Restoring America’s Leadership Legitimacy

Colin I. Bradford

Originally published with the headline “From Dominance to Trust”

Fifty years ago the United States was the pre-eminent world power and had legitimacy as a global leader because of its role in the second world war and its contribution to the creation of the postwar institutional order composed of the United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The west was the prevailing culture and seen in its own eyes to be a universal civilisation capable of embracing and expressing all humanity. The rest was “the other”, different, diverse, but outside the mainstream. US-Russian nuclear relations defined bipolar international relations.

Today, the United States is the only global power, with supremacy in military, technological, economic, and cultural reach. Instead of being bipolar, the world is now unipolar. But with its rise to power has come a new vulnerability for Americans. The United States has come to be seen as the other by the rest. There is now a gap between US power and US legitimacy. The argument could be made that the overarching security threat to the US today is the US itself and the resentment, resistance and reproach it has generated in the rest of the world, especially the non-western world. The Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, which polled attitudes in 46 countries and was released in June, confirms this notion.

This is the challenge for the future: how does the United States provide global leadership now that it is seen by much of the world with suspicion, distrust, and even hatred rather than respect? Thinking about major global challenges facing the world might provide insight into how the US transforms its role from a hyperpower to a trusted global leader. Better to have form follow function and style be shaped by substance, than the other way around.

The biggest challenge is global poverty. Fifty years from now there will be 3 billion more people in the world than today. All the additions to global population will come from the non-industrial, non-western, non-white world. The West will have less than 1 billion people in a world of 9 billion. Forty percent of the world’s population now lives on less than $2 a day. The great challenge is how to absorb the additional 3 billion in population into the global economy in a socially and politically sustainable way.

The problem in meeting this challenge for the United States is that the global economy is seen as based on an American model, and thus globalisation is often viewed as Americanisation. Giving globalisation a human face and forging an economic model with social inclusion, greater equality and massive reductions in extreme poverty are now security issues for the United States, since it is identified in the rest of the world with exclusion, inequality and polarisation.

With 40 million Americans without health insurance and income inequality on the rise, the struggle for new social integration into the market economy is a domestic issue for America, not just a global issue. Europe is struggling with how to define social democracy within the framework of the newly liberalised and enlarged market of the European Union. Latin America is questioning its own recent democratic and market-oriented reforms as social conditions have worsened rather than improved. As Chavez rises in Latin America as an alternative voice, Africa looks to China, wondering if there is not another path available to it, apart from the free enterprise, free market, free trade model pushed by the west. The United States, instead of being a proselytizer for democracy and markets, should open up the global debate to pluralistic perspectives on political and economic models of development, which would diffuse current tension and polarisation and weaken the profile of advocates of false alternatives, such as Chavez.

Another vital global challenge is energy. Fifty years from now there will be more new claimants for access to electricity than there are people with access to electricity today, and there are already 2 billion people today who do not have access to electricity. Just imagine the scale of investment in new sources of supply and distribution required to meet this new demand for electricity alone, leaving aside the implications for transportation, pollution and climate change. The energy challenge for the future is massive and daunting. There is a need for global leadership and global coordination to confront the global energy challenge of the future.

These two issues alone suggest new opportunities for the United States to identify with the plight of the rest of the world and to transform its global role from one of dominance and distrust into one of global stewardship, facilitating global cooperation and coordination in behalf of all people rather than asserting American pre-eminence on behalf of only its own people.

The US can throw its weight into the preparations of the Monterrey Plus Five summit in Doha in 2008, to review progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Giving priority to the MDGs, which the US has barely endorsed; joining Gordon Brown and the UK in reinvigorating global commitments on aid, trade and finance to achieve the goals; supporting the priority of the MDGs in the World Bank under the new leadership of Robert Zoellick; and agreeing to sustain commitments and attention to the MDGs in G8 summits until 2015 would be major steps toward showing that the United States cares about giving globalisation a human face.

America is no longer secure behind its nuclear weapons shield and its economic prowess. International security now depends on making persons secure in addition to making states secure; it is a matter of soft power, health and environmental stewardship rather than military and technological superiority alone.

After the 2050s, most demographers think that world population will level off at 9 billion people. So the next 50 years is the era of great transformation, in which the world will be tested as to whether it has the capacity to manage absorbing a 50% increase in population along with rising claims for social justice and environmental balance. And the United States will be tested as to whether it can achieve, over the next 50 years, a great transformation in its own role in the world – and in the way it is seen by the rest of the planet – in order to restore legitimacy to its leadership and trust in its use of power.