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Examining America's Role in Global Affairs

Ever since the United States emerged as the world's sole superpower at the end of the Cold War, its international role has been scrutinized both and home and abroad. Some critics call the U.S. an imperialist, hegemonic power, while others argue that it is a defender of global law and order.

Almost four hundred years ago, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that peace and security among human beings are impossible without a government to enforce them.

In his new book, A Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World's Government in the 21st Century, Michael Mandelbaum, a political analyst at The Johns Hopkins University, writes that in the wake of the Cold War, the United States has played an important role in maintaining world order. "It offers reassurance. That is, its military presence suppresses suspicions in Europe and Asia that may otherwise be felt and could lead to unhappy political outcomes. The United States leads the effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to dangerous regimes or groups," says Mandelbaum.

According to professor Mandelbaum, the United States also provides these services to the international economy. "It provides a secure framework for international transactions where the United States provides the most frequently used currency -- the dollar -- where the United States has acted as the so-called 'lender of last resort,' acting through the International Monetary Fund even as central banks do within countries, and where the United States has also been the consumer of last resort, keeping the global economy running through the ravenous and economically constructive appetites of American consumers," says Mandelbaum.

Professor Mandelbaum notes that the United States also provides humanitarian aid and monitors the status of human rights worldwide. Overall, Mandelbaum concludes, America's international role is beneficial because it provides public goods without controlling the politics and economics of other societies.

American Hegemony?

So why do so many people in the U.S. and abroad criticize this benign Goliath? Political interests, disagreements about specific policies and cultural differences are among the reasons Mandelbaum offers. But some analysts disagree.

Benjamin Barber, a professor of civil society at the University of Maryland, argues the United States often acts as a hegemonic power, rather than as a government. "American hegemony obviously brings some benefits to people. It can provide some policing and some security, and provide some aid money and some banking facilities and so forth. Obviously, a powerful and wealthy nation can do things that poor nations can't do. But it does those things at the cost of liberty, at the cost of autonomy, at the cost of social justice and at the cost, actually, of allowing people to participate in governing their own destiny, which is the very meaning of democracy," says Barber.

Professor Barber says U.S.-led regime changes in Iraq and Afghanistan are examples of America imposing its will on other countries. He adds that U.S. foreign aid often is granted on the condition that recipient countries adopt America's economic model even if it may not always fit.

What the world needs, says Professor Barber, is a multi-national governing body to deal with global issues such as energy supplies, pollution, natural disasters, epidemics and conflicts. International organizations such as the United Nations are not effective, he says, because they do not have the authority to enforce decisions. A global government can only work if member nations give up some of their sovereignty, like the countries of the European Union have done.

But some analysts, including Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University, argue that multi-national organizations have been ineffective in times of crisis. "Yes, they can do many things. But on the great life and death urgent tasks, those institutions are almost always inadequate or utterly feckless. I would cite such cases as the Rwanda genocide, Bosnia and the Srebrenica massacre, and the mass murder and ethnic cleansing that goes on as we speak in Darfur. So the liberal internationalists have altogether too fanciful and exaggerated a notion of what international institutions and 'global governance' can achieve in today's world, not least because it remains a world of sovereign states," says Liber.

The Cost of Leadership

Robert Lieber says there is no alternative to America's role in global affairs because it is the only state willing to use so much money and its military power to help other nations. He also points out that no alliance is forming to topple the United States, because most countries realize they need its help.

But U.S. services to the rest of the world are not cheap. According to the Congressional Research Service, for example, the U.S. cost of war and reconstruction in Iraq is approaching 200 billion dollars. The United States gave more than 16 billion dollars in aid to developing countries in 2003, almost twice as much as the next biggest donor, Japan. And in 2004, the U.S. budget deficit exceeded 400 billion dollars, reaching an all-time high. So the question for many observers is whether America can continue to afford its leadership role in world affairs.

Robert Guest, Washington Bureau Chief for The Economist magazine, suspects it may not. "There is nothing unforeseen about this whatsoever. When empires run out of money, they either run out of the will to fight or they tend to retreat into themselves. And the looming gap that you see with the retirement of the 'baby boomers' [i.e., Americans born between 1946 and 1964], bringing Medicare, Social Security and, to a lesser degree, Medicaid fairly rapidly into bankruptcy is the single greatest threat to American global hegemony," says Guest.

Many analysts agree that the most serious threat to U.S. global leadership may develop at home, not abroad. Meanwhile, rising regional powers such as China or the European Union are striving for greater international influence. But so far none has the economic power, the political will or the military strength to generate an international consensus to assume leadership in the world community. So if the United States were to decrease its role in international affairs, most analysts warn, the world could become a more dangerous and less prosperous place.

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