America and the international system: where will it lead?
5 Jun 2014|

President Barack Obama holds a G7 Leaders Meeting to discuss the situation in Ukraine, at the Prime Minister's residence in The Hague, the Netherlands, March 24, 2014.The Strategist has already posted a number of pieces on US President Barack Obama’s use of a graduation address at the United States Military Academy, West Point, to make a long-awaited foreign policy speech. There was a lot in it—a statement of his administration’s international achievements, a reaffirmation of America’s indispensability as a nation, a riposte to the ‘American decline’ narrative, the Afghanistan withdrawal plan, a commitment to a more cautious and multilateral approach to international security and—perhaps—a higher threshold for the use of American military power. Most commentators have found it pretty unsatisfying, and as Graeme Dobell notes, Australians would have preferred to hear more about the Asia-Pacific. Each of those points deserves its own consideration, but one aspect of major concern here in the US, and of key interest to Australia, is how America will pursue its future leadership role in the international system.

There’s a strong view in America—and it finds sympathy elsewhere—that the current international system is one that America made and must lead. Given the audience, Obama naturally emphasised leading, including 14 mentions in the context of ‘American leadership’. Those references were positive and mostly familiar, asserting America’s unique capacity to lead, its responsibility to do so, its leadership achievements and its determination to continue leading, albeit in a less costly and more multinational way.

The President’s remarks attracted the usual applause, but many still worry. Their concerns aren’t, in general, about America’s ability to lead: there’s a consensus that American leadership isn’t doomed by anything in the fabric of the nation. The US has had ‘a few rough years’ and still faces its share of challenges, but Bruce Jones and others make the case that America’s historic strengths endure and the risk of decline is manageable. Still, as Richard Haass argues, that management needs to start soon—and may be painful—if US foreign policy is to be re-energised and the international system kept functioning.

Likewise, there’s little doubt of the need for American leadership in international affairs—indeed, there’s a positive appetite for it among America’s partners, great and small. Concerns in America seem to be about America’s will to lead, and in particular to lead with hard power if necessary.

The cyclic nature of American foreign policy during the 20th century, alternating between periods of activism or ‘interventionism’ and isolationism or ‘retrenchment’, is well documented. In a recent analysis, Robert Kagan opined that America’s current circumstances may see it go into a longer and deeper retrenchment than normal, due to the ‘world-weariness’ of its people (after 12 years of war) and a lack of political leadership to draw them out of it. We may see a repeat of the retrenchment that followed the First World War—and that period saw the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the Second.

The challenge to American leadership abroad seems to be political will at home—problematic because of the Obama Administration’s apparent preference to be guided in foreign policy by public opinion. Trying to shape public opinion on matters of national security in the current environment, with its absence of tangible threats, would require a sophisticated conversation with the American people of a kind that’s largely absent from the current American political discourse. That sophistication is driven by the need to understand, for example, the importance of difficult and potentially expensive alliances to an order-based strategy—a much harder thing to grasp than the need for weapons in the threat-based strategy of the Cold War. Such a conversation is also frustrated by an agenda crowded with more immediate issues such as health care and jobs. And the conversation must be extended to America’s partners, including NATO countries that still seem prone to under-invest in defence despite the salutary lesson of Ukraine. There’s no time to waste: as events East and West show, the presumption that America will always lead simply because no-one else can is now tenuous, and the alternatives to American leadership are dire.

For Australia, the speech is important. Given the challenges facing the US, we need to look to our own defence investment. The current White Paper process is an opportunity to do so. And we need to think of ways to help America more directly: to the extent that its problems are ones of political creativity, we should look for ways to contribute ideas and perspectives to assist in finding solutions. Tony Abbott might proffer a few thoughts in his upcoming meetings. If we need further motivation, we should just try to imagine a world in which a country other than America leads the international system.

Andrew Smith is an independent researcher based in the United States. Image courtesy of the White House.