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The Tricky 'New American Moment'

Author: Stewart M. Patrick, James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program
September 8, 2010

The Tricky 'New American Moment' - the-tricky-new-american-moment


In 1990, columnist Charles Krauthammer in Foreign Affairs heralded the arrival of a "Unipolar Moment"--a heady era of unchallenged U. S. primacy and freedom of action. Twenty years on, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered up her own vision of U.S. global leadership, adapted to an era of more constrained U.S. power. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, she announced the dawn of "A New American Moment," in which the United States would lead the world toward effective and enduring multilateral cooperation.

Clinton's speech builds on the Obama's administration's National Security Strategy, which described a world order "buckling under the weight of new threats." Invoking the far-sighted generation of the 1940s, she dedicated the United States to building a "new global architecture," by bolstering traditional alliances, integrating emerging powers, strengthening regional organizations, renovating global institutions, and promoting universal values. In the abstract, it all sounds compelling. In detail, these aspirations get trickier.

Let's take alliances first. Clinton celebrated NATO, ritualistically, as "the world's most successful alliance." Left unmentioned was the growing divergence among U.S. and European politicians--and their electorates--on its ultimate purpose. "A core principle of all of our alliances," she added, "is shared responsibility. Each nation must step up to do its part." And yet few in Afghanistan have done so.

Integrating emerging powers will be no picnic either. "Being a 21st -century power means having to accept a share of the burden of solving common problems, and of abiding by a set of rules of the road," the secretary declared. But how should the United States respond if rising powers decline to accept such global responsibilities, in return for a seat at the high table, given their diverse interests, capabilities, and world views? And is the United States prepared to recognize emerging players as rule-makers, not just rule-takers?

Clinton's approach to global institutions is wisely pragmatic. She understands that the United Nations remains indispensable but is not the only game in town. Effective multilateral cooperation requires relying on--and ensuring the complementarity between--"multiple venues," ranging from formal, treaty-based bodies and informal, mini-lateral groupings like the G20 and the Major Economies Forum. More disappointing was Clinton's failure to advance the ball on the critical question of Security Council enlargement--the big enchilada of global governance reform, and a critical step in integrating rising powers.

Finally, the secretary declared that this new world order must be underpinned by an "architecture of values," one that can not only "counter repression and resist pressure on human rights," but also "extend those fundamental freedoms over time to places where they have been too long denied." What she did not provide was any guidance on how the administration--which has been criticized by human rights activists for realpolitik in its relations with Russia, China, and Egypt (among others)--plans to balance human rights and broader strategic concerns.

Clinton has outlined a compelling vision. But it remains unclear whether a diminished U.S. superpower--widely perceived to be in relative decline, its global brand tarnished, its fiscal situation perilous, its body politic internally divided and exhausted from two wars--can still aspire to lead.

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