At home, America is confronting a variety of critical choices. Border security, healthcare, Social Security, infrastructure, and continued economic growth are just some of the areas where the country is facing decisions that could affect our future for generations to come. Many of them revolve around the age-old political dilemma of ‘how to pay for unlimited wants with limited means’ and the budgetary battles that result. But there are also deeper tensions between how Americans define themselves, each other, and our future as a nation that will need to be solved moving forward.

Internationally the country is also beset by a variety of key decisions and threatening dilemmas. After 17 years we continue to fight the War on Terror with no apparent end in sight. The framework of America’s previously rational foreign-policy has been warped to the point that outside observers and Americans themselves no longer fully understand who our allies and adversaries are. Global environmentalism is in retreat, inequality continues to grow, and despite decades of efforts we appear no closer to truly stopping nuclear proliferation.

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Many of us are overwhelmed by the weight of these domestic and international decisions. Not only are they complex, some with the potential for mistakes that could lead to war, they are also demanding of our immediate attention. The reality however is that we cannot begin to engage either the threats or the opportunities in America’s future without answering the key question we have avoided answering since the end of the Cold War: “Do we want to lead the world or not?

The Rise and Fall of American Leadership

For most of human history the concept of international leadership has been defined simply as ‘whoever is most powerful makes the rules’. For thousands of years the powerful made rules that benefited themselves to the detriment of everyone else. From ancient civilizations and the age of empires, through colonialism, imperialism, and culminating with fascism, international leadership was exploitation of the weak by the powerful.

The American-led victory in World War II changed everything. For the first time the most dominant country in the world established a system that promised to benefit the many instead of the few. We promoted ourselves as the champions of democracy, international law, human rights, and international peace. We spent billions of dollars and cooperated with every country in the world to build a structure of cooperative organizations with the United Nations at its center, all with the hope of creating frameworks of international peace and progress that were not dictated solely by the whims of the most powerful state in the world. Thousands of Americans made the ultimate sacrifice as the country fought throughout the four decades of the Cold War to protect what at times seemed to be a fragile system of international leadership. To be sure, America made numerous mistakes as all leaders do. But the more important thing was that America was attempting to lead the world to the greatest benefit of all, and not just ourselves.

US victory in the Cold War erased many of the poor decisions and mistakes that had been made along the way. Some of the darker legacies like the Vietnam War would continue to stain America’s conscience, but for most of the issues that had plagued America during the Cold War victory was a matter of the end justifying the means. Leading the defeat of fascism in World War II followed so closely by victory against Soviet communism and totalitarianism cemented our position as the “shining beacon on the hill.” Most importantly, this was a perspective that was embraced by a large majority of the global community.

Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate famously asking the Russians to, “Tear down this wall!”; June 12, 1987

At the beginning of the 1990’s the country was the unquestioned leader of the world, even more so than it had been at the end of World War II. There was a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to the principles that had guided US foreign-policy throughout the Cold War. Presidents George H. Bush and Bill Clinton promoted policy actions through the multilateralism of the United Nations symbolizing the country’s commitment to the spread of democracy, international law, and human rights. We worked to strengthen the foundations of the international economic system while at the same time embracing pro-environmental perspectives in global agreements and treaties.

The country’s embrace of globalism was mirrored by a search for the “peace dividend” here at home. Discussions and debates centered on the idea that now that the Cold War was over the country could focus on improving things domestically. Whether it was more money going to ‘butter vs. guns’, or the chance to set new national priorities after the defeat of the Soviets, most believed that any embrace of international leadership would be mirrored by improvements at home. And thus, from both domestic and international perspectives the great decisions and dilemmas confronting Americans at the end of the Cold War centered on exactly how we should enjoy the fruits of our victory. But before we could answer them 9/11 happened and once again everything changed.

The greatest test of leadership is being confronted by decisions that pit the needs of those you are leading against your own self-interest. 9/11 and the War on Terror that it started was just such a test for the United States. The terrorist attacks against America caused three great realizations that have collectively led the country to slowly dismantle the foundations of its own foreign-policy and global leadership.

First, we immediately concluded that they hate us, with they broadly defined as anyone who was not willing to help us fight international terrorism as we defined it. Second, the liberal principles (e.g. respect for democracy, human rights, and international law) that guided America through its victories against fascism and communism were now less practical in the fight against Al Qaeda. Third, through real events and false narratives many Americans began to develop the opinion that the international community neither appreciated nor deserved America’s leadership.

The result is that we now find ourselves practicing an ad hoc mixture of foreign policy perspectives including isolationism, neutrality, and primacy. And we are shifting through these approaches without clear guiding principles, established processes, or policy goals. Our allies are confused and concerned over whether we can be trusted to support them and the more general principles of international peace and progress they helped us create. Our adversaries are emboldened by America’s mixed signals and inconsistency in foreign-policy. At home we are more divided than we have ever been as the growth of economic inequality, cultural division, and political extremism elevate our differences above our shared identity as Americans. Questions regarding the national debt, the viability of the American healthcare system, and the future of the current administration are looming on the horizon promising still more questions in need of answers.

Before America can begin to address these dilemmas, we must answer the fundamental question of, “Do we want to lead the world?” It is through this one critical decision that so many others will be made by default, in large part due to how the decision will affect America’s use of its resources. If we choose to lead the world than we must begin with a clear understanding of the costs and responsibilities associated with the decision. If we choose not to lead it must be with a clean conscience and full acceptance of the domestic and global consequences of the choice. Neither option is easy to pick or implement, and both come with benefits and drawbacks for America and the international community. But what we cannot do is continue to operate in the gray zone between these two options. To do so guarantees maximizing the costs of both policies for American taxpayers and citizens while denying the most important benefits of either option.

Option #1: America the Leader

We do not have to imagine the benefits of American global leadership as they have been on display since the end of World War II. America’s promotion of democracy, international law, and human rights helped create a framework for international relations that eliminated colonialism and fascism. It’s promotion of free trade and global prosperity through the founding of organizations such as the WTO and the IMF have created unprecedented levels of economic growth around the world. It is true that America has not always fully adhered to its own principles, nor has it always engaged the ethical foundations of international behavior enshrined in the treaties and agreements it has signed. But despite these mistakes the United States has led the creation of an international system that benefits Americans and the international community far more than it hurts them.

Americans are also aware of the costs of global leadership. The financial burdens of maintaining the largest military in the world is well-documented. The United States are members of every major international organization world, and home to most of the nonprofit organizations operating internationally. The result is a consistent requirement to become involved in foreign affairs great and small often contrary to America’s own interests or desires. America’s decisions, actions, and domestic squabbles are constantly under an international microscope leading to an endless stream of derision and criticism from friend and foe alike.

  • The United States MUST reinvigorate and empower the United Nations as a primary tool of US foreign-policy. As the architect of the organization America’s current apathy towards the UN has caused significant harm to its reputation and operations over the last two decades. Reform of the UN should be comprehensive and include more equitable representation on the Security Council, an overhaul of financial and bureaucratic systems, and a strengthening of the organization’s peacekeeping and peace building capabilities. Most importantly, reform must be done with an understanding of the United States as a leader, enabler, and full participant in the organization’s missions and goals.
  • The United States needs to recommit to the fundamental principles of promoting democracy, free trade, and protecting human rights as the foundation of global peace and prosperity. From a practical perspective this means repairing and strengthening relationships with traditional allies while more vigorously seeking to confront pariah and rogue states around the world. We must move away from the unilateral use of sanctions and military force that has come to typify the US prosecution of the War on Terror and return to multilateral cooperation as the foundation of US foreign-policy. Doing so creates burden sharing across military, financial, and political components of US foreign-policy actions that significantly reduces the overall weight of leadership.
  • The United States must be more willing to share or even cede control of multilateral initiatives. If it does not directly threaten or harm the United States, we must be more willing to elevate the needs of the international community over our own short-term benefits. This is especially true in the areas of global environmentalism, human rights, and international law. The United States must be a leader in the promotion of clean energy, the protection of human rights especially for refugees, and the application and enforcement of international law.
One of the Blackhawk helicopters lost during the Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia Intervention, 1993
  • Finally, the country is going to need to critically review the structure and use of its military relative to a more engaged form of US leadership. The great paradox that has developed is that while the American military has continued to grow and evolve in size and power the country’s willingness to use it has decreased. Partly because of the expanded reliance on technology such as drones, and partly because of a ‘post-Black Hawk Down’ aversion to casualties associated with international interventions, the United States has become increasingly resistant to putting boots on the ground to support foreign-policy initiatives. If the United States is to reinvigorate its global leadership, it must be with the solemn recognition that it will require a consistent commitment and potential sacrifice on the part of our military.

One advantage to choosing this option is that we’ve already done it. The relationships and understandings essential for real global leadership by the United States still exist and, in many cases, require only a clarification of America’s commitments. Even more importantly the frameworks of laws and norms necessary for broad acceptance of US leadership are still in place with the same basic principles and processes that existed when we created them. Finally, most of the international community wants American leadership. Most of the negativity and criticism the country receives today is not the result of misdeeds or mistakes that we’ve made. It is the grumblings of a group who are wondering why their leader is not leading.

Option #2: America the Isolated

America also has experience with disengaging from international relations. For the first 150 years of the country’s existence we practiced a policy of isolationism driven partly by opportunity and partly by need. Most countries in the world could not choose an isolationist perspective even if they wanted to because of their proximity to other nations. America was given the unique opportunity to do so because of the distance between North America and the other major powers in Europe and Asia. The need to be isolationist developed out of relative weakness. Up until World War II the United States did not rank amongst the most powerful countries in the world. Economically, militarily, and politically America was defined by its unrealized potential, and both us and the rest of the world were content in the country isolating itself as a result.

Isolation and disengagement from international relations does have some advantages for the United States. One of the most recent developments that makes this a viable option for US foreign-policy is America’s ability to be autarkic, to fully support itself. There are no essential or critical resources that the United States is forced to import leading to binding relationships with other countries. The country produces surpluses in energy and food, suffers no issues with access to clean water, and has enough territory to accommodate population growth for generations to come. America’s economy continues to be the largest and most robust in the world led by corporations which dominate every major industrial and technology market around the globe. It is unquestioned that the United States benefits enormously from its relationships with other countries and markets. But none of the relationships today represent vital American interests in the same way the US relationship with OPEC in the 1970s did for instance.

It was Ronald Reagan, the father of contemporary American conservatism, who made the argument for the “shining city on the hill”. The vision however has been replaced by one of America as a ‘castle on the mountain’, isolated and defensive towards a global community it can’t completely trust. Between the legacy of 9/11, America’s historical culture of isolationism, and the country’s increasing self-sufficiency, the second narrative has become increasingly more attractive to many Americans.

There are some who question the fundamental principles driving America’s globalist foreign-policy. Others have concerns about policies and goals in issue areas like climate change and economics. But they all share the opinion that the rest of the world takes American leadership for granted, or even worse exploits us for their own interests. The retreat from leadership began decades ago and has been enabled by Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Whether by design or coincidence, America’s foreign policy has steadily moved away from the idea of international leadership… and most Americans have in one way or another supported this move.

There are benefits to increased American withdrawal from international politics. First and foremost, leadership creates exposure and it would be fair to say that America has grown tired of the criticisms (justified and otherwise) it has received. No longer being the global leader would give America the opportunity to reduce the economic costs of foreign-policy in several areas. The concepts of foreign and military aid could be restructured (and reduced) to focus solely on recipients who are directly benefiting our national interests.

An isolationist position could be used to justify reductions in immigrant and refugee intakes, expenditures on social and humanitarian development projects, and the overall financial and political support of international organizations. In addition to potential political and economic benefits the exposure of US citizens to violence and crime would also theoretically be reduced through more restricted border entry. The key for this choice however is a recognition of some of the repercussions that would follow.

  • If the United States is not going to operate as the world’s policeman, then we do not need a large police force. If the United States does not wish to lead the international system through interventions and other uses of military force than we must consider a reorganization and reduction of our military expenditures. The potential economic benefits of transforming the US military to a predominantly “homeland defense force” could be enormous. Reductions in basing and deployment costs, combined with improvements in unmanned “defend at a distance” capabilities (e.g. missile defense systems, satellite-based early warning and attack systems, etc.) could open unimagined opportunities for domestic investment.
  • Fully engaging an isolationist perspective would justify further reduction of commitments in regions we already treat as marginal interests. One of the simplest ways to deal with complex decisions is to remove yourself from the situation where the decision must be made. There are a variety of areas from economic development and environmental conservation Africa, to political stability and social equality and Latin America, where the United States has been only marginally threatened by trends and events. At the same time the country is consistently hindered by both domestic and international sources and whatever efforts it does put forth.
  • The US will need to use a clear set of guidelines in reviewing and potentially ending its membership to international organizations. The most significant source of frustration for US foreign-policy is the web of regional and international memberships in must maintain as the leader of the international community. In many cases the responsibilities represent a net drain on US resources relative to the advantages membership in your organization have given the country. This the much-publicized relationship between the United States and the United Nations human rights Council leading to our withdrawal from the organization is just one example of how these organizations may impede the overall promotion of US foreign-policy.

There are certainly repercussions to consider with the choice of isolationism. We would need to accept the further decline in importance of the United Nations and its associated systems including the WTO, World Bank, and IMF. We should expect the creation of alternative organizations and systems by countries such as Russia and China as they attempt to create their own leadership structures. Most importantly, we should expect reversals of programs and initiatives associated with these organizations including nuclear nonproliferation, global management of issues like water pollution and fisheries management, and an overall reduction to the respect for international law and human rights.

But from a classical realist perspective there are certainly benefits for America should we choose not to lead. They are narrower than those associated with leadership, but no less important to the American psyche. In an American culture increasingly influenced by individuals who simply want to be left alone to live their lives, the elevation of that perspective to the level of US foreign-policy is logical. The attractiveness of no longer leading the international community rest mainly in eliminating the responsibilities associated with leadership. For many this is just as attractive an option today as it was 100 years ago with the result being American leadership is no longer a given, it’s just an option.

Conclusion

It is time for America to choose. It is time for America to recapture the mantle of leadership or retire from the position altogether. The last two years of increasingly chaotic and irrational US foreign-policy are just the culmination of problems and indecision that has harmed American leadership since 9/11. The election of 2020 will represent a crossroads for domestic political culture in America as we choose to further build on Trump’s presidency or reverse engines and repudiate it.

Courtesy Brookings Institute

The argument offered here is that the election is even more important for the international community and America’s leadership of it. If we decide not to embrace the leadership role that we ourselves created, then we must be ready for someone else to try and fill that role. If we do reinvigorate American global leadership that must be with a focus on a peaceful and stable future rather than short-term economic and political gains. And if we continue to make no choice at all then it is assured that someone else will make the choice for us.


Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.