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Inside Track: What American Leadership?

Authors: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow, and Morton I. Abramowitz, Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation
October 16, 2007
National Interest Online

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Leslie Gelb and Morton Abramovitz consider the oft-repeated assertion of presidential candidates that the U.S. must restore its leadership in the world.

When presidential candidates don’t have much to say about policy, they are quick to call for new leadership or for “restoring American leadership in the world.”

Would-be presidents and their foreign policy gurus declare this revival of U.S. leadership to be our most important foreign policy requirement. Even many Republicans, while uncomfortable with its implicit attack on the Bush administration, are aboard the leadership wagon.

What leadership are they restoring? Is it what the U.S. needs in the 21st century?

It sometimes feels that the U.S. has ruled the international roost for generations and that this will continue indefinitely. Our leadership is, of course, a recent thing—starting with World War II through the Cold War. It blossomed after the war because our enormous power was usually married to realistic goals and polices to achieve them. It produced impressive accomplishments: victory in the Cold War, and the creation of important international institutions—the UN, the World Bank, NATO and numerous others. We led in reducing poverty and promoting human rights across the globe.

But rather than the Golden Age many predicted after the Soviet Union disappeared, our unrivalled power did not translate into much global leadership, let alone towering achievements—quite the contrary.

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