Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Hawkish Cult of ‘Leadership’

The U.S. needs to cast aside the reflexive, cultish devotion to U.S. "leadership" as an end in itself.

Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) repeated some boilerplate hawkish nostrums on foreign policy in a recent op-ed. They concluded:

We say this delicately, as we work hard to respect the office of the presidency, but our allies everywhere are baffled. We asked one head of state, What single lesson would you like us to report back to our bosses, our constituents? The reply: “Get us a U.S. president who will know that the U.S. needs to lead. We need you. All the freedom-loving nations of the world need you.”

Reasonable citizens and candidates for office should wrestle with what — and where and when and how — U.S. leadership looks like in the world. But the necessity of U.S. leadership is inarguable [bold mine-DL] — for our allies and for us.

Whenever someone says that something is “inarguable,” it’s a good bet that this is the weakest part of the argument. It is very questionable whether U.S. “leadership” in the abstract is needed in many parts of the world, and it is even more debatable whether it is desirable for us to exercise that “leadership” in certain regions. The U.S. has frittered away trillions of dollars and thousands of lives on ill-conceived attempts to show “leadership” in the Near East, and in the process inflicted enormous harm on the region with virtually nothing to show for the effort. A lot depends on what the senators mean by “leadership,” and their statements earlier in the op-ed confirm the suspicion that they equate “leadership” with meddling in foreign conflicts, interfering in the affairs of other nations, and generally having the U.S. make unnecessary and unwise commitments overseas.

Sasse and Ernst assert that “[g]lobal stability is at its lowest point since the Cold War’s conclusion in 1989.” This is false and perniciously so. Across most of the world, there is more political stability and less violent conflict than there was at the end of the Cold War and during most of the previous century. They claim that the Syrian war “has now spread to dozens of nations.” Once again, this is untrue. The war itself is limited to Syria and Iraq, and Syria’s other immediate neighbors have borne the brunt of the the war’s effects. As hawks always do, the senators are grossly exaggerating the extent of instability and upheaval in the world to instill fear in the public. The senators also engage in fear-mongering when they warn about an invasion of Ukraine during our next presidential transition. All of this is irresponsible alarmism and should be dismissed as such.

It is difficult to evaluate the statement from the nameless “head of state” the senators quote, since we have no idea who said this to them or what his agenda might be in saying it. Americans should be wary of claims that other nations “need” the U.S., which is very often another way of saying that other governments want the U.S. to fix their regional problems at our expense. It’s not that the other governments couldn’t handle the problem themselves, but that they would prefer to have the U.S. bear the costs and risks of doing so. It would be worth knowing whether the “head of state” they cite actually presides over a free country, or if he is one of the client despots that throws fits when the U.S. doesn’t do everything he wants. When a foreign leader demands that the U.S. “lead,” this more often than not means that the foreign leader wants the U.S. to advance the interests of his government for him even if it comes at a cost to U.S. interests. There may be occasions when it is appropriate for the U.S. to take a leading role in response to a crisis, but the reflexive, cultish devotion to U.S. “leadership” as an end in itself is something that the U.S. needs to cast aside.



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