Here’s a litmus test for you: How do you feel when US President Joe Biden declares that the United States will take its place as “leader of the free world” again? Do you say, “The time has come” – or “So is hubris”? Basically, it’s not about power – America’s leadership – but moral standing. Biden may have earned the right to run America, but in what ways did America earn the right to run the world in 2021?
This is an old question; It’s one that I grew up with. I became politically conscious in 1969 when I was 15; I distributed anti-Vietnam War flyers at the train station where my father and friends commuted to New York City. I would have barked with laughter at the argument that the Cold War was a battle between good and evil. Domestic policy, I would have told you, was where justice could be done. Foreign policy was spy against spy.
Fifty years later, in my US foreign policy courses at New York University, most students find the idea of American leadership equally risky. Whether Americans, Europeans or Emiratis – I also teach at NYU Abu Dhabi – they see the Iraq war more as a signal from the American leadership of the last generation, as I would have described Vietnam. The more politically conscious would add the ravages of American-made neoliberalism.
This also applies to many of today’s progressives who view the United States as a neo-imperialist power engaged in moralistic window dressing. Samuel Moyn, a professor at Yale University, recently described the “rules-based international order” that Biden promises to revive – and govern – as a selfish fiction that the United States promoted despite “bending the rules around the world or have broken “. American warfare was non-partisan; Moyn viciously reminds us of the images of America as the “indispensable nation,” a phrase associated with Democratic Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
American self-righteousness is in the throat of the world; Still, Albright used the term when the Clinton administration finally belatedly intervened in the Balkans after realizing that Europe would not act alone. For many liberals, including me, that moment was a revelation. The lesson was that a world order is not self-governing; it must be guided together with others by its organizing and orienting power.
All of these orders, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger writes in his book World Order, depend on a combination of power and legitimacy. The peculiarity of a liberal or rule-based order is that its legitimacy is based on the willingness of the dominant power to uphold liberal values, although it has the power to ignore them if it so wishes. Moyn, my students, and I from 1969 would say the United States consistently failed this test. Maybe it has; While Vietnam and Iraq and neoliberal excesses take one side of the ledger, the other includes a largely peaceful and prosperous and democratic Asia and Europe, a vast network of alliances and a number of regional and global institutions. International relations theorist G. John Ikenberry describes the United States more usefully as a “liberal Leviathan” – in his eponymous book, as well as in his recent book A World Safe for Democracy – who, despite grave errors, has tied to rules and institutions in the name of long-term self-interest.
Precisely because he understands the moral foundations of leadership, Biden has said that his government must renew domestic democracy before attempting to protect and expand it abroad. That is, the United States must regain leadership. Still, Biden is unlikely to postpone the proposed “Summit of Democracies” until America re-enters the ranks of Freedom House’s Freedom Index. In his heart, Biden probably regards his own choice as sufficient evidence that “America is back”.
The language of leadership – the “indispensable nation” – seems more natural to Biden, a product of the 1950s, than to Barack Obama, the first US president to see the workings of American power from the standpoint of a developing nation. Obama never actually used the phrase “lead from behind,” but the phrase stayed with him in part because it was imaginable that he was doing it. His prudent sense of American power was arguably an appropriate response to eight years of rhetorical and strategic confrontation between President George W. Bush. Today, however, the liberal values that underpin the world order are seriously threatened by both autocratic great powers – China and Russia – and democratic societies. The world needs US leadership more urgently than it did a decade ago, even if the US right to exercise that leadership seems even more shaky than before.
Once we get this idea out of the clouds, we can see where Biden will encounter resistance and where it will not. In his speech last week before the Munich Security Conference, Biden vowed to convene a global summit on climate change. Leadership on the most pressing global issues is, of course, a good thing, as would leadership on public health or, for example, ending the pointless war in Yemen. There is nothing neuralgia there. Even Biden’s efforts to protect democracy abroad are unlikely to meet with resistance on the home front.
This call can of course fall on deaf ears beyond the borders of the USA. After multilateralist President Bill Clinton gave way to unilateralist George W. Bush and Barack Obama Donald Trump, America’s allies have every reason to question the metaphor of the return of the United States. Europe seems to be more committed to this rule-based order than the United States. In his speech in Munich, French President Emmanuel Macron asserted that Europe “must be more responsible for its strategic autonomy” than it is now. Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel have taken a less controversial stance than Biden towards Russia and China.
In any event, Biden will face opposition from the democratic left on defense spending, troop deployment, and anything else related to the word “military”. One of the most tangible global goods the United States has brought to its allies over the past 75 years is the forward deployment of troops to repel attacks by rivals. Progressives of all kinds view America’s global military footprint as a waste of money and a dangerous provocation. Biden doesn’t. He did not speak of a cut in the defense budget or a significant reduction in the number of troops in the Middle East, Europe or Asia. And he is ready to use military force to clarify a point, as he did earlier this week when he authorized air strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria in response to a missile strike by those forces against an American base in Iraq.
Last week, I predicted that Biden’s preference for diplomacy over coercion would disappoint hardliners in Iran. But I suspect it will also disappoint progressives who see military strength itself as evidence of imperial ambition. Biden would say – and I think rightly so – that maintaining the world order does not just mean standing up for democracy and the rule of law or rethinking neoliberal doctrine. It also means preventing Russia from undermining its neighbors through cyber war, economic blackmail, or proxy, and preventing China from gaining control of the South China Sea.
Military strength is not to be confused with war. First in Vietnam, then in Iraq, and now perhaps in Afghanistan, Americans found that war is often far more ruinous and far less effective at bringing about political change than they previously imagined. In a letter to America’s global leadership in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Robert Kagan insists that critics have overreacted to “unsuccessful” wars in Vietnam and Iraq. However, these wars not only resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people and tens of thousands of American soldiers. They have completely destroyed domestic political consensus and blackened America’s reputation abroad. Because of these wars, so many are withdrawing into the language of the American leadership.
Joe Biden voted for the war in Iraq, but I think he knows the price America paid for that mistake. I am pretty sure that he does not intend to adopt the policy of penance demanded by the left, but that he recognizes the damage the United States has done in the name of its vocation to fix the world. American leadership does not have to mean American willingness to fight or arrogance. It doesn’t mean leading from behind, but it does mean leading from next door. The world needs American leadership. The alternative is not Sweden; It’s china.