If America leads, will anyone follow?

At this point in world history, the chances for constructing a stable international order without the leadership of the United States are probably pretty low. That is not to say that other major powers might emerge to provide the centrality that America has since 1945. Nor does it mean that American leadership has been perfect (it has not), or that the world may assume that the United States is prepared to remain “indispensable” (it should not).

Yet, even if the United States is still willing and able to lead, and even if other major powers accept that it does so, Washington will likely confront the growing problem of followership. President Obama made clear in his 2014 West Point speech that future interventions by the United States in overseas conflicts will be a function of the willingness of “partners” to lend a hand. In fact, Washington has always depended to some extent on other nations to supplement its efforts, but the question for the future is whether this operating principle remains feasible. The experience of the last fifteen years illustrates the limits of followership for American leadership.

In fact, there are a couple of different kinds of followers at play. The first type is made up of treaty allies and countries whose interests and values overlap to some extent with ours. The United States has been fortunate that it has been able to enlist at least some of them in our twenty-first century missions, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again, humanitarian disasters, and so on. 

Yet officials in both the Bush and Obama Administrations are all too aware of the difficulty of encouraging followership by allies and friends. Their interests and values may overlap with those of the United States, but they are not identical. The resources they have available to contribute to our causes do not necessarily come in the types and amounts that make more than a symbolic difference. Their publics do not always support American goals, or the idea of hitching their country’s wagon to our star. Some of our friends and allies would just as soon free-ride on American efforts while they provide token assistance. Other countries conclude that their friendship with the United States and the commitment that we make to their security frees them to take risks against third parties that they would otherwise not take. 

The way the Bush Administration managed its putative followers before and during its invasion and occupation of Iraq is an extreme object lesson in how not to encourage quality followership. Still other cases readily come to mind to illustrate the difficulties of getting our friends to follow the leader.

The other type of followers consists of countries that the United States seeks to assist as part of a larger cause, but which are insufficiently willing to help themselves. Specifically, their leaders cannot or will not build the state capacity necessary to defend borders, foster domestic security, provide essential services to the population, establish a rule of law, contain social conflict, combat corruption, and promote economic and social modernization. None of these tasks is easy, but each is necessary if the country is to survive more or less on its own. And how to address each of these tasks is not a mystery: they require resources, particularly human resources; formulation of policies that are appropriate to circumstances; and sufficient authority and autonomy to guard institutions against forces that inevitably will try to capture them for their own rent-seeking benefit. 

Note that strictly speaking, this is not nation-building, an activity to which some Americans have a serious allergy. It is state-building, which is probably a prerequisite to creating a successful nation. Nor is democratization the same as state-building. Indeed, fostering formal democracy in advance of building the state only ensures that existing political forces are able to undermine the emergence of a strong state.  

The point here is that it is very difficult for the United States to assist a country that is not able to work hard to create state capacity. The leaders of Ukraine had two decades to do state-building but chose instead to keep the state weak in order to enrich themselves and others. As a result, it lacks armed forces that are able to deter and defend Russian aggression. The rulers of Afghanistan have failed to use the time available since the fall of the Taliban to build an effective state, creating the real risk of a civil war against a revived Taliban. Again, the chief negative example is Iraq, where the United States blindly dismantled the Iraqi military and pursued de-Baathification, to the point that the Iraqi state is today much weaker than it needs to be. Even so, Iraqi leaders failed to take their own initiative to strengthen their country.

The problem of followership has bedeviled American foreign policy since World War II. Coping with the problems of free-riding and blank checks in alliances or quasi-alliances is an inherent problem in those relationships. Yet, on balance, the United States handled the dilemmas pretty well. On the other hand, the issue of weak and dependent states has been consistently hard to address. 

Several prime examples come immediately to mind: Chiang Kai-shek’s China in the late 1940s; El Salvador in the 1980s; and Iraq, Afghanistan and some Eastern European countries in the 2000s. It is not all a record of failure: Japan, Germany, Taiwan, South Korea, and Poland are all rather successful. Nor is Washington utterly blameless; far from it. At the end of the day, however, if leaders of weak countries are not willing to do the hard work of self-strengthening, as was the case in every success story, there are limits to what the United States can do. Leading is difficult when followers are too weak to tag along.