Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Could the United States Still Lead the World if It Wanted to?

| July 15, 2021

The answer is yes—but more depressing than you think.

If there's one idea that still commands a broad consensus inside the foreign-policy community, it's the United States is and should remain the leader of the free world. That view stood front and center during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years, and it remained largely intact (if somewhat muted) during former U.S. President Donald Trump's ill-informed and incoherent effort to put "America First." When U.S. President Joe Biden says "America is back" and his foreign-policy team seeks to unite the world's democracies against a rising authoritarian tide, these goals reflect the rarely questioned belief that the United States is uniquely positioned to perform this leadership role.

The strongest argument in favor of this view is essentially negative: No other democracy has sufficient economic or military power to exercise decisive "leadership" (however one defines it), and no other democracy really wants the job. But the lack of a plausible alternative isn't enough: We still need to ask if the United States is presently capable of exercising the role that advocates of U.S. global leadership recommend.

To do so requires defining exactly what we mean by "free world" and exactly what we mean by "leadership."

Rather obviously, the term "free world" refers to those states that are committed to a set of familiar liberal institutions: individual rights, tolerance, accountability through free and fair elections, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and the like. Exercising "leadership," in turn, means either being an attractive model for others to emulate or being able to make intelligent policy choices, implement them successfully, and convince others to follow suit.

So the first question we need to answer is whether the United States is a good model for other liberal states. The second question is whether its policy judgments are ones that others should trust and follow, especially with respect to foreign policy. On balance, the answer to both questions is "no."...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Could the United States Still Lead the World if It Wanted to?.” Foreign Policy, July 15, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt