By Moisés Naím
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
The world wants America back.
For the next several years, world politics will be reshaped by a strong yearning for American leadership. This trend will be as unexpected as it is inevitable: unexpected given the powerful anti-American sentiments around the globe, and inevitable given the vacuums that only the United States can fill.
This renewed international appetite for U.S. leadership will not merely result from the election of a new president, though having a new occupant in the White House will certainly help. Almost a decade of U.S. disengagement and distraction have allowed international and regional problems to swell. Often, the only nation that has the will and means to act effectively is the United States.
To be sure, anti-Americanism will never disappear. Nor will America's enemies go away. But strong anti-American currents will increasingly coexist with equally strong international demands for the United States to play a larger role in world affairs.
Of course, the America that the world wants back is not the one that preemptively invades potential enemies, bullies allies or disdains international law. The demand is for an America that rallies other nations prone to sitting on the fence while international crises are boiling out of control; for a superpower that comes up with innovative initiatives to tackle the great challenges of the day, such as climate change, nuclear proliferation and violent Islamist fundamentalism. The demand is for an America that enforces the rules that facilitate international commerce and works effectively to stabilize an accident-prone global economy. Naturally, the world also wants a superpower willing to foot the bill with a largess that no other nation can match.
These are not just naive expectations. Foreign leaders know that, even in the best circumstances, the next U.S. president will not be able to deliver on all these things. They also understand that American leadership always comes at a price. Appearing too closely allied with the United States is a risky political position for elected politicians everywhere. Still, some have shown a surprising readiness to stand with America.
Consider what happened last March, when President Bush traveled to Latin America, a region he has largely ignored. To many, it seemed that the trip was bound to be inconsequential, as Bush had nothing concrete to offer. Yet all the Latin American presidents who were asked to host this lame-duck, empty-handed and politically radioactive guest agreed to do so; some even lobbied not to be left off his itinerary. What was in it for them? The hope of getting the superpower to do something for them. Leftist Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, for example, a personal friend and staunch supporter of Bush's nemesis Hugo Chávez, wanted help with his country's ethanol industry.
In Turkey, much like in Brazil, the population is deeply critical of the United States. Yet, much like his Brazilian counterpart, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has openly courted the Bush administration. The Turkish prime minister knows that the United States is his country's best ally in the effort to get Turkey into the European Union.
Lula and Erdogan are just two in a long list of world leaders who understand that while the United States may sometimes use a heavy hand, the alternatives are much worse. Few want to see the world's stage led by autocratic regimes such as those in Russia or China. An ineffectual Europe does not offer much in the way of leadership. And short of these options, there are few possibilities besides living in an anarchic vacuum. Many foreign leaders will therefore be willing to pay the price that comes with American leadership. They ask only that the price not include subservience to the whims of a giant with more power than brains and whose legitimacy is undermined by regular displays of incompetence, recklessness and ignorance.
Polls in multiple countries have shown for years that the legitimacy and prestige of the United States has deteriorated. Yet WorldPublicOpinion.org reports that the same populations that don't want the United States to be the world's "leader" say that they don't want America to withdraw from world affairs. For example, 93 percent of respondents in South Korea, as well as 78 percent in France and 71 percent in Mexico said last year that the United States should play a role in solving international problems. Moreover, despite the overall negative perceptions of the United States, most people surveyed believe that bilateral relations between the United States and their country are improving. In no country surveyed does the population think that the nation's relations with the United States are getting worse.
Americans are likewise yearning for the United States to be more respected abroad. Sixty-nine percent of Americans say they believe it is best for the United States to take an active part in world affairs. And one of the Bush administration's most senior members recently called for a new direction in U.S. thinking about world affairs. "Success," he said, "will be less a matter of imposing one's will and more a function of shaping the behavior of friends, adversaries and, most importantly, the people in between. . . . We need a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security -- diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development." The American appealing for a drastic departure from the administration's overly militarized foreign policy? Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The demand for a new brand of American global leadership is there. Increasingly, the supply to satisfy this demand will also be there.
Moisés Naím is editor in chief of Foreign Policy. A longer version of this column will be published in the magazine's forthcoming issue.