Sunday, June 21, 2009

US World Leadership Role

I doubt that one could successfully argue that the world's most powerful military and economy don't bear some regard in the world. In both spheres second place is so far behind as to be pretty meaningless as a position. What happens to the US and what we do matters a great deal to the world. I recently heard a highly regarded commentator remark on the US world leadership role and was suddenly stopped in my tracks. I've heard this type of statement repeatedly for many many years and it honestly took until that moment for its stupidity to sink in. There is a vast gulf between being consequential and leading.

What our military is capable of makes us an extremely dangerous and lethal opponent, something to consider in international policy framing by such folks. The extraordinary scale of our economy is something to bear in mind if one is considering economic policies. Both things matter a great deal but do not qualify as leadership beyond a certain level of coercion. Leadership is something else, it requires a willingness to be led and an authority to lead from.

If one were to simply take our established concepts of the relationship between the governed and the government it would seem that we have has something to show much of the world for quite some time, like since the Declaration of Independence. Most of our founding documents and much of our law since has hewed to an astonishingly high standard, but...

For nearly half our history we engaged in slavery, we have engaged in wars of extermination against Native Americans, we have abrogated Treaties at drop of the hat convenience, we have overthrown representative governments and supported abhorrently repressive ones. We have used our economic heft to strip countries of resources and we have engaged in reckless wars. Our government has lied to its own people and to the world and engaged in legal behavior that is abhorrent in many modern societies. To be sure there is a balance in the actions we have taken that have benefited the world at large and it is not the point of this article to diminish them.

It is the point of this article to scoff at the notion that we are international leaders on the basis of anything concrete at this point beyond our physical clout. Whatever repair President Obama is doing to our international reputation it will require a lot more than some months of pretty rhetoric to undo generations worth of misbehavior. The presentation of the US as arbiters of ethical behavior to the rest of the world ignores and in fact denies our actual international and domestic behavior for generations. It is simple jingoism to present to our own citizens such a concept. It also asks the rest of the world to engage in the same blatant eye covering and ear plugging. They aren't going to do it, they don't have blind patriotism to the US as a background.

We certainly could earn such respect, it isn't all that far fetched to insist that our government live up to its own founding law, the Constitution and Bill of Rights in its treatment of its own citizens and extend that to our international behavior. It is also quite apparent that it isn't the case currently and shows no sign of being the case for some time to come. It is the case that the Constitution lays out how we engage in Treaties and that they become the law of the land. It is also the case that if our form of governance is superior we should extend it to our dealings with anyone, government or individual. That we do not is a serious and apparent problem with asserting our ethical leadership. One can lead or one can coerce, they are not the same and they do not involve the same actions or ethics, we need to learn that lesson.

1 comment:

Zak Johnson said...

Viewing morality or ethics as an attribute of a group is probably part of the issue. At every stage in American society we had people willing to stand up and say "this is wrong." They rarely won, even when they represented a majority view. The simple reason is that personal profits are easier to make by robbing, enslaving and cheating people than by innovation. When there's money to be made, you can bet those grabbing for it will sweep the rest aside unless there is strong, and lasting, opposition.

But regarding western culture generally; yes, it's standard bearers are guilty of all the crimes you mentioned and more. Their tradition also represents the first and in some cases only intellectual tradition that said "this is wrong" about many of those crimes, from slavery to the arbitrary power of elites. Not a reason to get smug, but reason enough not to lower our heads.