Front Page

The true test of leadership

By Anouar Boukhars

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Dangerous times require wise leadership. The measure of how well US President George W Bush lives up to this standard remains the principal issue at the heart of contemporary debate. As in past war junctures, the immediate problem resides in deciding the fate of the defeated state(s).

The Bush administration has two choices: it can either pull back from postwar disputes or work with its allies to help transform Iraq and ultimately the whole Middle East into a zone of democracy a la Eastern Europe. Enlightened self-interest explains the benefits of creating such a grand bargain. Such a prospect, as Fouad Ajami of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies reminds us, would represent "a break with the false gods of despotism".

Historically, the United States has never felt at home abroad. The reason is America's divided identity, Henry R Nau, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, tells us. For Nau, the US has always wavered between "booms" of internationalism and nation-building and "busts" of nationalism and unilateral policies. The true test of leadership has always been how to pull the two halves together. America's great postwar presidents who passed the test were those who were most adroit at strengthening policies at home and abroad through working out all sorts of tensions in a democratic debate.

The model that Harry S Truman helped build in the aftermath of World War II answers the question of why postwar US foreign policy has been so successful. The Truman Doctrine, which first sent aid to support Turkey and Greece against the Soviet threat; the Marshall Plan, which restored economic health to Western Europe; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), America's first peacetime alliance; the reinvention of Germany and Japan into civilized nations - these were all acts of the genius of postwar leadership. The architects of this postwar order, which is still the core of today's world order, skillfully managed the competition to influence America's foreign policy and to produce over the long run a foreign policy that more closely attended to the needs and interests of US society as well as a number of other countries.

The real test the Bush administration faces today is to demonstrate more cogently that its talk of democratizing Iraq and spurring reform elsewhere in the Middle East is not mere rhetoric. "If it's about democracy, we'll have a broader base of support at home and more friends abroad," Ronald Asmus, former deputy assistant secretary to president Bill Clinton, reminds us. America's traditional allies have serious qualms about Bush's designs for a post-Saddam Iraq. Conventional wisdom posits that the state(s) emerging victorious from major wars own the vanquished state(s). The Europeans are worried that an unconstrained superpower pursuing foreign policy for narrowly defined domestic interests won't keep good on its promises once Iraq is defeated. There is real concern that once the threat recedes, the two halves of America's divided identity will pull apart. Will the United States stay engaged in the world as it is today? Will it overreach and pull back to what Bush called a more humble US foreign policy?

"We are bound to pay the price of leadership," late president John F Kennedy's national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, wrote 41 years ago. "We may as well have some of the advantages." And indeed if the Bush administration plays its cards well during these fluid times, it may very well affect the shape of the Middle East as America's great presidents affected that of Western Europe and Japan in the aftermath of World War II. The strategic restraint exercised by the US at that time reassured friends and allies and in turn helped secure their cooperation. The reliability of US power and predictability in wielding that power explain the emergence of cooperative relations between the United States and the states of Europe, Japan and other democracies.

"America the unilateral imperialist is far less attractive than America the leader of a coalition that is enforcing UN resolutions and preventing the organization from following on the path of the ill-fated League of Nations," Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, rightly noted. It is true that national self-interests and threat perception have worked to diminish the overall potential of collective security organizations. Not all states view threats in the same way; nor are they willing to resist acts of aggression when it entails high risks.

This reluctance to use force is vehemently denounced by opponents of collective security who view it as a forum inclined to paralysis. This forum serves as an excuse for inaction, emboldening aggressors and threatening to eviscerate US sovereignty and stem the robustness of US power and the willingness to use it to defend its vital interests. But what the skeptics of multilateral cooperation miss is that the United States is no longer immune to global developments, as was clearly demonstrated by the terrible terrorist events of September 11, 2001.

There is no doubt that the United States presides over a unipolar world order and has the capability to defeat any adversary or a combination of adversaries through its formidable military might. But there are world problems that simply cannot be tackled by one country alone. No one country can monitor all transfers of technology, stem global exports of plutonium, highly enriched uranium, and deadly bacteria and toxins and control all covert money flows that nourish terrorist networks, and enforce all legal obligations. The real "test of history for the United States", as Henry Kissinger has pointed out, "will be whether we can turn our current predominant power into international consensus and our own principles into widely accepted international norms".

In the coming days, coming weeks, we will find out if history is a guide to President Bush. Let us all hope that the president passes his test.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.
Feb 21, 2003



Click here to be one)

No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright Asia Times Online, 6306 The Center, Queen’s Road, Central, Hong Kong.