World leadership has its price, and being the leader of the free world may be more costly now than ever before.
Foremost among the challenges facing the United States is the task of living up to its self-assumed role as moral custodian. More than any other nation, the US has sought to exercise a moral suasion over its allies and adversaries on a range of international affairs. Increasingly, our allies are rejecting the notion of reflexively following a set of policies that seem to place principle over pragmatism and that run counter to their national interests.
Resisting US positions
In several recent decisions, the US has found itself whistling alone against a wind of international resistance. US opposition to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and our insistence on maintaining an embargo against Cuba are but two of the policies that have been promulgated with little regard for international comity.
Similarly, sanctions imposed unilaterally by the US on Iran, Libya, Nigeria, and Sudan have been fiercely resisted by our allies in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. And the clarion call for multinational support of the US plan for an African Crisis Response Force apparently has fallen on deaf ears.
At a time when America's dominance in world affairs is unparalleled, it is having great difficulty leading its would-be followers. Efforts to shape its allies into a compliant posse have not only galvanized small countries in the developing world, but also have brought common cause to China and Russia. If the US were content to chart a course against its adversaries all alone, there would be few complaints. But the US believes there is an inherent correctness and conviction in its positions with which the rest of the world invariably should agree. In this, its expectation is unreal.
At the root of the problem seems to be a fundamental flaw in America's grand view not only of the world but of itself. Whereas truth and justice once were synonymous with the American way, many nations now recoil from the wholesale imposition of views and policies that are unique to America's own political interests. This is particularly evident when American allies are expected to support US efforts to punish, isolate, or otherwise neutralize countries with which the US finds fault, either through economic or diplomatic sanctions.
A quiet backlash is brewing as America's allies have become increasingly uncomfortable with providing blind support for policies that make little sense to the international community.
Support or forfeit
Allies also resent the US tendency to put them in the diplomatic vise-grip of either supporting US policies or forfeiting trade privileges. Such has been the case with the Helms-Burton Act and the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, in which US allies must choose not to do business with Cuba, Iran, and Libya or open themselves up to legal challenges in the US. Virtually every European state and the Commonwealth have resisted the US-led effort to impose sanctions against African regimes in Sudan and Nigeria based on terrorism and human-rights concerns, respectively.
In addition to being unrealistic, the expectation that the rest of the world will follow America's lead is based on a fallacy of shared values. It seems that the US does not know or does not care that its values are no longer as dominant or universal as they were. The turbulent response of many countries to US initiatives on family planning and reproductive rights at the Cairo Population Conference should have been instructive. While few countries would take issue with the tenets of democracy, many have balked at US insistence that their systems should resemble American-style democracy in order to be legitimate. US emphasis on multiparty elections, a pristine human-rights record, and a free-market economy becomes a point of resentment, if not contention.
Of course, there is also the glaring double standard that many countries accuse the US of perpetuating. While denouncing the fiscal irresponsibility of the UN and its member states, the US owes more than $1 billion in back dues. While railing against some countries for human-rights abuses, terrorism, and nuclear misconduct, the US has embraced others with which it has present or future economic interests. And while castigating single-party governments in some states, the US has coddled a few single-party dictators over the years.
These inconsistencies, purposeful or not, don't go unnoticed in the international community. Such contradictions justifiably lead other countries to question not only America's insistence that its allies comply with those policies, but US motivations as well.
Most important, the expectation by the US that our Latin American, European, Asian, and African allies will follow our lead ignores the rudimentary realities of the new global economic environment. At a time of considerable economic realignment, each country is looking for a competitive advantage in markets throughout the world, and few are willing to place principle over pragmatism for the sake of American foreign-policy dictates.
A better team player
Consequently, the US easily could find itself more isolated from the international community and could see an even more pronounced level of resentment from those it seeks to lead. There are many definitions of leadership, and virtually all of them contemplate followers. Although the US will always be in a class by itself, it will not reach its leadership potential until it learns to become a better team player.
Otherwise, more and more, it will be the US against the world, and the price of that leadership could be high.
Adonis Hoffman writes on law, politics, and foreign policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.