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How the Obsession With American ‘Leadership’ Warps Foreign Policy Analysis

We forget the interests of other political actors around the world.
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Ben Denison criticizes a familiar flaw in foreign policy commentary:

When a surprising event occurs that threatens U.S. interests, many are quick to blame Washington’s lack of leadership and deride the administration for failing to anticipate and prevent the crisis. Recent examples from the continuing conflict in Syria, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and even the attempted coup in Turkey, all illustrate how this is a regular impulse for the foreign policy punditry class. This impulse, while comforting to some, fails to consider the interests and agency of the other countries involved in the crisis. Instead of turning to detailed analysis and tracing the international context of a crisis, often we are bombarded with an abundance of concerns about a lack of American leadership.

The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge and take into account the agency and interests of other political actors around the world is one of the more serious flaws in the way many Americans think and talk about these issues. This not only fails to consider how other actors are likely to respond to a proposed U.S. action, but it credits the U.S. with far more control over other parts of the world and much more competence in handling any given issue than any government has ever possessed or ever will. Because the U.S. is the preeminent major power in the world, there is a tendency to treat any undesirable event as something that our government has “allowed” to happen through carelessness, misplaced priorities, or some other mistake. Many foreign policy pundits recoil from the idea that there are events beyond our government’s ability to “shape” or that there are actors that cannot be compelled to behave as we wish (provided we simply have enough “resolve”), because it means that there are many problems around the world that the U.S. cannot and shouldn’t attempt to fix.

When a protest movement takes to the streets in another country and is then brutally suppressed, many people, especially hawkish pundits, decry our government’s “failure” to “support” the movement, as if it were the lack of U.S. support and not internal political factors that produced the outcome. When the overthrow of a foreign government by a protest movement leads to an intervention by a neighboring major power, the U.S. is again faulted for “failing” to stop the intervention, as if it could have done so short of risking great power conflict. Even more absurdly, the same intervention is sometimes blamed on a U.S. decision not to attack a third country in another part of the world unrelated to the crisis in question. In order to claim all these things, one not only has to fail to take account of the interests and agency of other states, but one also has to believe that the rest of the world revolves around us and every action others take can ultimately be traced back to what our government does (or doesn’t do). That’s not just shoddy analysis, but a serious delusion about how people all around the world behave. At the same time, there is a remarkable eagerness on the part of many of the same people to overlook the consequences of things that the U.S. has actually done, so that many of our pundits ignore our own government’s agency when it suits them.