American Leadership

11/22/2010 11:00 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The twentieth century saw the steady emergence of the United States as the most powerful country in the world. Only beginning to extend its influence globally in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war, by the1990s it had become unchallenged in its economic and military superiority.

The twenty-first century has been a different story, however. The United States has found itself struggling in two wars, which have proved far more difficult than expected. In addition, it has been gripped by the most severe economic crisis in decades.

The economic pressures mean fundamental questions have to be asked about the American role in the world.

Can the United States continue to assume the commitments it has undertaken? If not, what is the alternative?Will American leadership decline, or is there another way to maintain influence?

In a recent speech on American leadership, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the need for a new "global architecture" based on a "a network of alliances and partnerships." But what are the challenges these alliances are meant to confront?

Shortly before she gave this speech, Secretary Clinton was in Hanoi, where she assured the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that the United States has a "national interest" in preserving the freedom of the seas. At the same time, the United States conducted major naval exercises near China, whose growing naval power is making some countries in the region nervous.

To be sure, freedom of the seas is important, but the implication that the United States might now feel obliged to defend Vietnam from China raises questions about how the United States can fulfill its commitments.

Secretary Clinton, and others in the Obama Administration, seem to be assuming that a demonstration of American power and commitment will have a deterrent effect on the Chinese. That, after all, was the logic that seemingly prevailed in the Cold War. "For 50 years, NATO contained communism and kept America and Europe secure," President Bill Clinton claimed in his 1998 State of the Union Address, asking for Senate approval to approve an expanded membership for the alliance.

The implication is that the American security umbrella can still provide the protection it offered during the Cold War. But even in those days, NATO's Asian counterpart, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, failed miserably. The North Vietnamese were not deterred by the American commitment to South Vietnam, we lost the war, and SEATO dissolved.

If we could not defend South Vietnam from North Vietnam, how can we defend Vietnam from China?

But if we do not assume these burdens, can we maintain our status as world leader?

At the founding of the United States, President George Washington offered another approach to these questions. Despite having led the United States to victory in its war for independence, Washington warned Americans about foreign commitments and big military establishments, which he regarded as "inauspicious to liberty." In a sharp departure from the European practice of power politics and shifting alliances, Washington thought the greatness of a country -- the fulfillment of its role as a leader -- lay in the example it set to the rest of the world.

"It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence," he advised in his Farewell Address. "Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it?"

In other words, a country is a leader if its sets an example that other countries come to admire. Indeed, the first Europeans to settle here saw their role as establishing a new world to set a model for the old. "We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us," John Winthrop proclaimed in 1630.

Changing policy to focus on the power of example would require a shift in our political structure. Washington, DC is filled with ambitious people who want to do things; that's why they're here. A policy of example means they would have less to do, and there probably would be fewer jobs available for them.

As President Washington also noted, a policy of example would unavoidably suffer reversals. His point was that, in the longer run, we would be better off if we consistently follow our principles rather than compromise them to meet the exigencies of the day.

Given our financial constraints, we must now make a choice.

We should follow Washington's advice, avoid permanent alliances, and concentrate on once again becoming a model worthy of imitation.