American Leadership is an Expensive Asset

I’ve really appreciated that Daniel Larison — who was a consistent scourge of the Bush and Obama administrations — has been at least as scathing about the conduct of foreign policy under President Trump. And so I also appreciate his recent meditation on whether Trump has abandoned leadership of the free world:

I would say that U.S. “leadership” as conventionally understood is still intact and will be for the foreseeable future, but that Trump’s conduct of foreign policy–if it continues this way–will leave us with a worst-of-both-worlds situation in which the U.S. is still obliged to do all the same things it has been expected to do while having even less influence with other governments than it does now. Trump isn’t ceding America’s “leadership” role. He’s just doing a terrible job when he tries to exercise that leadership.

Trump is managing to find a way to antagonize allies without reducing our liabilities, and at the same time he is stoking tensions with adversaries while increasing support for and entanglement with irresponsible clients. This is not really a foreign policy of “retreat” or “withdrawal” any more than Obama’s was. It appears to be a foreign policy of fruitless confrontation for its own sake. This not a case of putting American interests first. It is picking fights with lots of other countries regardless of the benefits and costs of doing so and declaring victory without having any success.

I agree with all of that. Trump’s foreign policy consists of a peculiar combination of blustery displays of dominance with treaty allies combined with obsequious fawning over unsavory clients, and it’s very hard to see how that adds up to anything that particularly benefits America.

But I think more needs to be said about this:

When a foreign policy pundit declares that U.S. “leadership” has been brought to an end by this or that action, he is often just saying that he thinks the current president is conducting foreign policy the wrong way, and “leadership” talk usually frees the pundit from having to explain anything else. The problem the critic has is not that the U.S. has ceased to “lead,” but that the president is leading the U.S. in the wrong direction. It would be more useful and it would save us all a lot of time if critics of this or any other president’s actions would skip laments for lost “leadership.”

I think Larison is absolutely correct in general that the cult of American leadership has made it harder and harder to talk intelligently about our choices in foreign policy. But that doesn’t mean the concept of leadership is actually meaningless and should just be ditched. I’ll take two of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of the Obama administration as illustrative cases: the Libyan war and the Iran deal.

The Libyan war was the brainchild of French President Nicolas Sarkozy above all (you can read the cynical thoughts I wrote about it at the time), and the Obama administration joined the fray substantially because we felt entangled by our web of alliances. The French, the British and the Arab League all felt that we had allowed “friendly” dictators in Egypt and Tunisia to fall to popular unrest; we could not follow that up by allowing an “unfriendly” dictator like Gaddafi to hold on to power by force. The “world community” had to show that such behavior was unacceptable — and had to act preemptively where there was reason to believe atrocities were being planned. Obama may have thought that America was “leading from behind” but it was our leadership that brought the Chinese and the Russians to accept a U.N. mandate for action.

In other words: the motivation for the disastrous war (far more disastrous than I had anticipated, though I thought the war was a foolish gamble from the start) was to demonstrate leadership. That demonstration itself was the only real interest that we had at stake; had the worst fears of what Gaddafi planned to do come to pass, and he had perpetrated a huge massacre in Benghazi, there would have been no direct harm done to American interests. Instead, our action itself badly harmed American interests in two major ways: the war itself destabilized much of the Sahel region and has exacerbated the ongoing refugee crisis, and the fact that the coalition rapidly and blatantly exceeded its mandate poisoned any trust that had developed with Russia and (to a lesser extent) China. But the action was undertaken overwhelmingly for the purpose of maintaining that posture of leadership.

Now consider the Iran deal. The Obama administration clearly sought an opening to Iran from its early years, but initially it used sanctions and covert action to harass the Iranian regime with the aim of bringing them to a more compliant position once negotiations began in earnest. And in those negotiations, the Obama administration had to juggle a fractious group including the Russians and Europeans (who were eager for a deal on just about any terms) while trying to keep allies who were not part of the negotiations (like the Saudis and Israelis) from undermining their progress. The Obama administration’s acquiescence in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and relative lack of commitment to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, reflected in part a reluctance to create additional issues with these allies at a time when the overwhelming focus was on cementing a successful deal with Iran.

Once again, America was clearly and unequivocally the leader. But in this case, the motivation for the deal was an American interest (rightly or wrongly understood) of limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions through diplomacy, with a likely background interest in reducing America’s exposure to the Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Middle East. America’s leadership position both enhanced our ability to pursue that interest (because without European and Russian cooperation American pressure would have been far less effective) and constrained how we could pursue it and what ancillary actions we needed to take to maintain our fractious web of relationships through the process.

Leadership, then, is an asset. It’s an expensive asset to maintain, and an enormous — and enormously common — mistake to act as if these expenditures somehow magically pay for themselves, particularly when at least some of the time the kinds of actions undertaken for the sake of maintaining “leadership” backfire horribly and do grave damage to the very position that we’re trying to maintain. But that doesn’t mean the asset is worthless, or that there would be no costs to simply abandoning it or failing to maintain it at all.

Critics of Trump’s foreign policy who decry that he is “throwing away” American leadership may indeed in part be complaining that he is “leading in the wrong direction” — some are definitely complaining about that — and they may be complaining that he is leading in no purposeful direction at all (a criticism that I think Larison would concur in). But they may also be complaining that this complicated and frustrating asset — this position of leadership — is being tossed aside because Trump simply doesn’t appreciate its value or what it would take to minimize the costs of reducing our exposure to it.

And I think that’s a valid criticism even while agreeing that this position of leadership is exceedingly expensive, and worth a thorough reevaluation.

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