By Peter Beinart
Published on the NYT, Dec 2, 2020
There’s a lot we still don’t know about how President-elect Joe Biden and his foreign policy team will approach the world. But this much is clear: They believe in American “leadership.”
In a 2015 speech, Antony Blinken, Mr. Biden’s choice to be secretary of state, employed some version of the word 21 times. This spring, Mr. Biden wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs titled “Why America Must Lead Again.” Last week, when he introduced his national security nominees, he said that “America is back, ready to lead the world.”
Let’s hope not. In the post-Trump age, “leadership” is a misguided, and even dangerous, vision for America’s relationship with the rest of the globe.
For the past four years, foreign policy elites have trumpeted American “leadership” as the safe, bipartisan and benign alternative to the Trump administration’s belligerent America First nationalism. But look up the word “lead” in a dictionary and you’ll find definitions like “the first or foremost place,” being “at the head of” and “to control a group of people.” Leadership doesn’t mean motherhood and apple pie. It means being in charge.
Mr. Biden has offered two justifications for why America deserves this privileged role. The first is hereditary: “For 70 years,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs, “the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules” that “advance collective security and prosperity.” In other words, America should lead the world now because it has done so effectively in the past.
Between 1945 and 1989, according to Dov H. Levin’s book “Meddling in the Ballot Box,” the United States interfered in foreign elections 63 times. So Mr. Biden’s cheery history of American Cold War leadership leaves a lot out. But even if you romanticize the post-World War II era, it is long gone.
Seventy years ago, as James Goldgeier and Bruce W. Jentleson recently noted, the United States accounted for roughly half of the world’s gross domestic product. It now accounts for just over one-seventh. Collectively, the European Union’s G.D.P., adjusted for purchasing power parity, is almost as large as the United States’. China’s is already larger, and the coronavirus pandemic is likely to only widen the gap. The phrase “leadership” assumes a power hierarchy that, at least economically, no longer exists.
Mr. Biden’s second justification is moral. As he wrote in 2017, “other nations follow our lead because they know that America does not simply protect its own interests, but tries to advance the aspirations of all.” But it’s hard to survey America’s behavior in recent decades and glean some special commitment to global welfare. According to a study by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, America’s post-9/11 wars have displaced 37 million people. And even before Donald Trump entered the White House, the United States had refused to ratify international treaties that ban land mines, cluster bombs and nuclear tests, regulate the global sale of arms, protect the oceans, enable prosecution of genocide and war crimes, and safeguard the rights of women, children and people with disabilities. Most countries on earth have ratified all or nearly all of these agreements. No other nation has spurned every single one.
Mr. Trump has added to this litany of noncompliance by withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the World Health Organization, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Treaty on Open Skies and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This isn’t the record of a country that has earned the right to global leadership. It’s the record of a country that should work on global membership first.
Unfortunately, even Mr. Biden’s advisers — who are multilateralists by American standards — have trouble imagining cooperation without dominance. “Whether we like it or not, the world simply does not organize itself,” Mr. Blinken has said. But the United States has discovered what happens “when some other country tries to take our place or, maybe even worse, no one does, and you end up with a vacuum that is filled by bad events.”
But it’s not true that international cooperation collapses without America calling the shots. After the United States announced that it was leaving the Paris climate agreement, not a single other signatory followed it out the door. To the contrary, the European Union, China, Japan and South Korea have recently pledged to make their economies carbon-neutral by at least 2060. This summer, after the Trump administration threatened to leave the World Health Organization, France and Germany promised to increase their contributions.
The point isn’t that American participation in common global efforts is unnecessary. To the contrary — it’s vital. But most of the time, America best serves these efforts less by dictating the rules than by agreeing to them.
Choosing partnership over leadership may strike some as un-American. But it’s what most Americans want. For 20 years, Gallup has been asking Americans whether the United States should play “the leading role,” a “major role,” a “minor role” or “no role at all” in world affairs. By large margins, “major role” always comes in first. This September, when the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asked Americans whether they preferred the United States to play a “dominant” or a “shared” leadership role, “shared” prevailed by almost three to one.
It’s not ordinary Americans who believe the United States must “sit at the head of the table,” as Mr. Biden said last week. It is foreign-policy elites, who often slander public opposition to American primacy as isolationism. But there is a dissident foreign-policy tradition, often championed by those at the forefront of America’s domestic struggles for justice. In his 1967 speech opposing the Vietnam War, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the United States government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Such a government, he insisted, should not pretend “it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them.” Rather than seeking to dominate the world, Dr. King argued, the United States should show “solidarity” with it: first, by curbing its own contributions to global misery and second, by joining with others to battle “poverty, insecurity and injustice.”
The Biden team should make solidarity — not leadership — its watchword for approaching the world. In so doing, it would acknowledge that while the United States can do much to help other nations, its first obligation — especially after the horrors of the Trump era — is to stop doing harm.
Peter Beinart (@PeterBeinart) is professor of journalism and political science at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He is also editor at large of Jewish Currents and writes The Beinart Notebook, a weekly newsletter.
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