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U.S. Power and Leadership Evolve


There is a growing discussion in Washington about the need for a new vision of American leadership in world affairs. Most analysts agree that U.S. military engagement in Iraq has weakened America's influence as the world's sole superpower and that policy makers need to rethink U.S. foreign policy to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

There is broad agreement that the United States will remain a leading world power for the foreseeable future. It boasts the largest military in the world and spends more on defense than the 32 next most powerful nations combined. It has the largest economy in the world with the most sway in many international financial and other institutions. And many observers agree that the appeal of American society, culture and ideas reverberates throughout the world.

But most international public opinion polls show that much of the world has been unhappy with American leadership in international affairs in recent years. Even traditional U.S. allies have been questioning some foreign policy decisions the United States has taken since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against America, especially the war in Iraq.

A World Leader

"The United States is sometimes perceived as something of a bully," says Steven Kull is Director of the University of Maryland Program on International Policy Attitudes. "In the post-World War II period the United States took the lead in establishing a world order based on international law, international institutions and open markets. The United States has engendered a lot of respect for it. The United States has also promoted democracy and human rights, and these ideas have spread as well. The perception is that the United States is departing from those principles. The desire is for the U.S. to get back to those principles," Kull says.

"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the other important nations of the world were willing to tolerate a situation in which there would be one superpower," says Andrew Bacevich, who teaches history and international relations at Boston University.

"The Bush administration's tendency to render very sharp judgments, you know, that 'You're either with us or you're against us,' has caused nations of the world to question whether or not a global order in which the United States is the sole superpower is actually tolerable. And that is the most important thing that we have lost, I think, since the invasion of Iraq," says Bacevich.

The Limits of Power

Military historian Andrew Bacevich contends that the war in Iraq and other events have displayed the limits of American dominance. "And it's not simply [the] limits of military power. Our trade imbalance, the weakening of our currency, the ever-growing debt -- the amount of money we are borrowing from other countries just to maintain our system -- all of this suggest that our power is not as great as we once imagined," says Bacevich

Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University, agrees. He argues for more watchful use of American foreign policy assets.

"The United States does not want to become weaker. What it wants to do is use the power that it has with a certain degree of restraint; that is to say, get different threats in priority and don't try to deal with every single one of them simultaneously. It's recognizing that American power is very valuable, but it can't do everything. And you ought to use it for what it is good for and avoid squandering it on foolish crusades," says Walt.

New Partnerships

According to Walt and many other analysts, the United States is likely to restore some of the practices it followed during the Cold War when it fostered partnerships and alliances and exercised leadership with a certain caution. "I would argue that unipolarity actually calls for the United States to act with greater wisdom than was the case during the Cold War, where lots of other countries wanted to ally with us because they worried about the Soviet Union the same way we were," says Walt.

"I would think that the pendulum will shift from unilateralism back toward multilateralism," says military historian Andrew Bacevich. "I should emphasize that the pendulum shifting doesn't mean that we are going to necessarily have the same view of international law and international institutions that, let's say, some Europeans might," says Bacevich. "But we'll tend to see them as useful rather than as obstacles, which is the way the Bush administration has treated them."

Professor Bacevich says that the rise of India and China has shifted the epicenter of geopolitics from the Atlantic community to Asia. Aaron Friedberg, who teaches politics and international affairs at Princeton University, predicts the creation of new multilateral partnerships.

"One of the interesting things to watch is going to be whether there will be new alliances created, either in different regions or on a global level that try to draw together countries that share similar values. An example would be an institution of democracies in Asia, some kind of mechanism for consultation that would include Japan and South Korea and Australia and maybe India," says Friedberg. "There have been suggestions also about trying to create something at a global level that would draw together democracies from Europe and Asia."

Professor Friedberg says the United States will have the same global responsibilities it has assumed since the end of the Cold War. "Because of the fact that the United States is still the strongest country in the international system, it is almost inevitably going to be playing a leadership role in most areas of the world in some ways, whether we like it or not. And I think that's going to continue." Like many other analysts, Professor Friedberg says the 21st century requires strong U.S. leadership that enhances global security, democratic governance and economic development.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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