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America Can Still Lead the World -- With Coalitions Abroad and by Getting Our Own House in Order

06/26/2014 09:36 am ET | Updated Aug 26, 2014

Quo vadis, America?

With the exit of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 and the looming exit at the end of this year of our troops from Afghanistan -- as President Barack Obama delivers on his campaign promises to end the tragically misdirected Bush-Cheney wars -- the public debate about "Whither America?" was gathering force.

Posed in overly simplistic terms in the media, that debate served up just two choices -- isolationism versus interventionism, Fortress America versus Imperial America.

The commentariat largely accepted this binary frame which, while satisfying as drama with its diametrically opposed poles, is not conducive to nuanced policy. (See here, here, here, here and here.) Working within this reductive frame, neo-con scholar Robert Kagan got major media play with his anti-isolationist essay in The New Republic, "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire." Also much cited was The Economist's cover story, "What Would America Fight For?" Layered into this debate was the question of America's decline: Is it real. Is it reversible?

But sometimes events intervene and point the way: The sudden emergence of the hyper-lethal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), capturing major Iraqi cities in just days and inflicting major carnage, makes isolationism impossible.

But ISIS is a threat to the security not just of the United States. A jihadist proto-state that the brutal al-Qaeda itself considers too ferocious; that (astonishingly) issues annual reports on its assassinations, suicide bombings and other depredation; and that includes a high percentage of foreign fighters who'll eventually bring their killing ways back to their home countries: Such an entity is an international threat. Thus, an international coalition is the proper response.

At the moment, Mr. Obama is sending 300 U.S. military advisors to Iraq and is considering air strikes, while promising there will be no American combat troops and, as a political solution, urging Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki toward more inclusive government. Better if Mr. Obama assembles an international coalition to proceed on this mutually-threatening development of ISIS terrorism.

Better also if Republicans formed a coalition with Mr. Obama and quit their accusations that he "lost" Iraq. It was Mr. Maliki, a Shiite zealot, who lost a newly-democratic Iraq, secured by American blood and treasure, by turning autocrat and jailing his Sunni opponents, which oppression is a driver of the Sunni extremist-led ISIS. Hard truth to tell, it was also the Republicans who lost Iraq with their rush to war, falsely crying WMD, and attacking a hornet's nest of sectarian hatreds. See those hornets rage now. See also Republican hornets rage in their self-justifying delusions, making any coalition with Mr. Obama impossible (here, here, here and here).

As to coalitions: In the post-World War II era, when many nations suffered broken militaries and economies, America served as the world's policeman and banker. But now, even despite the current global recession, those nations have grown their military and economic capacity sufficiently to join with the U.S. and contribute to their own security. The Economist's question -- "What would America fight for?" -- betrays the outmoded expectation that the U.S. will always do the heavy lifting alone. The question needs to be amended and expanded, to "What would the international community fight for?"

Syria is a test case: While the international community criticizes Mr. Obama for inaction and expresses sorrow over the terrible suffering Bashar al-Assad has inflicted on his people over the last three years, would the international community unite to fight for the amelioration of that misery? The relatively new principle of collective action, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the international community's responsibility to protect suffering peoples from their punishing leader, provides the premise. It is not too late for Mr. Obama to propose it.

Certainly, the American public agrees with this proposition of shared leadership in foreign affairs. In recent polls, a majority says the U.S. should no longer act as the world's policeman, that is, send U.S. troops on their own to fix foreign perils (here, here and here). As the Pew poll states, a majority says "the United States does too much rather than too little in helping solve world problems," adding:

"What most Americans (72 percent) want is the U.S. to play a shared world leadership role."

This is not to say America now becomes isolationist. Nor is it to show the "white flag of surrender" on American leadership in the world, as chesty conservatives would accuse. Simply by virtue of the size of our military, even when downsized, and the strength of our economy, even when under par, America can still lead as the first among equals. Bad things happen in leadership vacuums on the world stage, as the study of international relations teaches. America's foundational ideals -- equality, rule of law, fair play -- have universal validity; as such, America is well-qualified to lead the world for the universal good. Liberals would be proud to see America lead in this manner, as we believe profoundly in America's foundational ideals.

The problem is, of course, that those foundational ideals are in great trouble here at home, as is our democracy and economic system.

Where to start? The list of problems is long, as just about every American would acknowledge. For me, the discontinuity between our ideals and reality, revealing our key weaknesses, became sharpest as I watched the Arab Spring explode into life, with millions in the streets demanding, at long last, dignity and democracy -- and then, too soon, falter and fail in the difficult task of converting revolutionary passion into democratic structure and process. (Tunisia seems to be succeeding.) One can't pull for the crowds in the public squares of the Middle East, and elsewhere, in their thrilling quest for democracy and not reflect on democracy's shaky state here at home.

For here in the U.S., political gridlock is hard fact. President Obama is forced to rely on executive orders and signing statements to get anything done, so dysfunctional has Congress become as a partner. While the rancor between the two parties hasn't descended to Sunni-Shia bloodletting, still the ideological blinders are in place on both sides (though less so for Democrats). With the continuing rise of the Tea Party and its doubling down on no compromise, gridlock will become rigor mortis.

Our capitalist economy is doing fine for the one percent but seriously hurting the middle and working classes. The Dow Jones index, indicator of investor confidence, will soon reach a historic high; meanwhile, the 99 percent struggle -- without confidence. And Wall Street, responsible for the global financial crash of '08, continues its casino-like risk-taking, threatening to capsize the global boat again, not much touched by the Dodd-Frank reform bill. Sadly, no George Washington visionary, who could exhort the humanitarianism in his or her peers (or make a compelling business case for it), has emerged from the corporate or financial sectors to lead the way upward. We are flailing.

Political and economic dysfunction impinges on our foundational ideals. Inequality of income, with its attendant inequality of political voice (money buys access), has weakened our sense of equality. Rule of law? The current Supreme Court seems determined to scuttle our grand ideal of justice: See its recent decisions on unlimited corporate spending in political campaigns, voter registration restrictions, striking down affirmative action, etc. And let's not even discuss the ideal of fair play.

Getting our house in order in all these spheres is a task of -- well how to calculate that enormous enormity? And frankly we have not made much of a start; we're still in the hand-wringing stage. But it is vital we do so if we are to survive as a nation and if we are to continue leading the world. Indeed, as important as exerting world leadership is our serving as an exemplar of a functioning and thriving democracy, as the world strives to throw off its autocrats and churns toward democracy.

Finally: Underneath the world's churn toward democracy is the demand of the individual, after a long history of subjugation, for respect and dignity. An America that better exemplifies individual agency and, rather than bully or freelance, works in concert with other nations will resonate more deeply with this new Everyman.

Great nations decline and fall through a fatal combination of too many wars abroad and a hollowing-out of institutions at home. If America gets its own house in order while leading coalitions abroad, we will do the world great good -- and do ourselves a world of good, too. In this way America may rise again.

Carla Seaquist's forthcoming book of commentary is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is working on a play titled "Prodigal." She majored in international relations at the School of International Service, American University, and the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.