Global Leadership

The chronology of 2016-2017 elections in Western countries, appearing in a Fifty Year Perspective blog post, reviewed attitudes toward globalization, immigration, and the European Union. Subsequent blog posts examined the internal challenges facing the European Union, shortcomings of existing international institutions in responding to popular anxieties, and one economist’s approach to addressing the social and ecological issues that new institutions must face.

An underlying theme through the series of blog posts is conflict of ideologies: internationalism versus nationalism, market supremacy versus social justice, fundamentalism versus progressivism, materialism versus environmentalism, tribalism versus multiculturalism.

International institutions set the rules of engagement between nations, but what guides the development of the rules? The economist’s approach outlined in the previous blog post sets out guidelines that only a strong and respected international leader could be expected to advocate.

Following World War II the mantle of world leadership was generally bestowed upon the United States. As the most powerful of the liberal democracies, the U.S. led the struggle against communism. As Josh Lederman wrote in an Associated Press article in January, 2017, “For generations, the U.S. has largely set the terms for the global economy, policed international security threats and spearheaded the response to crises like Ebola and Haiti’s earthquake.” Its soft power derives from its leadership in technology, finance, entertainment, higher education, foreign domestic investment, military power, and its history of acceptance of immigrants on a massive scale. The success of its immigrants established the U.S. image as “the land of opportunity.”

That’s not to say that the U.S. did not engage in its share of bad behavior. Targeted assassinations, violations of civil liberties, and civilian deaths from drone attacks have been committed in the name of counterterrorism. And, as Hugh White pointed out in a November, 2016 article in The Atlantic, the list of failed international security objectives is long. Among them: North Korea’s and Iran’s quests for nuclear weapons; stability in Iraq and Afghanistan; jihadi extremism; peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Yet it was not until the election of Donald Trump as president that U.S. world leadership has been called into question. Withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement reversed the U.S. leadership role that had set an example for other nations. And withdrawal, rather than renegotiation, from the Trans-Pacific Partnership convinced Senator John McCain that doing so “abdicates U.S. leadership in Asia to China.” China has demonstrated assertiveness in Africa with loans paying for railroads, roads and ports, as well as investments in business. One study found more African students studying in China than in Britain or the U.S., many on Chinese scholarships.

But in an article in November 2016 in The Telegraph, Rupert Myers found Europe a more worthy model for world leadership:

In America’s absence, only Europe is left to stand for the values underpinning Nato, Western democratic freedom, and the rule of international law. As the originator of democracy and the values of the enlightenment, Europe is the older, wiser continent. Europe lived through the authoritarian nationalism that has captivated Trump’s supporters, and came out of the experience chastened but resolved…. it is to Europe that the world must look for a vision of a peaceful, united future in which states defend their minorities rather than persecute them.

The future will tell whether Europe fulfills this role. France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, has captured the international spotlight in his short time in office. Perhaps Europe will accede to world leadership. For now, U.S. attractiveness as a land of economic opportunity is not in danger of being displaced by China or Russia, and quite possibly not by Europe either.

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