America’s Declining Global Leadership Role

OP ED | By: US Renew Democracy News | January 17, 2024
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As the world transitions into a complex geopolitical era marked by the rise of new powers and diffuse threats, the United States stands at a crossroads of influence and strategy. Since the end of World War II, it has wielded considerable influence through its military might, economic prowess, and cultural appeal. However, the emergence of multipolar dynamics, cybersecurity threats, and shifting economic landscapes necessitates a reevaluation of its global strategy. This Op Ed aims to delve into the nuanced aspects of American foreign policy, reflecting on its historical leadership and envisaging its path forward amidst these evolving challenges.

Before we evaluate America’s role in the world, it’s crucial to broaden our definition of leadership. Global leadership in today’s world must extend beyond military might and economic leverage to include  strong moral character. This entails championing democratic governance, respecting human rights, ensuring equality of opportunity, and uniformly advocating for essential services like education and health care for all. Such leadership also involves fostering collaborative relationships among nations, adhering to the rule of law, and seeking peaceful resolutions to conflicts. We are no longer just a collection of sovereign states, although some might think and pretend we are. We lie in an inter-dependent inter-connected world.

As we look at current global and foreign policy issues, it appears as if tragically  the moral character of  America’s  leadership status in the world has begun to slip, as the following what have we done wrong  examples illustrate.

Analysis—What Have We Done Wrong

Failing to do more to address the rise of autocracies: Over the past twenty years the world has witnessed the rise of autocratic governments. China and Russia are perhaps the largest autocratic powers but many other countries are following suit, challenging the moral character of America and other democracies. Quite often these autocracies are built on the strength of charismatic personalities, such as Trump, Bolsonaro or Milei who have little political knowledge and experience but are able to generate a tidal wave of populist support.  The United States has been trying to stand up to these autocratic powers, mainly by exercising its military strength and economic might. While this seems to be a bottom line needed approach to deal with issues such as Ukraine and Taiwan, it needs to be coupled with support for democratization in these countries, and the building of democratic alliances as the US has been doing recently with NATO.

Inconsistent human rights policies: Most people, even non-Americans understand that the United States has long positioned itself as a champion of human rights and democracy. Yet, this stance is often juxtaposed against geopolitical realities. For example, in navigating relations with strategic partners like Saudi Arabia, the U.S. faces the challenge of balancing its advocacy for human rights with pragmatic considerations of security and economic interests. Global events, such as the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the recent suppression of democratic movements in Hong Kong, further test the U.S.’s resolve and approach. It is imperative that U.S. policy not only addresses these issues but also reflects a consistent and committed stance on promoting human rights universally.

Turning our backs on immigration: A strong pro-immigration policy used to be one of America’s strengths. We are known as a land of immigrants. But no longer. In recent years the US has seen a movement towards more restrictive immigration  policies, marked by tightened regulations and a heated public discourse. This shift represents a larger trend of nationalism and skepticism towards globalization. The tightening of U.S. borders, the controversial debates over DACA and the travel ban, and the overall portrayal of immigrants in political rhetoric have raised questions about the nation’s historical identity as a melting pot. The implications of these policies extend beyond domestic politics, affecting international relations, and the U.S.’s reputation as a land of opportunity and refuge.

Trying to have it both ways on climate change: Global warming, climate change, and the loss of biological diversity are issues that affect the quality of life in all countries. The United States was one of the countries originally responsible for raising global awareness about these issues, and bringing countries together to sign the landmark Paris Agreement. However, under President Trump the US ceded its leadership role in global environmental policy. The Biden Administration has sought to reverse this trend and passed a major piece of legislation aimed at bringing the US in line with the global goal of creating a carbon neutral world by 2050 and restoring biodiversity

However, domestic challenges remain, particularly in balancing environmental policies with economic interests. The debate over energy policy, especially in the context of the shale gas revolution and the Keystone XL pipeline, underscores the complex interplay between economic growth and environmental stewardship; they highlight the challenges the U.S. faces in balancing these two critical aspects.

Failing to address the global challenges of technology: The world currently is facing unprecedented global leadership policy challenges related to seemingly ever-growing use of technology. The role of artificial intelligence, the threat to people’s privacy and security, the use of misinformation and fake news are but a few of the technology issues that all countries are facing. The United States, the European Union and others are making initial attempts to develop regulations to deal with these issues; but ultimately they need to be addressed at a global level. America has an opportunity to provide the leadership that’s needed to bring countries together and develop a set of regulations that can protect privacy, dispel fake news, and guard against the abuses of AI.

The U.S. should develop a comprehensive national cybersecurity strategy. This strategy should prioritize public-private partnerships and international collaboration, focusing on safeguarding critical infrastructure and setting even higher global standards for cyber conduct.

The Root Cause:  Political Divisiveness and A Failure to Address the Importance of Global Engagement 

Internal political divisiveness is a major reason America’s global leadership role is in decline.  The ‘America First’ doctrine, characterized by skepticism towards multilateral agreements and an emphasis on national interests, has led to a reevaluation of international commitments. While it is essential for the U.S. to protect its sovereignty and security, excessive America firstness challenges our role as a global leader. Retreating from international accords and institutions not only affects global governance but also raises questions about the future of international cooperation and American leadership in the world. We are living in a highly connected inter-dependent world, and American foreign policy needs to do more to reflect this.

Internal policy factors seem to be propelling a noticeable drift towards authoritarianism and a retreat from cooperative internationalism. Countries that once looked to the U.S. as a model for democracy are now witnessing its internal struggles and questioning its commitment to global democratic ideals. The U.S. must navigate this era of rising autocrats and declining democratic norms by reaffirming its commitment to democratic values and strengthening its alliances. This includes addressing domestic issues of polarization and governance that undermine its international credibility and leadership.

In redefining its role for a complex future, the United States must consolidate its historical influence with a renewed commitment to moral and ethical leadership. This entails not only advocating for human rights and strengthening international institutions, but also proactively addressing the challenges of a multipolar world and the domestic implications of global policies. Recognizing the need for a dynamic and responsive foreign policy, the U.S. should prioritize diplomatic engagement, technological innovation, and a steadfast adherence to global cooperation and responsibility.

By embracing flexibility alongside a firm commitment to its foundational values, the U.S. can navigate the evolving geopolitical landscape, fostering stability, and prosperity in an interconnected world. As it stands at the crossroads of tradition and transformation, the U.S.’s pursuit of a balanced, principled, and forward-looking strategy will be imperative in shaping a more peaceful and sustainable planet.

Engagement Resources

  • Council on Foreign Relations ( Offers in-depth analysis and resources on U.S. foreign policy and international affairs.
  • Brookings Institution ( Provides research and policy recommendations on various aspects of U.S. foreign policy and global economic issues.
  • The Aspen Institute ( Engages in policy discussions on various global issues, including U.S. leadership and international relations.
  • The Atlantic Council ( Focuses on international affairs, providing analysis and policy solutions for U.S. engagement in global challenges.

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