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The Empty Throne and the Cult of American ‘Leadership’

Adherents of the cult don't feel the need to justify the extraordinary, hyperactive U.S. role in the world.

Emma Ashford reviews Ivo Daalder and James Lindsey’s The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership:

Meanwhile, they reject the pragmatism of Barack Obama, criticizing him for “failing to rebuild American leadership,” and repeating again the idea that Obama actually pursued a foreign policy of restraint. Obama’s policies were undoubtedly better in this regard than his predecessors, notably his realistic and hard-headed approach to Iran. But as others have pointed out here at War on the Rocks, it’s impossible to make the argument that regime change in Libya, support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, or increased deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan qualify as foreign policy restraint.

In short, the authors accept hook, line, and sinker the idea of America as the indispensable nation, the leader of a magnanimous order in which “countries willing to follow America’s lead would prosper.” Their chapter on the birth of the liberal international order cites none of the recent scholarly research on its origins and realities, work which shows that conceptualizing international relations and American foreign policy in this way is profoundly ahistorical.

The cult of American global “leadership” is every bit as ideological and divorced from reality as the “credibility” obsession that so many of its members have. Adherents of this cult don’t feel the need to justify the extraordinary, hyperactive U.S. role in the world, and as Ashford points out the authors don’t bother to do this in their book. Their account of the origins of the present international order seems to be mythology rather than history, and the purpose in telling the story is not to understand what happened but to inspire veneration for the status quo. They simply take for granted that American “leadership” has been and always will be essential for international order, and they are quick to condemn presidents when those leaders show insufficient devotion to the oversized “leadership” role that they unquestioningly champion. Because Obama was not as activist overseas as the authors wished he had been, he is labeled as a restrainer despite ample evidence that the former president brought into all the same major assumptions that the authors hold about what the U.S. should do in the world. There would be nothing wrong with calling Obama a restrainer if that is how he had actually governed, but Ashford points out that he did no such thing.

The title of Daalder and Lindsey’s book tells us a lot about what’s wrong with their view of the correct U.S. role in the world. They refer to a throne that America is supposed to sit on and from which it is expected to rule, er, lead the world, and “failure” to do this amounts to “abdication” of what the authors believe to be our government’s proper, legitimate role. I doubt the authors appreciate how arrogant and megalomaniacal this all sounds, but I’m guessing that the vast majority of nations won’t like the implication that they are viewed for all intents and purposes as our subjects. Obama’s hawkish critics frequently flung the same accusation of “abdication” that the authors now direct at Trump, and in both cases the charge of “abdication” rings false. Obama’s biggest failing in foreign policy was normalizing the waging of perpetual, illegal war all over the world. So far, Trump has made a point of brazenly wielding U.S. power to beat up on and punish weaker nations, but he hasn’t renounced U.S. primacy or the “leadership” rhetoric that comes with it. This is not abdication of “leadership.” It is simply abuse of power. As Ashford says, “He has not rejected primacy, he has instead put it on steroids.” The authors can object to specific decisions and actions that Trump has taken, and there are plenty of terrible Trump policies to criticize, but because they can’t even imagine questioning the virtues of primacy they are unable to offer any alternative besides reverting back to the dead-end post-Cold War bipartisan consensus that prevailed in the 1990s and 2000s.

U.S. primacy is a highly unusual state of affairs. It is almost certainly unsustainable over the long term, and it will become more expensive to maintain as time goes by. Worst of all, the maintenance of primacy comes increasingly at the expense of securing the vital interests of the United States. Adjusting to this reality is not abdication from our required role, but a normal correction to decades of overreach and meddling that have benefited very few while imposing terrible costs on many other nations.



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