American Leadership: Chaos or Community?

Graphic image of globe encircled by flags of world nationsTrade and treaties face severe criticism from across the political spectrum. This essay examines a different point of view.

March 8, 2020

We live in a globalized world, but for many Americans isolationism is in vogue. In a 2016 poll, a majority of Americans – 57 percent – said the U.S. should deal with its own problems and let others deal with theirs. Nearly half said that global engagement is “a bad thing because it lowers wages and costs jobs in the U.S.” The president campaigned on renegotiating our trade agreements, beginning with NAFTA (now the USMCA).  Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently said that trade agreements like NAFTA cost the U.S. four million jobs since they were introduced.

Another view says that the threats that face us most imminently – terrorism, nuclear proliferation, environmental damage, and (unfortunately) global epidemics – can only be confronted in cooperation with other nations and with international organizations. Furthermore, according to this view of the world, that cooperation is not possible without some degree of leadership by the U.S. This week, we look at two key areas where the U.S. has led the way in the past, and could do so again.

Trade has long been key to American power around the world. Robert Kagan, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, says that if we want to maintain the post-World War II world order, we should renew our commitment to international trade.

Defenders of international trade acknowledge that it kills American jobs, but that we cannot afford to ignore the new jobs it creates. They argue that efforts to preserve specific jobs through protectionist trade policies are costly and futile, and that, in effect, the U.S. cannot build its economy by trying to protect the past from the future. Instead, the federal government must admit that trade can destroy jobs and focus efforts on mitigating trade’s impact on workers in the industries hurt most. That means taking a broad approach to re-training programs for workers who are losing their jobs, and investing more in dislocated communities and in the social safety net.

Advocates of international trade also argue that trade is not a zero-sum game. Thoughtfully negotiated trade agreements can increase prosperity for all parties by creating new jobs in each nation and reducing the cost of consumer goods. One sweeping defense of free trade last year made the case that the overall effect of trade has been positive not only for Americans, but for people around the world. It cites a World Bank report that links trade to a major drop in global poverty, and an increase in both the number and quality of jobs in developing countries.

According to this view, the U.S. has benefited more than most other nations from the free flow of goods, services, capital, and information across international borders. If future markets reward the power to invent, innovate, and sell, our economy will continue to prosper, helping the U.S. reinforce its leadership position.

In international diplomacy, words have weight. Maintaining existing alliances and forming new ones requires that the U.S. continually demonstrate its credibility. Last year, William J. Burns, a former deputy secretary of state and current president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that pulling out of international commitments like the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal has “undercut our image as a reliable partner.” Worse, he said, it hampers our ability to push other countries to do their part.

National priorities and polices change over time. Domestic constituencies may demand action or inaction on any number of global matters. The financial burden of maintaining the current world order may cast doubt on the value of our actions abroad. But that doesn’t mean we can back away from our commitments overnight and expect financial savings as a result. Daniel Benaim, a foreign policy specialist at the Center for American Progress, put it this way: “the military costs of maintaining alliances are measurable, while the savings of preventing conflict are abstract and indeed unknowable.”

If words have weight, actions matter even more. When our policies swing from leadership and activism to isolation and retaliation, we create doubt and confusion for our allies and ourselves. Allies need to know how much responsibility to accept for their own security. Voters need to understand the extent of our commitments. Policies that seem improvised may invite rivals to test our resolve, making us less safe in the long run.

In “Every Nation for Itself,” author Ian Bremmer writes that no other nation has the same combination of political, economic, and military power as the U.S., and none offer economic ideologies that compete with capitalism and entrepreneurship. For all its flaws, our democracy has survived the collapse of many authoritarian regimes. If the U.S. is unable, due to increasing partisan discord and mounting debt, to continue playing a leadership role in the world, Bremmer says, it is not likely that any other nation or group of nations will take its place.

Which leads Bremmer to ask a difficult question:  what happens when no one leads the world?

Learn More

Common Good: International trade is good for Americans overall; it expands the economy and allows U.S. consumers to buy less expensive goods. But there’s no doubt that it’s been very bad for some individual Americans whose wages have fallen or who have lost their jobs altogether — via NPR 

Cooperate to Win: The U.S. faces significant competition for global power and must vie economically, militarily, technologically, and politically in order to win, says one expert. But American leaders are forgetting one of the key ingredients to our past success, he says: international cooperation – via The Atlantic

Soft Power: Thirty years ago, political scientist Joseph Nye coined the phrase “soft power” to describe the cultural, ideological, and institutional influence that established the U.S. as the most powerful nation on earth. Now, one writer argues that this influence is on the decline, though China could revive it – via Foreign Policy

Shaky Ground: Political scientists have long viewed democracies as stable forms of government even though their leaders change frequently. But as parties become more polarized and power becomes concentrated in the presidency, that could be changing – via The Washington Post

Superpower: In a later book by Ian Bremmer, he presents the strongest possible case for three very different American roles in the world and leaves it to the readers to choose the model they like best.  The choices are Independent America, Moneyball America, and Indispensable America – via Superpowerby Ian Bremmer

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This article originally appeared in the March 8, 2020 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and published articles — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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