Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Could the United States Still Lead the World if It Wanted to?

The answer is yes—but more depressing than you think.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Joe Biden speaks about unrest in the United States.
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks about the unrest across the country from Philadelphia City Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 2, 2020. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

If there’s one idea that still commands a broad consensus inside the foreign-policy community, it’s the United States is and should remain the leader of the free world. That view stood front and center during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years, and it remained largely intact (if somewhat muted) during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s ill-informed and incoherent effort to put “America First.” When U.S. President Joe Biden says “America is back” and his foreign-policy team seeks to unite the world’s democracies against a rising authoritarian tide, these goals reflect the rarely questioned belief that the United States is uniquely positioned to perform this leadership role.

The strongest argument in favor of this view is essentially negative: No other democracy has sufficient economic or military power to exercise decisive “leadership” (however one defines it), and no other democracy really wants the job. But the lack of a plausible alternative isn’t enough: We still need to ask if the United States is presently capable of exercising the role that advocates of U.S. global leadership recommend.

If there’s one idea that still commands a broad consensus inside the foreign-policy community, it’s the United States is and should remain the leader of the free world. That view stood front and center during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years, and it remained largely intact (if somewhat muted) during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s ill-informed and incoherent effort to put “America First.” When U.S. President Joe Biden says “America is back” and his foreign-policy team seeks to unite the world’s democracies against a rising authoritarian tide, these goals reflect the rarely questioned belief that the United States is uniquely positioned to perform this leadership role.

The strongest argument in favor of this view is essentially negative: No other democracy has sufficient economic or military power to exercise decisive “leadership” (however one defines it), and no other democracy really wants the job. But the lack of a plausible alternative isn’t enough: We still need to ask if the United States is presently capable of exercising the role that advocates of U.S. global leadership recommend.

To do so requires defining exactly what we mean by “free world” and exactly what we mean by “leadership.”

Rather obviously, the term “free world” refers to those states that are committed to a set of familiar liberal institutions: individual rights, tolerance, accountability through free and fair elections, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and the like. Exercising “leadership,” in turn, means either being an attractive model for others to emulate or being able to make intelligent policy choices, implement them successfully, and convince others to follow suit.

So the first question we need to answer is whether the United States is a good model for other liberal states. The second question is whether its policy judgments are ones that others should trust and follow, especially with respect to foreign policy. On balance, the answer to both questions is “no.”

Let’s start with question one: Is the United States an attractive model that other free societies should emulate? The right-of-center Economist certainly doesn’t think so, insofar as its annual Democracy Index downgraded the United States from the category of “full democracy” to “flawed democracy” back in 2017 and has kept it there ever since.

It’s easy to see why: Voter turnout in the United States ranks only 26th in the world, and public trust in government is at historically low levels. Twenty-five percent of all Americans and 53 percent of Republicans believe Trump won the 2020 election and that he is the “true president,” and nearly half of all Republicans say it was appropriate for state legislators to try to shift electoral votes to Trump in states Biden won. Republicans who reject the lie of a stolen election, such as Rep. Liz Cheney, have been removed from leadership positions in the GOP.

Republican senators also blocked the creation of an independent commission to investigate the violent assault on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, and some members of the party have even described the attack as “peaceful patriots” acting “in an orderly fashion” like a “normal tourist visit.” Not surprisingly, Trump now describes the attackers as “peaceful people” and “patriots.” Someone might want to show him this video.

Since November, 17 Republican-controlled state legislatures have imposed new restrictions on voting, and last month, the three justices Trump appointed to the Supreme Court joined with other conservatives to further weaken the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

And it’s not just politics. Americans like to call their country the “land of the free,” but the United States still has the highest incarceration rate in the world, nearly double that of Russia. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pointed out last month, the country also ranks only 28th on the nonpartisan Social Progress Index.

Need more? The U.S. tax system is compromised by widespread fraud and evasion, reinforcing one of the developed world’s highest levels of economic inequality. And let’s not forget the 2008 global financial crisis began in the United States with the collapse of the U.S. mortgage market. The resulting panic wasn’t some sort of natural disaster: It was the product of hubris, inadequate regulation, and corruption no one was ever held accountable for.

Similarly, the United States’ national security establishment is addicted to secrecy and equally allergic to accountability. Senior officials can authorize the use of torture, undertake illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens, give classified information to their paramours, and then lie to the FBI about it while remaining respected figures within the establishment. So can military commanders, who neither win the wars they have been ordered to fight nor can explain why these wars could not be won and should never have been fought.

At the same time, both Republican and Democratic presidents have intensified efforts to prosecute journalists and whistleblowers seeking to inform the public about government malfeasance. As a result, the country now ranks only 44th on the World Press Freedom Index. Such problems are much worse in dictatorships, of course, but the United States is hardly setting a good example for the rest of the free world.

To make matters worse, freedom of thought and expression are now being threatened by extremists on the right and the left who seek to silence or marginalize views they disagree with. This trend includes official efforts to ban the teaching of critical perspectives in history at public schools and universities and to impose a single sanitized narrative. Whatever one thinks about the historic accuracy and intellectual merits of some of these perspectives, censorship of this sort is sharply at odds with the principles of a free society. Meanwhile, an epidemic of unreason has broken out in this country, with substantial minorities wrongly convinced that life-saving vaccines are more dangerous than COVID-19 or the country is run by a secret cabal of pedophiles.

Given all this and more, how could anyone hold up the U.S. political system as a model for others to emulate?

What about the second type of leadership: the ability to choose the right course, implement it successfully, and get other states to follow it? The United States used to be pretty good at this role, but the past several decades have cast considerable doubt on its collective political wisdom, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

For starters, the United States has been a laggard in dealing with climate change, which is arguably the single most important issue facing humankind today. The Biden administration appears to understand the issue is critical, but whether the country as a whole will do what is necessary remains an open question. So far, the GOP ain’t buying.

The United States also led the push for hyper-globalization in the 1990s, which created greater financial instability, accelerated China’s emergence as a major rival, and eventually triggered a populist backlash there and elsewhere. A relatively open world economy is desirable, and protectionist impulses should usually be resisted, but Washington took liberalization too far and too fast.

U.S. elites from both parties also bet that close engagement with China would make it a “responsible stakeholder” and hasten its transition to democracy, thereby bringing a billion more people into the “free world” as well. This bet did not pay off, and Republicans and Democrats now compete to express alarm about a peer competitor U.S. policy helped create.

The list goes on: Four consecutive administrations mismanaged the Middle East peace process, and its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere ended in costly defeats and disaster for millions of others. Meanwhile, the United States continues to back a set of Middle East clients whose values and political behavior are sharply at odds with liberal ideals. That list includes Egypt and Saudi Arabia but also Israel, which Human Rights Watch and the Israeli rights organization B’Tselem have declared to be running a system of apartheid.

U.S. policy toward Iran has been a failure too: The war in Iraq enhanced Iran’s regional influence, and ratcheting up sanctions didn’t stop Tehran from acquiring the capacity to build a nuclear weapon if it ever decides to do so. Unfortunately, Trump abandoned the 2015 deal that shrank Iran’s enrichment capacity and stockpile of nuclear materials and extended its “breakout time,” and his administration subsequently threatened to sanction several U.S allies (all of them members of the “free world” by the way) if they stuck to the agreement (which had also been unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council). And what was the end result of this brilliant demonstration of U.S. leadership? Iran is closer than ever to building a bomb, and the Biden administration has been unable to find a way back to the original deal.

Given all the above, it is not surprising that U.S. efforts to spread democracy and other liberal values around the world have been a bust. According to Freedom House, 2020 was the 15th consecutive year that the level of global freedom declined, and NATO allies like Poland and Hungary now openly reject key liberal values under the blanket of U.S. protection. The Economist Intelligence Unit offers an equally gloomy assessment, concluding “global democracy continued its decline in 2020,” with a mere 8.4 percent of the world’s population living in a fully democratic country. (To repeat: It does not count Americans among them.)

Given this track record, there is little reason for Americans to see themselves as wise leaders on the world stage and little reason for others in the free world to follow its guidance uncritically.

Am I being unfair or offering up a biased picture? Perhaps. As noted at the beginning of this column, there is no obvious alternative “leader” of the world’s free societies, and there are issues where U.S. leadership is probably necessary and can still be effective. The Trump administration deserves credit for helping jump-start the development of effective coronavirus vaccines (if little else), and the Biden administration has led the campaign to reform the global tax regime and limit the ability of multinational corporations to exploit offshore tax havens (although whether the agreement can win approval in the Senate is not clear). U.S. allies in Europe and Asia can and should do more to provide for their own security, but efforts to balance a rising China will almost certainly require U.S. participation as well.

The United States should continue to play an active role in international affairs, but Americans should rethink what that role should be. Instead of assuming the position of “leader of the free world” is its birthright, the inevitable result of its hard power, or something that flows naturally from its supposedly “exceptional” virtues, the United States would do better to ask itself exactly why it might be in other states’ interest to follow either its example or advice. Regrettably, that’s not an easy question to answer just now.

To be clear: I take no pleasure in this depressing assessment. I would much prefer to believe the United States was a society whose political institutions and other virtues were apparent to others and worthy of emulation by other free societies. I wish other states had abundant reasons to trust the United States foreign-policy judgment. But that is not the case today, and it will require substantial reforms to make it so. Instead of reflexively viewing their country as the rightful leader of the free world, therefore, Americans must first fix what has gone wrong at home and rethink how they deal with the rest of the world. If they succeed in doing that—and success is by no means assured—then they might have reason to hope others will follow the United States’ lead once more.

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

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