In his second-term inaugural speech, Bill Clinton described the United States as “the indispensable nation.” Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote about this seemingly arrogant phrase in her book, Memo to the President-Elect:
“Some thought the term arrogant, but that is not how I mean it. Rather, I felt it captures the reality that most large-scale initiatives required at least some input from the United States. I also hoped the phrase would create a sense of pride among Americans, so we would be more willing to invest in overseas projects and less reluctant to take on tough assignments.
Although our country has much in common with others, it has no current competitor in power and reach. This creates opportunities but also temptations. For better or worse, American actions serve as an example. If we attempt to put ourselves outside the law, we invite others to do the same. That is when our moral bearings are lost and the foundation of our leadership becomes suspect.”
For the past several weeks, I’ve been wrestling with this question of what our role is as a country in the international community. On the one hand, I genuinely do believe in American leadership internationally. I think that we have an important role to play in improving conditions around the world, whether it’s in environmental reform, global banking and finance, the private sector, human rights, socio-economic development, and even defense. Thoughts of other growing world powers, such as China or Russia, reaffirm this belief. These countries are poised to assume the same kinds of leadership roles, yet with far different undertones and ulterior motives. Above all, I believe in America’s fundamental ideals of democracy, good governance, and equality, and I would much rather see those proliferated than authoritarian and reckless states.
I know, the typical patriotic spiel. However, this is where I hit my roadblock. As I think about these ideals that we hold and pursue, I cannot help but recognize the hypocrisy tinting them. A simple question emerges: How can we balance our foreign policy ideals with the realities of our past international actions?
Certain examples shine stunningly clear. The invasion of Iraq, American-supported regime changes throughout Latin America, military engagements with nations such as Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia, and even our alliances with states known for human rights abuses, such as Saudi Arabia. All these initiatives share a few common threads: the presence of ulterior U.S. motives and a devastating aftermath. Conflict-ridden countries, collapsed governments replaced by dictatorships, extremist groups, and humanitarian crises have all stemmed from various U.S. actions abroad. Iraq was decimated due to the intersection of oil interests and public misdirection. Latin America is still rebuilding from the aftermath of its numerous military dictatorships, which stemmed largely from the U.S. anti-Communist policy. An anti-American sentiment is growing all around the world, compounded by our growing isolationist tendencies. Moreover, this dark history leads to other issues when we try to do good. When we call out rogue states and bad actors for their genuinely heinous actions, we are met with the response “Can the U.S. really pass judgement on this?” And it’s a genuine question, can we? Shouldn’t we hold ourselves equally accountable?
Don’t get me wrong, I recognize the bountiful good that the U.S. has done as a champion for human rights progress, diplomacy and democracy, aid and infrastructure development, private investment, and general humanitarian work. But the question remains, how do I balance my American ideals with the reality that I read in the news and our history? How can I preach the importance of U.S. global involvement with the knowledge of what our myriad “involvements” have done? In other words, are we really indispensable?
There’s a growing idea that the U.S. should only be involved internationally to the extent that our domestic interests are directly threatened. To many, this just means stopping imminent threats to national security and establishing economic partnerships that immediately benefit the U.S. In short, America First. But to limit our leadership abroad to those goals seems fundamentally wrong. We have a far greater responsibility abroad.
However, I believe that the reason this idea has emerged is slightly paradoxical in itself. We fear international involvement largely because of past examples of poor foreign policy. Throughout the past few decades, we’ve hurt ourselves, along with the international community, in the pursuit of foreign initiatives with strictly our own interests in mind. Thousands of American lives have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, American companies are suffering due to aggressive economic policies, free press values and basic human rights have been overshadowed by strategic alliances with unsavory states. All around us, we see misguided foreign policy not only negatively impacting the rest of the world, but also impacting the U.S. That’s the issue, our foreign policy has become too heavily driven by short-term goals.
We need to realize that the United States benefits when the world benefits. We are in a better position when the countries of the world are able to function with stability and peace. We are in a better position when markets and economies across the world are healthy and thriving, rather than subservient to us. We are in a better position when our allies and our enemies look to us as the bearer of positive growth rather than destabilization.
This means bringing our ideals back into the realm of foreign policy, rather than binding ourselves to short-term strategic goals. Access to oil should not outweigh the long-term potential of Middle-Eastern allies and regional stability. In fact, we as a community need to recognize that the stability is a far more favorable outcome than any oil reserves out there, or any other resources for that matter. Peace needs to become a higher priority than military strength; sustainable international development needs to become a greater priority than our own isolated economic growth.
Obviously this is by no means an absolute. The U.S. Government exists to serve its constituents, and thus, our needs and interests should be represented at the highest level. However, that means that it falls upon the government to convince the public that these foreign policy goals are worthwhile pursuits. Organizations like USAID and the State Department do an excellent job with this, but it falls upon the legislative branch and the President to make these goals a clear priority in the public’s mindset. Our idea of “citizenship” must grow to encompass, at least to some degree, the importance of the “global citizenry” as well. How can we consider the U.S. government as a global leader without further considering the international community, especially endangered populations, as part of our constituency?
To me, an example of a balance between the two was the Marshall Plan. People can argue the justness of the intentions all they want, but at the end of the day, this Plan rebuilt a broken Europe while simultaneously protecting a key U.S. interest. Furthermore, the government was able to sufficiently arouse public interest behind this initiative. This is the sort of balance we need to strike in the future: orienting strategy to longer-term and more idealistic policy goals rather than constantly chasing a dangling carrot in front of our faces.
As a student with hopes of working in international policy, I’ve found myself wondering what the landscape will look like by the time I’m in the professional world. What will our leadership be in 20 years? How will the rest of the world look at us? Surely we’ll have enemies, but I hope our friendships are brighter and more plentiful. By then, we may truly be “The Indispensable Nation”.