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The United States: Still the World’s Indispensable Nation?

June 20, 2012

For many years, America’s place in the world fluctuated between a concentration on the acquisition of power and attempts to reject the responsibility of power. Such sentiment goes a long way in explaining the American dilemma of how best to engage with the rest of the world. Throughout the Twentieth Century, the United States saw an inexorable rise in its global status, as it attained the position of “the world’s indispensable nation.” As the British Empire crumbled, so America was in the ascendancy: its politics, culture and media grew, apparently at an exponential rate, to dominate the globe. Now, as America enters a summer of political conventions and a choice of directions, those who speak of an American decline routinely call her stature into question. After almost a term in office, where has President Obama positioned the United States with respect to the rest of the world?

Happily, whilst an isolationist stance is often present in America, a penchant for internationalism has always been apparent and is most evident in efforts to transplant American values around the globe. America has long seen herself as having a special mission in the world, viewing herself as innocent and virtuous in the midst of a tainted world. Indeed American isolationism does not involve American secession from the rest of the world, but rather a rejection of commitments to other states, to avoid what Jefferson referred to as “entangling alliances.” Whilst the debate between interventionists and isolationists has never been fully resolved, a cycle of behaviour appears to have emerged, with each policy taking a political generation to run its course. This is a prime example of what Arthur Schlesinger refers to as “the cycles of American history.”

Through Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Nicaragua and numerous other Cold War flash points, the United States viewed its position in the world through its self-proclaimed mission to “defend freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” Not only was America faced with military engagement, but also the risks of an unstable global economic environment. As the world grew smaller, so America became dependent upon foreign trade and currency exchanges, something that is all too apparent today.

During the 1990s America’s place in the world went through a revolution all of its own, as the collapse of the USSR left America as the world’s sole super-power. However, just as the world had to readjust to the decline in power of the former Soviet republics, so it also had to consider the new role of the US as a world hyper power. It achieved this status at a precipitous moment, just as a new president was intent on forging a domestic revival rather than international expansionism. For Bill Clinton, it would be the “economy, stupid,” not the fate of the world, that would dominate.

Like President Bush before him, Bill Clinton readily accepted America’s position as the remaining super- power and sought to use his nation’s status in attempts to expand NATO. American envoys brokered deals in Haiti and Bosnia, whilst Operation Vigilant Warrior kept Kuwait free. American duality was expressed by the President himself, declaring “America cannot turn her back on the world” whilst simultaneously stating, “America cannot be the world’s policeman.” Clinton had little doubt however, that the Twenty-First Century would become the second American Century.

With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, there was reason to believe that America’s role in the world would remain essentially as it was before, with little new initiatives in foreign policy or any revolution in economic policy. As Bush was sworn in, America and the world were in a position all but unimaginable just a decade before. Rather than living on the brink of nuclear war, in a bipolar international system, Bush took power in the midst of a unipolar world, apparently free from the deadly rivalry of the Cold War. It was a period that did not long endure. The attacks of September 11, 2001 produced a seismic shift in the role America would play in the world at the dawn of the Third Millennium.

The attacks challenged President Bush to reposition America in the world. He would not be content with basking in historically high opinion ratings, or in the warmth of global sympathies. For Bush, September 11 was a clarion call to right the wrongs of the Cold War, to end the tradition of coddling tyrants as long as they sang America’s song. The nation found itself in the aftermath of the attacks of being in a position of great strength and yet also great sympathy, not a usual occurrence. In that moment it had the opportunity to do great things, to indeed herald a Second American Century. By accepting the sympathies of the world and by turning that emotion into positive action that could have bound the nations of the world together against terror, the United States could have demonstrated true benevolence and foresight. However the attacks on New York and Washington produced a wave of sympathy for the United States that the current administration has proved unable to transform into popular support for its policies. By moving into Iraq, the nation squandered its inheritance of compassion. Under Bush, the assertive multilateralism of Clinton was replaced by a determined unilateralism, cloaked by a scant “coalition of the willing.” His moves in Afghanistan appeared to be considered and met with support; his moves into Iraq, long sought by the Project for a New American Century, were less welcomed and proved contentious.

In his speeches and in his comments, President Bush painted a world of black and white, of good guys and bad guys. By establishing a clash of civilisations, Bush removed the middle ground and in a world of grey, black and white may be bold but will always be viewed as extreme. In this campaign, there is no middle ground, no possibility of disagreement on detail with the US strategy, for such disagreement would be interpreted as a betrayal of “good” ideology. As Bush declared in January 2002, “We need not be focused on one person, because we’re fighting for freedom and civilized civilization.”

The challenge that President Obama has struggled to address is of addressing the future direction of the United States. Successful leaders, whether one agreed or disagreed with their motives or intentions, presented a vision of an American future that the nation could aspire to. Whether that was an embrace of Manifest Destiny or a challenge of a New Frontier, both Republican and Democrat presidents have found a way top show Americans the next step in their national journey. Those presidents that have failed to achieve greatness have often don so due to their unwillingness to offer a vision of a better tomorrow. Thus far President Obama has struggled to define America’s place in the world or a direction that he intends to chart in a second term.

Some have sought to contrast President Obama to Jimmy Carter and it is an interesting, if not completely accurate comparison to make. Both men were honourable, honest and moral individuals who were seen to be remote and often guilty of adopting an air of moral superiority that made them hard to empathise with, in stark contrast to Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, for example. However, despite similarities, this is not 1980, Mitt Romney is not Ronald Reagan, and vitally, Obama has not faced an internal rival as Carter did in the form of Ted Kennedy.

Despite these differences, President Obama would be well advised to take a leaf out of Ronal Reagan’s playbook at this stage in the election and offer a vision of the future and a positive rationale for a second term. His re-e-lection is far from certain and his campaign could not suffer form the injection of some well-intended optimism. “Where there is no vision the people perish.” Perhaps. But so do administrations.

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