Since its inception, the United States has been a special nation, founded on the premise that "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Following independence, the Bill of Rights promptly established a secular state respecting freedom of religion, speech, and assembly.
The wars of the twentieth century drew the United States into a global leadership role. Then the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, left the United States in the position of being the preeminent global power. The United States continued to promote ideals of freedom and democracy, but global leadership proved to be both difficult and controversial.
After the War of 1812, President James Monroe had articulated a new US policy of separate spheres of influence for the Americas and Europe, warning the imperial European powers against interfering in the affairs of the newly independent Latin American states. In the century that followed, the United States refrained from involvement in European affairs; eventually the Monroe Doctrine was expanded to asset that the United States had a "moral mandate" to enforce proper behavior among the nations of Latin America, justifying a number of armed interventions.
The wars of the twentieth century drew the United States into a global leadership role. The US commitment to freedom was clearly evident after World War II when the vanquished states of Japan and Germany were transformed into modern, independent democracies. At the same time, the rise of the Soviet Union with its apparent objective of Eurasian and even global domination thrust the United States into the position of leader of the Free World in the resulting Cold War. This became of period of intense competition between opposing ideologies.
Internally, the United States faced up to the long-standing disconnection between the ideal of individual equality and the actuality of slavery and then racism. Major improvements in racial justice began a long, still unfinished, effort to live up to this bedrock principle of US values. Religious tolerance also improved, as evidenced by the election of a Catholic President in 1960.
Externally, the felt imperatives of the Cold War led to accommodations with dictatorial regimes as well as efforts to undermine leftist regimes which could be inclined to support the Soviet Union. A growing need for oil resources also led to high US interest in the Middle East, including close ties with several autocratic regimes.
The formal dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, provided a solid justification for many earlier US actions and left the United States in the position of being the preeminent global power. The United States continued to promote ideals of freedom and democracy, but global leadership proved to be difficult.
The world broadly supported US efforts to reverse Iraq's 1990 occupation of Kuwait. Success in this Gulf War enhanced US prestige and validated concepts of using modern weaponry to achieve rapid destruction of opposing forces, as well as highlighting US cooperation with a range of Islamic states to save an Islamic government. But unrest was also rising in the Middle East, with Palestinian intifadas (violent resistance) challenging Israeli existence and radical Islamist rage at the Saudi autocracy being increasingly directed at the United States as its major supporter.
This culminated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, resulting in a US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Once the Taliban regime was removed, attention shifted to Iraq, with Saddam Hussein's apparent efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Unable to obtain rapid UN approval for military action, the United States then led a multi-national force which quickly crushed Iraqi resistance. Unfortunately, this has led to major reversals in US prestige and its international standing.
- No significant WMD activity was found, vindicating critics of the operation. This also spurred the US government to shift its rationale to the establishment of democracy in Iraq and the Middle East. But tribal Iraq has proved to be a poor candidate for democratic institutions, while democracy promotion efforts in neighboring countries were superficial and soon withered away.
- The rapid defeat of the Iraqi army led not to a stable situation, but to a tenacious insurgency which has now killed over 4,000 US soldiers, tied up the bulk of available US military assets, and produced a political situation which may still lead to civil war and regional strife. US prestige has clearly suffered and overall military capabilities have been clearly diminished.
- The shift of attention to Iraq allowed a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and a wide involvement of tribal elements in the adjoining Pakistani border region. This is now threatening not only the eventual outcome in Afghanistan, but also the very stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan. Military requirements in Afghanistan are now soaking up much of the assets being released by the draw down in Iraq. Just as civil war and chaos remain a possibility in Iraq, ultimate failure in Afghanistan and Pakistan also remains a possibility.
- Despite earlier US support for Muslim groups in Bosnia and then Kuwait, the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and operations against radical elements in Pakistan is widely seen in the Muslim world as US hostility to Islam.
- Publicity on US abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, severe treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, and steady revelations of top-level approval of harsh interrogations methods, widely labeled as torture, have further inflamed the Muslim world and undermined US efforts to appear as a nation of ideals and principles.
- The destruction of Iraq has left Iran as the predominant power in the area. Its support of radical regional elements, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shiite militias, has helped to destabilize the region and undermined the US strategic presence. In addition, Iran's nuclear programs show a clear potential for nuclear weapons production, an outcome which would further destabilize the Middle East and is already complicating nuclear nonproliferation efforts.
- Democracy is now in decline. For the third year in a row, Freedom House has noted a decline in freedom worldwide. Even countries which are nominally democratic are seeing a resurgence in autocratic governance.
European allies are declining to support various US initiatives, in particular they are reluctant to provide combat elements to the struggle in Afghanistan. Russia, with an increasingly autocratic leadership, is developing a significant economic leverage over Europe thanks to its large energy resources. China is becoming more and more assertive on the international stage. Even in Latin America, the United States faces new challenges with drug wars in Mexico spilling over into the US southwest and new autocratic regimes consolidating their position in Bolivia and Venezuela. And in the Far East, North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile developments not only threaten stability there, but also raise the potential for nuclear materials to leak to radical elements and complicate global nonproliferation efforts.
On top of this, globalization is presenting a whole new set of challenges to the United States. The rise of China with its vast manufacturing capability has significantly increased the attractiveness of overseas production for many US firms and helped to seriously undermine the US job market. But there is a deeper global transformation than just the potential for overseas production - it is the potential for overseas intellectual work. The internet has suddenly put Indian managers, Chinese engineers, and Russian programmers in direct competition with skilled US workers, often providing comparable services at a fraction of US wage and benefit costs. Around the world, citizens are demanding an increased share of global wealth. It is no longer possible to sustain a prosperous island of industrialized nations in a global sea of relative poverty. Increased resource competition, already seen in the oil market, is only one manifestation of this challenge. On top of this, the effects of climate change are only beginning to be felt. The impact in the decades ahead is unclear, but what is clear is that this impact will be negative and could be profoundly destabilizing. And as recent outbreaks of bird flu have shown, devastating pandemics are also possible.
Within the United States, there is widespread disillusionment with the international situation, exacerbated by the current global economic crisis. The nation has no visible or coherent strategy; it is reacting piecemeal to the threats and challenges it faces.
Global leadership is urgently needed. The United Nations is incapable of providing this, particularly since decisions in its core leadership, the Security Council, often pit the United States against Russia, China, or both. The only nation capable of providing the needed global leadership is the United States, but it is withdrawing from this role, becoming more of an ordinary state, no longer a state forcefully promoting freedom and democracy. At the same time that it needs it badly, the world is rejecting US leadership for several major, and even contradictory, reasons.
- The United States is widely seen as arrogant, particularly after its unilateral decision to invade Iraq and the subsequent refutation of its core justification: Iraqi WMD. Beyond that, the United States declines to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, to accede to the World Court, or to join in international efforts to address global warming. The United States appears ready to tell other nations what they should do, but as unwilling to be told anything itself.
- US ideals are seen as hollow, mere cover for efforts at domination. The United States preaches democracy but supports autocrats, while providing little assistance to countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Haiti which are struggling to develop democratic institutions. It proclaims religious freedom even while loud and highly placed individuals assert it is a Christian nation and Muslims are increasingly discriminated against. Similarly, racism, supposedly vanquished, seems alive and well in discrimination against Hispanic immigrants and Middle Easterners. More recently, the rule of law has been a cover for illegal seizures and torture.
- Although US ideals are widely seen as discredited, they still inspire patriots around the world and still pose a challenge to autocratic regimes everywhere. So it is no wonder that such regimes disparage US actions, oppose US initiatives, and loudly publicize US shortcomings.
- The United States is seen as the primary source of the current global economic recession. This is particularly true in Russia where market and political reforms in the 1990s led not to prosperity but to widespread impoverishment on the one hand contrasted sharply with the rise of oligarchs appropriating the most attractive economic assets of the former Soviet Union. Historical ambivalence toward the West, reinforced by decades of Communist anti-Western propaganda, brought widespread disillusionment, including suspicions that the West had intentionally and maliciously manipulated Russia into a clearly inferior position. The eventual global outcome of the current economic challenges is still problematical, but the preeminent economic position of the United States has unquestionably been undermined.
- The United States is seen as a nation in decline. Its vaunted military forces are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems unable to stabilize Pakistan or to respond to Iranian and North Korean provocations, not to mention unable to address repression in Burma, Sudan and even Venezuela.
If the United States fails to provide the global leadership which is so sorely needed, then it will help insure its own decline. Without positive leadership, the world as a whole will be unable to adequately address the crises it faces. This will produce at a minimum continued economic turmoil, regional clashes, and rogue nations with increasingly lethal weapons.
The United States is indeed an exceptional nation. Of course, most nations see themselves as exceptional. China, and Egypt, have thousands of years of civilization. Russia has a long Slavophile tradition of cultural superiority. All the European nations have traditions of superior cultural attributes. What makes US exceptionalism unique is that it is not based on its own history or culture, but on values which are seen as universal.
These ideals are the key to US global leadership. They are also the key to global stability and prosperity. These ideals challenge the leadership groups in key nations to modify their systems to provide more equitable and competent governance.
- China as a major rival no longer has its leadership legitimacy based on ideology, but on economic performance. This should be a very positive development as it removes any inherent clash of ideologies. The core objective of the Chinese leadership is now to perpetuate its own position. Thus, it actively opposes any international principles which would support interference in internal state affairs. And so it has no problem, and even real incentive, to support repressive regimes in Burma and Sudan. At home, it is trying mightily to support economic and market decentralization while maintaining strict political centralization. But no state has ever been able to achieve a vibrant, innovative, decentralized economy without pressures for democratic institutions. Indeed, China faces not only severe demographic challenges, but also broad internal dissatisfaction and a readiness of groups to challenge authority, as seen after last year's earthquake. The Tienamen demonstrations, suppressed just 20 years ago, showed a widespread attraction of democracy. The United States can encourage continuing economic development and political evolution. Indeed, China's need to address technological, health and environmental challenges offer economic opportunities to the United States. On the other hand, as economic conditions worsen, the leadership can turn to nationalism to shore up its legitimacy, building up military forces. This would ultimately undermine economic development and worsen the political situation, but also increase the potential for confrontation.
- Russia has no real tradition of democratic institutions. Disillusionment with democratic changes in the 1990s and a long-standing tradition of strong leaders has led to the increasingly autocratic government now in place. But economic and demographic pressures are undermining the autocratic centralism currently being promoted. There is a broad range of official, commercial, cultural and other unofficial ties between Russia and the West. These can help to promote positive political change in Russia while supporting economic and social development.
- Iran is a rigid theocracy which promotes its own version of Islamic ascendancy, appears determined to develop independent nuclear power and probably nuclear weapons, and seeks to become the dominant regional power. Nevertheless, there are strong popular democratic aspirations, especially among the younger generations. The ongoing outburst of demonstrations following the June 2009 elections made this clearly visible.
- Pakistan is an artificial nation, cobbled together during the 1947 partition of the subcontinent. For large sections of the population, tribal loyalties are stronger than any national identification. And in recent years, the radicalization of Islamic movements has made a self identification of Muslim more important for many than a self identification as Pakistani. Although the United States has provided billions of dollars of assistance through the years, this has gone almost totally to support the army, even when nominally civilian governments were in power. So, as in Russia, there is widespread disillusionment with the United States, though for different reasons. But democratic ideals are strong in the core population, and were the basis for forcing General Musharraf from power in early 2009. More recently, the excesses of radical elements seems to have mobilized public opinion against them. External support for democratic values needs to be coupled with support for economic development to promote some sense of Pakistani identity.
- The Muslim world in general is distressed at its own relative backwardness, particularly in light of historical Islamic achievements. Much of this backwardness is due to autocratic leaders who suppress broad market development for their own benefit. Circumstances still require the United States to cooperate with many of these autocratic leaders, but this cooperation needs to be based on continued improvements in the welfare of individual citizens.
Autocratic leaders are adept at focusing popular attention on external events, shortcomings in other nations (including the United States), outrage at supposed transgressions, and supposed slights to local cultural values. In a fragmented world it is easier to distract populations from internal shortcomings.
As a global leader, the United States first needs to develop a strategy focused on clear objectives; it must address long term as well as short term challenges. A core objective has to the development of a stable, prosperous world able to respond to global challenges. The promotion of democratic development has to be a core element of such an objective. Mature democracies avoid fighting one another, but rather focus on mutual economic and social development. One only has to look at Europe to see how the development of democracies has diffused centuries of bitterness and fighting, to the point that war between major European states is now unthinkable.
The US Declaration of Independence does not actually call for democracy, but more broadly states that governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed." Republics and benevolent monarchies as well as many tribal systems can meet such a criterion, but it is democratic states which consistently provide responsive government. These are mature democracies which support broad freedoms, respect the rights of minorities, and work to develop consensus on major political and social issues. Developing or illusory democracies provide a facade of democratic institutions but may simply use manipulation and coercion to manage internal order. But even in these cases, the power of the democratic ideal is clearly seen as the government uses democratic symbolism to bolster its own legitimacy. And by using the symbolism, it implicitly makes itself subject to being judged on democratic principles.
Not every one agrees that democracy is the ideal from of government. It is incompatible with some feudal, monarchical, and theocratic cultures, and obviously is unwelcome in supposed democratic states where autocrats manage their citizens. But the broad global appearance of democratic institutions and freedoms shows the universality of their appeal and supports a focus on democratic development as a bedrock of future global stability.
Democracy promotion is a long term objective which must recognize that many nations do not presently have a civic culture capable of supporting a mature democracy. US efforts need to have patience and confidence; encouraging governments to be more open and responsive to their own citizens. There are a number of indicators which can demonstrate the degree to which a nation incorporates democratic principles into its own government, including the yearly human rights reports issued by the US Department of State. There are also a number of indexes regularly publicized by independent organizations, such as Freedom House and Transparency International. The US Millennium Challenge Corporation now has several years experience at assessing demonstrated commitment to policies which promote political and economic freedom, investments in education and health, control of corruption, and respect for civil liberties and the rule of law. Countries which meet its criteria are eligible for assistance in programs to reduce global poverty through the promotion of sustainable economic growth. This provides a solid example of one way to promote both economic development and democracy. Other approaches include:
- Promoting broad commercial ties. Certainly the ties of US and Western companies with Russian, Chinese, and Indian companies has raised awareness in all three countries of the potential for economic development, the need for innovative development, and the importance of dedicated workers.
- Arms agreements can not only make nations subject to various types of international inspection, but also promote shifts from military to economic development.
- Educational, scientific, and cultural exchanges can all promote broader understanding between countries and decrease the potential for governments to misrepresent conditions to their own citizens. More official exchanges (such as cooperation in criminal and anti-terrorist investigations) and broad tourism exchanges are also supportive of democratic development.
- Publicity within the country on international ideals (such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights) as well as global publicity on internal conditions and activities can also pressure governments to live up to formal commitments.
Democratization faces particularly difficult challenges when economic conditions are grim. Prosperity is a pre-requisite for real democratic development. It is also a pre-requisite for global stability. The United States cannot maintain its standard of living against a background of world turmoil or by continuing to enjoy highly favorable rates for foreign raw materials, agricultural products, or intellectual services. But the high US existing stocks of industrial, commercial and real estate properties together with high US education and innovation levels can help to maintain living standards for an extended period. The objective has to be not to drag the United States down to average global levels, but to raise global economic levels to be closer to US standards.
US ideals are not tied to any specific economic system. Both pure capitalism and pure socialism have proven to be inadequate. Pure capitalism allows individuals to game the system and amass large, unearned profits. Ever since the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, it has been clear that capitalist economies needed careful regulation to minimize individual exploitation of financial systems. Indeed, it has been inadequate regulation which has led to the current global economic crisis. Socialism, on the other hand, has shown that governments are poor managers of industrial enterprises. Overall, well functioning national economic systems employ some mixtures of capitalist, market, and socialist elements. To some degree, the ideal balance depends on local cultural traditions. Economic systems and elements need to be judged on their results and not on labels assigned to them. Global leadership also demands preparations to address emerging global challenges, particularly global warming and potential pandemics. This requires bolstering global information and monitoring systems.
Although a global spread of mature democracies might well result in an eventual peaceful and prosperous world, it is clear that this will not happen overnight and that significant armed forces will be necessary for the foreseeable future to safeguard US interests, to support key allies and institutions, and to guarantee free access to the global commons. Military requirements and expenditures support the stable conditions necessary for social and economic development, but they also drain resources from this development. Confrontational approaches are inherently self-defeating as they move resources into non-productive military assets globally, undermining the economic development essential for long term stability. Weighing these competing requirements is a major challenge to the United States and the global community.
A crucial challenge facing the United States as a global leader is not to just promote democratic principles and freedoms, but to demonstrate their effectiveness. So the development of a stable, open, prosperous US society is a pre-requisite for promoting global democratic institutions. The United States now ranks only 21st in freedom of the press, according to the independent ratings of Freedom House. Similarly, the United States places 18th on the Corruption Index issued by Transparency International. Although these are favorable ratings, they do not well demonstrate leadership and leave the United States open to charges of hypocrisy. In order to strongly and clearly express US ideals and leadership and present them as universal traits, the nation needs to be a showcase, to demonstrate its own commitment as strongly as possible.
The United States must make a more rational and balanced response to the full spectrum of threats and challenges it faces. This requires a continuing re-orientation of priorities - always difficult in a democracy as it necessarily creates winner and losers. Citizens naturally give priority to local and short term interests; it is a challenge to the leadership to explain and justify any major re-allocation of resources and any allocation to long term instead of short term requirements. This is further complicated by interest groups which naturally defend their own interests, even if they do not well coincide with long term national interests.
Most of all, the United States must assume a clear and principled global leadership position. No other nation is in a position to do this. Without leadership in a globalized world facing a daunting range of economic, environmental and political challenges, there can only be turmoil, continuing confrontations, and a steady decline in US prosperity.