Stephen M. Walt

Why American leaders like being #1

All told, this has not been a good month for war criminals, international terrorists, and tyrannical despots. To be specific: Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, Ratko Mladic has been captured in Serbia, Muammar Qaddafi’s forces are gradually wilting (and it’s hard to imagine that the Qaddafi family will ever be regarded as legitimate ...

Damian Strohmeyer /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Damian Strohmeyer /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

All told, this has not been a good month for war criminals, international terrorists, and tyrannical despots. To be specific: Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, Ratko Mladic has been captured in Serbia, Muammar Qaddafi’s forces are gradually wilting (and it’s hard to imagine that the Qaddafi family will ever be regarded as legitimate again), and the protests against the Assad regime in Syria continue despite repeated acts of repression.

Which tells you why it’s nice to be the leader(s) of a great power. When you’re the head of a relatively weak group like Al Qaeda, you have to stay hidden and hope you don’t get found. If you’re a fugitive from justice from a weak country like Serbia, you don’t have much choice but to hide out. And if you’re the ruler of an oil-rich but otherwise weak country like Libya, you have to worry that stronger powers might suddenly decide that it’s time to overthrow you.

But if you’re the leader of a great power like the United States (or some others), you can order the illegal invasion of other countries, torture suspected terrorists, conduct drone attacks and targeted assassinations on the territory of other sovereign nations, and cause — directly or indirectly — the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people. And when you leave office, nobody will investigate you for possible war crimes, or interfere with your leisure time (though you might have to alter your travel plans occasionally). You can kick back, write your memoirs, and make the occasional snarky speech criticizing your successors. Being the dominant world power has certain downsides to it, but it’s pretty easy to understand why nobody ever campaigns for president saying their goal is to make America #2.  

I just worry that we’ll keep doing things that will take us there anyway.

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

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