Sunday, November 2, 2008

A response to The Washington Times’ Solutions feature, which appears in the Sunday tabloid section. This week’s topic: What can the United States do to improve its standing abroad?

What can the United States do to improve its standing abroad? There is no lack of suggested answers to this question on issues from alliance management, arms control, trade, climate change and so forth. But almost invariably these proposals include calls for vigorous American action in line with “global” objectives. Too often ignored, however, is the reality that an effective way for the United States to improve its image abroad is by showing the consequences of what would happen if it were to do less, rather than simply by doing more. This is because the U.S. can substantially restore its standing abroad by getting more appropriate credit for the services it already provides to others rather than allowing these services to continue to be taken for granted.

Over the past six decades, for instance, U.S. security commitments to Europe via NATO, to Japan and South Korea via bilateral treaties, and to the Gulf states via less formal arrangements have protected those countries from the very real threat of communist aggression as well as more recent threats, thereby allowing them to focus on economic and social development. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, these commitments remain the cornerstone of security in these regions. U.S. leadership has, for instance, been vital in managing the situation in the former Yugoslavia in Europe, in addressing the destabilizing North Korean threat in East Asia, and in grappling with Iranian and radical Islamic ambitions in the Middle East.

In the economic realm, the U.S. has led the world in dropping its own trade barriers and opening itself to foreign goods, serving as the consumer market par excellence for export-based economies in the developing world. These are only a few of the principal services the U.S. has provided that have benefited others far more than itself.

The fact of the matter is that most other countries need the U.S. more than the U.S. needs them, even, and perhaps especially, in a world increasingly defined by multipolarity and diminishing American relative superiority, yet the existing world structure does not reflect this equation. These services have come to be taken for granted, to be so “priced in” to others’ calculations that they are hardly even noticed at all - familiarity breeds not only contempt but also complacency. Though the benefits of U.S. leadership have been broadly shared, including by the U.S. itself, some have benefited more than others, including many of those who most decry the role the U.S. has played in recent decades especially in Europe and the Middle East. The U.S. should be less hesitant to correct this imbalance to its advantage. Such “free riding” might have been satisfactory in the past, but it is increasingly questionable that it will continue to be so as the U.S. relative power advantage in economic and military strength narrows.

One important way to remedy this imbalance is through simply reminding other states and their citizenries of these services, but this cannot be accomplished merely through words. Other countries have to perceive the real risk that the United States may not perform at least some services of common concern if not properly compensated and the consequences thereof. The prospect of absence may make their hearts fonder. Thus the next president would do well to imitate President Eisenhower, who was said to be an expert at not doing things, and seek responsible but consequential ways to show other countries what an absence of American leadership might entail. Countries should see that their tolerance of the risks of such inaction is likely substantially lower than America’s.

One fertile area for this kind of diplomatic brinksmanship could be alliance management, where U.S. forces bear burdens disproportionate to the various allies’ ability to contribute; another could be a more skeptical approach to regional groupings that have changed from instruments of Cold War solidarity to mechanisms pointedly used to exclude U.S. influence; a third might be more restrained approaches to primarily regional threats to stability in areas where allies and partners could shoulder a greater burden.

This is not necessarily a call for a lesser American role in the world. It is instead a call to ground continued American engagement in the world on the firm ground of interest and fair exchange rather than merely exhortations to “global responsibility,” a thin reed on which to ask the American people to prepare for sacrifice in a world in which U.S. leadership will no longer be so effortless as it was when we were the “hyperpower.” During the Cold War and the unipolar world of the 1990s, free riding seemed an acceptable price to the U.S. for the benefits of the global system. In a world in which our standing is at historic lows, our economy is in crisis, we are engaged in two major wars and our relative power margin is declining, we can ill-afford not to be adequately supported in our efforts to sustain a liberal market system in line with our national objectives.

Elbridge Colby served in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, on the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, and with the Department of State.

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