What We Talk About When We Talk About Leadership

Why is President Obama afraid to talk about the real levers of American exceptionalism?

Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images
Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images

What started as a partisan attack line has turned into a full-fledged national lament: America under Obama is in retreat, having lost its willingness to lead and its appetite to do great things. The "international order" is coming apart as a result. The Russians dismantle Ukraine, the Chinese send drill rigs into disputed waters, the North Koreans flout nuclear norms, and the Syrians ignore American redlines — and all the president of the United States can do is complain to reporters that no one understands him while his constituents tell pollsters they’re sick of having to care.

The only antidote to this weakness, the lament goes, is a demonstration of might. The only way to reverse our retreat is to assert our power. And unless we do, the international order — one built out of the wreckage of World War II and then sustained through victory in the Cold War, one that kept Americans secure at home even as it spread freedom and prosperity abroad — has little hope of survival.

At West Point on Wednesday, in his biggest speech on foreign policy in a year, President Obama attempted to silence this lament. He rejected its pernicious opposition: intervention or retreat, assertions of power abroad or withdrawal behind our borders at home. (When the question is put to them in those terms, most Americans today weary and wary of intervention — choose Option B.) But while he pointed out that we must "strengthen and enforce international order," he did too little to emphasize what many of his detractors ignore. For Obama, six years into his presidency, much more essential than reiterating criticisms of his predecessor is condemning his current critics for what they’re missing: By neglecting, and often opposing, the most powerful steps the administration could take to renew the international order, they offer a vision of American leadership that is disastrously distorted.

If the question is not just whether to lead, but how, the starting point must be building on what we’ve done well in the past — what makes the international order worth saving in the first place. America has been successful in shaping and sustaining order over the past 70 years because our strength rests on a global political foundation, not just on military might. In the decades after World War II, Washington led the way in building a distinctly liberal international system, defined by multilateral bodies, alliances, open trade, and political partnerships. This system tied liberal democracies together through rules and institutions that fostered both economic advancement and security cooperation — from NATO to the Marshall Plan, from the United Nations to Bretton Woods. 

These partnerships and institutions sometimes limited our freedom of action, but ultimately they made us stronger. By binding American power in a broader system, they helped ensure it was legitimate, durable, and far-reaching, able both to deter great-power rivals and to avert counterbalancing coalitions of frightened smaller countries. They helped win broad global appeal for democracy, openness, the rule of law, and human rights.

This order does face strains, for reasons that have become familiar: the ambitions of a rising China, the emergence of headstrong new players in every region, the growing dangers of transnational threats. (It is not Pollyannaish to point out that many of these problems are byproducts of success: rising powers are rising because they have embraced the advantages of the existing order; we confront climate change because of unprecedented global growth, terrorism because of unprecedented global interdependence.) And there is undeniable cause for concern about Americans’ lack of willingness to back an active foreign policy, after the traumas of failed intervention abroad and of stagnant economic prospects at home. But building on what we’ve done right in the past points to the best way both to repair those strains and to overcome the entirely understandable popular skepticism about the advantages of foreign-policy ambition.

That would mean decrying and overcoming congressional opposition to reform of the International Monetary Fund, a key institution of the current order. The Obama administration has won international support for restructuring the institution’s governance to give new powers a larger role — mostly at the expense of European, not American, influence — thus ensuring their continued involvement. But opponents in Congress have stalled it, while the BRICS, denied a leadership stake that reflects their current heft, have moved ahead with plans to create financial institutions of their own.

It would mean rallying support for ratification of international treaties like the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea. We invoke the Law of the Sea to defend core principles of the global order — when, say, China aggressively asserts its control of contested waters. But as Obama noted, America has not actually ratified it: two years ago, 34 Senate Republicans beat back the most recent effort to get congressional approval.

It would mean building a domestic consensus for ambitious trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (between the United States and the European Union). If passed, they would cement U.S. economic leadership in blocs that together represent nearly two-thirds of the global economy. But in the face of congressional paralysis and of anemic efforts to broadly distribute the gains from trade, the prospects of both deals are in doubt.

It would mean never again allowing dysfunction in Washington to keep the president of the United States from attending key international gatherings in Asia. When President Obama missed last year’s East Asia Summit during the government shutdown — just a few years after the United States joined the summit to show its commitment to playing an ongoing role in Asian politics — it spooked allies and partners, undermined faith in U.S. staying power, and had Chinese hawks gloating. Doubt about our "credibility" has more to do with this kind of domestic dysfunction than any specific foreign-policy decision.

It would mean supporting the kinds of humanitarian initiatives that have always been a hallmark of American power. We may, for example, have a limited ability to successfully end the violence in Syria, through means either diplomatic or military, but, as Obama’s speech noted, we can play the leading role in an expanded international response to the humanitarian crises that have spilled out of it, at great cost to both millions of Syrians and to the stability of its neighbors.

President Obama and his defenders don’t help themselves by downplaying steps like these as "singles and doubles," as he did last month — an analogy gleefully seized upon by detractors. Those critics, meanwhile, are wrong to belittle such measures as weak or fancifully utopian. Efforts like these, as much as military power, account for the past successes of American leadership and the international order we built. They have been, and remain, some of our most powerful weapons.

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan served as a foreign-policy advisor to Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign and before that as a member of the State Department policy planning staff. Before joining the Barack Obama administration, he was a senior editor at Foreign Affairs. His book about George Marshall will be published by W.W. Norton in 2018. Twitter: @dankurtzphelan

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