Charting the Future Part II

Last week I talked about the dangers of every nation for itself policies and the harm they do not only to immediate efforts to fight the pandemic but to the trading system over the long term. This week I want to discuss the long-term impact of the abdication of U.S. leadership.

Essentially, we are disappearing as a global leader. If you look at our whole history, this is not new. Until the Wilson administration and World War I, the United States largely kept to itself, avoiding the “foreign entanglements” President Washington warned us about. Even under Wilson, our entry into the war was late and reluctant, just as it would have been in World War II, until Pearl Harbor united all Americans in combat against the Axis powers. 

That changed in 1945, first by default—we were the only big power left standing—and then by the ideological challenge of the Soviet Union, which opposed everything we believe in—freedom, democracy, individual rights, and a market economy. We led because we saw our way of life at stake, and others followed because they shared our commitment to freedom. Now, 75 years later, the world has come to expect U.S. leadership. Not everyone welcomes it all the time, but everyone looks to see what we will do and adjusts their actions accordingly.

However, the current administration has taken a step back, not to the 1950s (where I have frequently accused the president of living), but to the nineteenth century when we were going it alone. There is a theme here. The one consistent criticism of the president’s trade policies from Democrats has been that he has failed to build coalitions to deal with problems like China that are too big for a single nation, even us. You can see the same thing in his response to the Covid-19. His focus is on taking care of Americans, even though it is a global crisis. The result is missed opportunities for cooperation that lead to an every-nation-for-itself mentality that results in delays in getting aid to those who most need it. The president’s decision last week—trying to control exports of medical equipment and insisting U.S. companies manufacturing the same equipment abroad ship to us instead of others—is the latest example of the short-sighted thinking that will encourage retaliation and make the situation worse for everybody.

One result of our abdication is that other countries are stepping up. Not only our friends like Australia, Canada, and others (mostly CPTPP members) are leading a campaign against export restrictions that harm everybody, but also China and apparently now Russia are supplying aid and claiming the role of hero. As my colleague Matt Goodman has pointed out, in 2009, the United States led the G20 into commitments to keep the financial system running and avoid protectionism. This time around, our president was on the call, but others have taken the lead and produced more modest results. That is the short-term cost of our failure—worse decisions and more confusion.

The long-term cost, which began before Covid-19, is irrelevance. Other countries are becoming used to us not being there and are building their own coalitions without us, like the one I mentioned opposing export restrictions. (Just this week, for example, 15 nations plus the European Union agreed to set up an alternative dispute settlement body without us now that the WTO Appellate Body is no longer functioning.)  For Americans legitimately tired of the “endless wars” our president has decried, not being the leader may be a welcome development. But it will come back to bite us because it leads to a world where the decisionmakers do not necessarily have our interests at heart. And that’s the dirty little secret of global leadership. We didn’t just do it altruistically, though we may have said that at the time. We did it because it was in our long-term interest to shape a world based on principles we were comfortable with, knowing that our failure to do that would produce the opposite—a world where American interests were neither accommodated nor respected. That is not a defense of any and all interventions. An important element of successful leadership is, in the words of the late Kenny Rogers, knowing when to fold ‘em, knowing when to walk away, and knowing when to run.

Americans who are self-quarantining now to protect themselves from the virus will discover that when they emerge from their cocoons, things will not necessarily be the same as before and recovery will be more difficult than people expect. Similarly, if the United States self-quarantines as a country, we should not be surprised to see that when this is all over, we find a world that is not the same as it was and one that will be far less interested in what we do and what we want than it used to be.

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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