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American Leadership in a Complicated World

Brian Stout - 10th December 2014
American Leadership in a Complicated World

Former diplomat Brian Stout explores how America’s perception of a world characterised by chaos and complexity can be challenged by answering three overlapping questions.

The unedifying spectacle of the midterm elections exposed a paradox in the American body politic. While we remain a deeply divided nation, one insidious belief seemed to cut across party lines and dominate the national narrative: A feeling that the world is falling apart… and that we are powerless to stop it.

There is ample evidence to support the first part of this perception. It seems like each day heralds a new ignominious milestone: for the first time since WWII, global refugee figures topped 50 million. ISIS is cutting a swath across Syria and Iraq; Ebola overwhelms fragile health systems in West Africa. Even as we reel from new challenges, we reprise old ones: Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, another coup in Thailand, economic decline in Japan, sovereign default in Argentina. To top it all off, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently issued its starkest warnings yet about the unsustainable state of the world.

And our seeming inability to effectively navigate these turbulent times lends some credence to the second. Small wonder, then, that the American public has lost faith with the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. But the problem runs deeper. Americans seem to be pulling back from responsibilities that we have shouldered for years, abdicating the role we have played as the cornerstone of the international system since the end of the last World War. This is a dangerous trend, and one that draws the wrong conclusion from the current international landscape. Now is not the time to retreat and retrench, but to retool. Times have changed, and we must change with them.

The perception of chaos and complexity—and the concomitant frustration over our apparent inability to chart a course through it—owes to a lack of consensus on three interrelated questions:

1) What is the world we live in? (And how did we get here?)

2) What is the world we want to live in? (What is our national interest?)

3) How do we behave/engage with the world to bridge the gap between here and there? (What is our foreign policy?)

Focusing only on the question of foreign policy misses a larger point: that our actions must be grounded in both historical context (a descriptive task) and a vision for the future (a normative task). Each question deserves thoughtful, individual attention.

1) What is the world we live in? (And how did we get here?)

The visceral horror of trench warfare in World War I gave rise to the League of Nations and the radical idea that global stability required international cooperation. But American reluctance rendered the League stillborn, and not until the Holocaust did the world’s nation-states (with American leadership) rally around the idea of the United Nations. The United Nations imagined two goals: carrying on the Westphalian realist tradition of what Ikenberry has called “the problems of Hobbes” (and the immediate concern of preventing a World War III), and a more modern idealist tradition emerging from the ashes of the League focused on “the opportunities of Locke” and the creation of a liberal international order.

The tension inherent in the UN’s founding principles reflected a dissonance in America itself: the perennial conflict between its idealist and realist impulses. In the post-World War II world, however, America managed to build remarkable consensus around theories of foreign policy and international relations to guide our actions for over 60 years. First came the US vs USSR bi-polar world with spheres of influence—a world best captured in the Kennan telegram. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the USSR, observers heralded the arrival of the "unipolar world" and America as preeminent guarantor of international stability (the “indispensable nation”).

That consensus shattered on 9/11 with the undeniable emergence of non-state actors as global power players, giving rise to discussions of a "multipolar world." But the multipolar worldview never took root, in part because it remained stuck in a 20th century understanding of nations as the “poles” of power, in part because it sounded like a reactive complaint from those who would challenge American hegemony. Ultimately, it was the 2008 financial crisis that sounded the death knell for the “unipolar moment,” bringing new consensus that now at last we had entered what Zakaria and Fukuyama have called a "post-American" world, or at least one in which America's power is relatively diminished.

But we don’t yet have a dominant narrative that describes the new world we face. We know the features: the rise of non-state actors, instantaneous communication, the relative diminution of American power as new players climb onto the global stage, the inversion of authoritarian "order" in the Middle East, the increasing rigidity of social strata in the western world, the concomitant decreasing faith in plutocratic politics, and an unsustainable assault on global public goods (e.g. climate change). Still, a common frame of reference against which to understand these seemingly disparate trends is missing; there is no tapestry to lend coherence to individual threads. Or, as none other than the pre-eminent realist Henry Kissinger notes, we are “in pursuit of a concept of world order,” at this moment in history when “chaos threatens side by side with unprecedented interdependence.”

The most cogent articulations of this new world order come from the dawn of the Obama presidency, from CFR’s Richard Haass and Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter. Haass coined the term "non-polarity" as the defining feature of a world with more (and more powerful) non-state actors and other loosely networked groups. Slaughter seized on that latter aspect as the defining characteristic of a "networked world order."

Common to both analyses is a recognition that the traditional statist model of foreign relations (and the international institutions built around that model, such as the UN, World Bank, and IMF) now exists alongside an entirely new model of power and legitimacy built on networks across and beneath nations. As Haass put it: “One of the cardinal features of the contemporary international system is that nation-states have lost their monopoly on power and in some domains their preeminence as well.” ISIS is one example; the climate change movement is another. Power, then, is connectivity: the ability to tap into and influence different constituencies across geographic boundaries. But here's the rub (credit Slaughter): “The power that flows from this type of connectivity is not the power to impose outcomes. Networks are not directed and controlled as much as they are managed and orchestrated."

This conception of power is critical to understanding the sense of chaos and policy drift that seems to typify the current state of affairs. Power is no longer about imposing order: it is not a top-down exercise in cause and effect, but a horizontal exercise in influence. To borrow an analogy from physics, foreign policy today is less Newton's third law and more quantum; we deal in probabilities, not absolutes.

2) What is the world we want to live in? (What is our national interest?)

If this is the world as it is, what is the world as we want it to be? Though over two centuries have elapsed since America’s founding, there remains a clear thread linking our early vision to our contemporary goals. While the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution focused primarily on domestic ambitions (the pursuit of happiness via life, liberty, and property), American foreign policy has generally embraced a more expansive vision.

The Monroe Doctrine extended our “zone of influence” to encompass the Americas. Truman went farther, defining his doctrine as a bulwark against communism in Europe and beyond. Eisenhower included the Middle East, and finally Kennedy picked up the torch to “support any friend and oppose any foe” in defense of liberty. There is actually remarkable consensus about what Americans want for individuals in other countries: generally speaking, the same things we want for ourselves. As Melinda Gates put it, “Whatever the conditions of people’s lives, wherever they live, however they live, we all share the same dreams.”

Though we’ve vacillated between internationalist and isolationist impulses since our founding, it’s less a reflection of ideological disagreement over whether than a debate over how much effort (and blood and treasure) the U.S. should spend farther afield. Put differently: We know we want an end to the Syrian civil war and see Assad out of power, but we disagree on whether it’s our job to actively promote that outcome.

This example points to an alignment between our desires for other individuals and are desires for system fitness more broadly. The interdependence of a networked world means that now more than ever Americans have a stake in ensuring that people elsewhere are able to lead lives of dignity. The Syrian opposition took up arms in response to oppression, leading to a civil war that created the space for ISIS to emerge. And suddenly, the American calculus changed: What had seemed a regrettable civil war that did not impact us became a transnational threat with potentially direct implications for the homeland.

This example is a microcosm of the broader truth made manifest through the Arab Spring: in the long run, the only truly sustainable international system is one in which individual states are accountable to their people and able to ensure basic rights and the rule of law (for as Amartya Sen famously observed, famines do not happen in functioning democracies). This aspirational statement (a reflection of America’s own founding principles) provides a long-term goal against which to evaluate a set of foreign policy challenges.

3) How do we behave/engage with the world to bridge the gap between here and there? (What is our foreign policy?)

While some may be reluctant to apply America’s vision abroad, even the narrowest vision of American foreign policy (the realist/isolationist end of the spectrum) would admit the need for an international system capable of containing pandemic health threats, mitigating the effects of climate change, and ensuring some common standards to govern cross-border trade, financial transactions, etc. Such a world requires international actors to weigh collective interests alongside parochial (or national) interests and subordinate the latter when necessary. It requires collective action.

Recognizing the changed nature of the international system, the players in this collective action game are no longer limited to nation-states. Coalition building is not solely about lining up votes at the United Nations, but about leveraging the most effective networks in support of the world as we want it to be. It is about tapping into transnational movements, lending voice and influence even where we lack the ability to exert direct control.

We are living in a new world order—one characterized by nodes of networked power not necessarily coterminous with traditional nation-states. To cite one recent example: Australia recently hosted both the G-20 summit (featuring the heads-of-state of major economies) and the World Parks Congress (a gathering of state, nonprofit, and private sector actors devoted to conservation). Both summits remain relevant to the new world order, but the ability to proactively engage in both fora is one feature of power in a networked world.

To navigate this new world requires a recommitment to our core ideals to ensure that the American model of democratic governance continues both (a) to woo adherents among competing approaches to national governance (China, Russia, Egypt, ISIS) and (b) to provide an organizing principle for efforts at global governance.

Operationalizing this vision means acknowledging a core truth: our foreign policy must be in service of our broader goal of creating international systems that enable effective collective action to combat global challenges. This requires two corollary principles. First, our actions must be consistent with the rules of the game we want others to live by, and our domestic policies must align with our international rhetoric. Our “national interest” thus must include efforts to win the support of not only leaders, but also their people.

These principles in turn illuminate implications for existing practices. An obvious candidate is our drone policy. As currently implemented, it fails all three principles. Targeted killings without due process undermine efforts to construct international architecture that promotes coordination, are not a model we want other states to adopt, and are clearly inconsistent with our domestic standards.

Understanding the new world order—and identifying our north star to help navigate its increasingly complexity—is critical to America’s ability to once again play the proactive role of shaping international institutions to meet new global challenges. It is a role we are uniquely suited to play. President Obama acknowledged as much in his “foreign policy speech” at West Point:

Global leadership requires us to see the world as it is, with all its danger and uncertainty. We have to be prepared for the worst, prepared for every contingency. But American leadership also requires us to see the world as it should be—a place where the aspirations of individual human beings really matter; where hopes and not just fears govern; where the truths written into our founding documents can steer the currents of history in a direction of justice.

But the Obama Administration has not yet done this. It has failed to explain to the American people “the world as it is,” much less offer a coherent vision of the world as it ought to be and how we can shape it to that end. The stakes are high. Should America heed the dismal angels of our nature, the new world will take shape in the image of those who engage with it. A recalcitrant Russia, an emerging China, an atavistic ISIS. We are not a country that shrinks from challenges or shies away from responsibility. The networked non-polar world offers an opportunity for America to do what it does best—lead—and to ally with others already playing a positive role, be they people, states, or organizations and networks in between.

This may not be a unipolar moment, but it can still be an American moment.


Brian Stout is a Truman National Security Fellow and former diplomat with USAID and the State Department. He currently works as a strategy consultant at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter at @CitizenStout.