On "Leading from the Front"

The Republican Party is big on leadership these days, and especially fond of demanding that the United States "lead from the front."This was a central theme in of John McCain's recent sally right here at Foreign Policy, as well as Condoleezza Rice's speech at the GOP convention in Tampa. Among other things, it reminds us that the Republican Party's foreign policy gurus aren't very good strategists. (The Bush administration's disastrous handling of foreign policy showed this all too clearly, but it's nice to have a reminder).

In fact, the idea that the United States should always try to "lead" is completely bone-headed."Exerting leadership" is not the central objective of foreign policy; it is a means to an end but not an end in itself. The central purpose of foreign policy is to maximize the nation's security and well-being. If exerting "leadership" contributes to these ends, fine, but there will be many occasions when the smart strategy is to hold back and pass the buck to someone else. Blindly declaring that the United States must always go to enormous lengths to lead, and must constantly strive to reassure allies who need us far more than we need them, is mere jingoistic hubris. It's an applause line, but not a strategy.

The United States would be well-served by a more selective approach to "global leadership." It is not a foreign policy achievement when the United States gets stuck dealing with an intractable quagmire like Afghanistan -- at a cost of a half a trillion dollars and 2,000 lives -- or when it finds itself waging drone wars in half a dozen countries. A real achievement would have been to find a way to shift the burden of this problem onto others, and especially onto the backs of potential U.S. adversaries. We congratulate ourselves on finally tracking down Osama bin Laden, but the real winners over the past decade have been countries like China, which have concentrated on building up power at home while the United States bled itself white in a series of pointless foreign adventures.

Furthermore, America's reflexive urge to be in charge has other negative consequences. It has allowed our most important allies to free-ride for decades, to the point that they are increasingly liabilities rather than assets. NATO's European members spend a mere 1.7 percent on average on defense these days (and that number is going down), and none of these countries can mount a serious military operation anywhere without a lot of American help. Why? Because Uncle Sucker has spent the last 50 years doing it for them. Much the same story is true in Asia, where countries like Japan want lots of American protection but don't want to spend any money defending themselves. Washington ends up with not with allies but with dependents, and we see it as a victory whenever some new country requires our protection.

This demand that the United States constantly "lead from the front" also makes it easier for other states to drag us into their quarrels. Georgia tried to sucker us into its dispute with Russia a few years ago (and if McCain had been in charge, it would have succeeded), and Israel is still trying to get America to bomb Iran on its behalf. Countries like Vietnam and the Philippines are trying to push the United States to confront China over issues like the South China Sea, and everybody seems to think the United States should "do something" about Syria. Perhaps we should, but first you need to explain why doing any of these things will make Americans safer or more prosperous here at home, and then you need to convince me that the countries who have a lot more at stake aren't up to the task. And if some other country wants me to spend American money and risk American lives, they'd better have a lot of skin in the game, too. Finally, if weaker countries want to demand my protection, they'd better be willing to follow my advice on other issues. Otherwise, they're on their own.

Don't get me wrong: in some cases the United States should be actively involved and it should exercise a leadership role. It is still the world's most powerful country, and a return to isolationism would have destabilizing consequences in some areas. But our overall approach to grand strategy should begin by recognizing that the United States is remarkably secure, with no great powers nearby, and most of our current adversaries are much, much weaker. This favorable geopolitical position is an enormous asset; it means that other states tend to worry more about each other than they do about us, and it means many countries will remain eager for U.S. support. Which in turn allows Washington to "play hard to get," and extract lots of concessions from others in exchange for our help. Those who pompously insist that America must always take the lead are throwing this diplomatic asset out the window, and guaranteeing that other states will take advantage of us instead of the other way around. And it should enable us to spend a lot less on national security, thereby easing our budget problems and allowing investments that will ensure our long-term productivity.

It is worth remembering that the United States rose to great-power status by staying out of trouble abroad and by concentrating on building a powerful economy here at home (which is what China is doing today). It also helped that the other great powers bankrupted themselves through several ruinous wars. The United States fought in two of those wars, but we got in late, suffered far fewer losses, and were in a better position to "win the peace" afterwards. The world has changed somewhat since then, and America's global role is and should be more substantial, but there is still a valuable lesson there. But don't expect Romney & Co. to absorb it.

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Stephen M. Walt

Friedman's sermon

One of the nice things about being a superpower is you get to run around telling the rest of the world what to do. Other countries don't always listen, of course, but once you've defined yourself as the "leader of the Free World," or the "indispensable nation," you've given yourself a license to preach. There's no requirement to be consistent, of course: You can denounce an adversary's human rights record while remaining studiously silent about an ally's similar transgressions, just as you can tell other states not to even think about getting weapons of mass destruction while maintaining thousands of nuclear warheads yourself.  

This same tendency rubs off on American commentators (including, on occasion, yours truly), but none more than Tom Friedman of the New York Times. Today's column offers some unsolicited advice to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, explaining why it was a huge mistake for Morsy to visit Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement meeting, on the heels of a visit to (horrors!) China. I agree with some of Friedman's points (such as the importance of reassuring potential investors and tourists that Egypt is stable and a good destination for capital or your next vacation), but what I question is the idea that Friedman has a better sense of Morsy's political needs and strategic objectives than Morsy himself does.

For starters, Friedman misunderstands Tehran's motivation in seeking to head the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). He tells Morsy that Iran's "only goal" in having all these world leaders attend the meeting is "to signal to Iran's people that the world approves of their country's clerical leadership and therefore they should never, ever, ever again think about launching a democracy movement." Here Friedman is mostly trying to shame Morsy, by accusing him of giving succor to a regime that opposes the sort of democracy Morsy is trying to build in Egypt.

In fact, Tehran's main goal in hosting the NAM isn't to enhance its domestic legitimacy -- I suspect most Iranians don't care about the NAM one way or the other. Rather, the goal is to demonstrate that Iran is not as isolated as Washington would like it to be. The Non-Aligned Movement doesn't have the symbolic clout that it possessed during the heyday of the Cold War, but it is still a prominent forum for the so-called global South. By hosting the meeting and taking over the rotating chairmanship, Tehran is reminding its adversaries that it is not a pariah state. It is also sending the not-so-subtle reminder that a lot of countries would regard an unprovoked attack on it as an illegitimate act of aggression.

Second, Friedman misses what's really driving Morsy. The Egyptian leader is not anti-American; he's just not the same sort of tame client that Hosni Mubarak was. Recall that one of the key themes of the Egyptian revolution was the desire to restore a sense of "dignity," both with respect to how individual Egyptians were treated but also with respect to Egypt's posture vis-à-vis the United States and other states. As I read it, Morsy is working to rebuild Egypt's ties in several directions, in order to maximize Egypt's freedom of movement and diplomatic options. Not only will this enhance Egypt's regional clout, it will encourage others to do more to keep Cairo happy. This approach is also likely to be popular with a lot of Egyptians, who weren't wild about their country being a supine patsy of the United States.

For Morsy, therefore, visiting Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement is a perfect opportunity, because he can rightly argue that he's there as part of a broad global movement that just happens to be meeting in Iran and that he's not endorsing Iran's leadership per se. This is basically the same line that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has used to justify his own attendance, by the way. Similarly, visiting Beijing might bring Egypt some tangible benefits and reminds the United States not to take Cairo for granted.

The bottom line: Friedman is just angry that Morsy wasn't willing to stick it to Tehran on behalf of Washington's regional agenda, even if doing so wasn't really in Egypt's interest. I like democracy as much as anyone, but if we can overlook it when our strategic interests dictate otherwise (see under: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia), why can't President Morsy pay a brief visit to Tehran without being lectured by Mr. Friedman?

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