter in the hope of persuading foes that we will fight for things that do. It’s also a completely circular argument: we need to exercise global leadership or otherwise our position as a global leader might be challenged. Got that?

U.S. global leadership — and especially its military primacy — can also be justified as key to defending the “global commons” (freedom of navigation, international law, the global environment). I agree with this broad rationale, but notice that it has little to do with some of the extravagant and ill-fated initiatives the United States has undertaken in recent decades. Invading Iraq, trying to nation-build in Afghanistan, or playing Whac-a-Mole with terrorists using drones and special forces isn’t “protecting the global commons,” and as some senior officials have warned, these activities tarnish the U.S. image and may make some extremist movements more popular, not less. So if you’re going to defend U.S. leadership on this basis, you still need to explain what actions should be undertaken and what actions should be avoided.

Perhaps “global leadership” really means defending and promoting a set of core values, such as freedom, democracy, human rights, etc.? I’m all for all of these, but neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to have done a very good job with any of these goals in recent years. Democracy is backsliding world-wide, human rights are progressing slowly if at all, and many U.S. actions — from its ill-advised military interventions to its reflexive support for serial human rights violators like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel — suggest America’s “global leadership” on these issues is more rhetorical than real.

Or maybe what some candidates have in mind is a return to the first Bush administration’s abortive “Draft Defense Guidance,” which called for the United States to prevent the emergence of peer competitors anywhere in the world. Needless to say, this basic concept has been a key element of the entire neoconservative worldview and was central to the first term foreign policy of George W. Bush. In this conception, “global leadership” really means global primacy: the United States maintains global military dominance, declines to be hamstrung by international institutions, tells its allies what to do and when to do it, and gives adversaries the choice of surrendering to our dictates or being overthrown.

One can easily understand the appeal of this idea — at least to Americans — which is why candidates like to tell voters that if elected, they will sweep our enemies away like so many dust mites. If that’s what people like Cruz, Graham, Rubio, Jeb Bush, or even Trump have in mind, one wishes they would just come right out and say so.   But of course they won’t, because we’ve run this particular social science experiment and it didn’t work well at all. Instead of coercing and compelling adversaries and winning the support and deference of our allies, the neoconservative recipe for U.S. dominance via endless war led inevitably to unwinnable quagmires, alienated important allies, and made the terrorism problem much worse. Telling voters that you’ll make the whole world behave might make for a great stump speech, but we’ve seen how well it works in the real world.

Lastly, one could argue that “global leadership” is desirable because the United States gets tangible benefits from it — such as economic concessions from the allies we help defend — or because some degree of leadership is necessary to get other states to pitch in on common problems like the environment, migration, global public health, and the like. There is something to both arguments, but neither is incontrovertible. As Dan Drezner and Thomas Oatley have argued, the economic benefits of U.S. primacy are often overstated and the costs may be greater than we think. In particular, Oatley argues that paying for U.S. military buildups with borrowed money (which the United States has done repeatedly) creates asset bubbles and thus leads to subsequent financial crisis (such as the 2008 crash). If he’s right, than there is a cost to “global leadership” that most Americans haven’t recognized.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the United States can, will, or should disengage from the world, retreat to Fortress America or even adopt the old British strategy of “splendid isolation.” The United States should remain formally allied to our NATO partners, help preserve a balance of power in the Middle East, and assist its Asian allies in keeping China from establishing hegemony in Asia. That’s a pretty sizeable agenda right there, and it requires lots of diplomatic activity, both to defuse problems before they get serious and ensure that our local partners are doing their fair share. Properly pursued, U.S. forces would not be sent in harms’ way very often, and this approach would studiously avoid regime change or nation-building in places that we don’t understand (which is almost everywhere).

But that’s just my view. To repeat: what I’d really like to know is what the different candidates think about this issue, and hear them explain why U.S. taxpayers should pay a lot more than our allies’ citizens do and how Americans actually benefit from the energetic foreign policy that both GOP and Democratic stalwarts never even question. I’d also like to see reporters give them a good grilling on this topic, and refuse to accept vague or non-specific responses. And you should, too.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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