Despite Iraq discord, world eager for U.S. diplomacy
But America may need to understand how the world has changed during the war and what different kind of leadership is now required.
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While the US has been "absorbed and consumed in Iraq, there's been an empty seat at the international table where we used to be," Mr. Saunders says. "Meanwhile, China and India are moving on, and other parts of the world are moving on as well."Skip to next paragraph
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A key global issue that epitomizes how the US has fallen behind in leadership is climate change, many experts say.
"Are we providing the vision of a future that addresses the world's problems and offers a big-picture road map of where to go? On the global environmental issue and climate change, I can't say that we are," Mr. Jentleson says. "The world has really moved on to what the solutions are," he adds, "while we are basically still debating if it's a problem."
To regain its leadership role, the US has some adjusting to do, Jentleson says: It will have to fine-tune its concept of the challenge posed by Islamic extremism and adjust its global vision to accommodate a world of diffused power and greater pluralism.
"We keep defining the war of ideas as 'freedom versus fundamentalism,' but we have to modify that to something that allows for expanding the circle of the world's winners," he says. "We have to learn to live and help others learn to live in a world of greater pluralism – a wider circle of ethnic and religious groups."
The irony is that, after five years of a war that came to define American foreign policy for many, there is still a hunger in the world for American leadership – perhaps because no other country is prepared to fill a superpower role.
Many experts say they've come across this hunger in their travels abroad or in exchanges with close contacts overseas. One such expert is Fawaz Gerges, who says he realized how much the world craves American leadership after a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt – where he encountered an intense international interest in the US presidential campaign.
"The explanation for so much interest and enthusiasm has to lie in a deep desire for a renewal of American leadership – not for America the aggressor, but for a leadership that reestablishes the America engaged in addressing the world's problems, the America that is a referee in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the leader in standing for the rule of law," says Mr. Gerges, a professor of Middle East affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "People realize that without American leadership, the world is a much more dangerous place."
Yet even if the world is hungry for American leadership, what is the American appetite to fulfill the role after a costly war and with tough economic times bearing down? Some surveys, including a periodic poll from the Pew Research Center in Washington, do show a growing desire among Americans for the US to "mind its own business." But it's still a minority of the public, and few experts see a desire to withdraw from world affairs. "Fatigue, yes," Gerges says, "but I don't see isolationism, no."
That view is backed up by a survey for the United Nations Foundation, done last year by Public Opinion Strategies, an Alexandria, Va., polling and research firm. It found that Americans favor greater international cooperation and an expansion of global partnerships – while eschewing a "go-it-alone America."
Such sentiments go back to Sept. 11, 2001. Indeed, a fundamental legacy of 9/11 in the American psyche, says Jentleson of Duke University, is that "foreign policy is no longer something 'out there,' but as it turns out is actually 'in here.' " Even after the Iraq war, he adds, "the average person gets it that we are connected to the world."