The belief by some Americans that the world depends on them does the United States no good. It also makes Americans less comfortable neighbours at times.

A Leader Among Nations

by John Spragge

As someone who frequently reads American comments on international relations, I have noticed a troubling haziness on the nature of international relationships in general, and the relationship of the rest of the world to the United States in particular. Somehow, the generousity of Americans has begun, in some minds, to blur into the notion that the United States supports everyone. Such perceptions tend to appear strongest, and to suffer the greatest distortion, in cases where the authors perceive some country or countries as having a dispute with the United States.

As a young visitor to the United States, I remember the American history textbooks I encountered ended in the present with a chapter on "The United States as a World Leader". Members of both the Clinton and Bush administrations have, from time to time, made it clear they expect other countries to regard the United States as the world leader, both in the sense of having extensive freedom of action, and in the sense of having the ability to set the international agenda on behalf of other nations. As a citizen of one of the "other nations" concerned, I have reason to think about both what American world leadership means, and the kind of obligations it ought to entail.

To a child watching John Wayne movies, leadership means barking out orders, and getting whatever you want. As we grow older, most of us eventually learn that leadership really means carrying the biggest burden ahead of everyone, while constantly having to make sure everyone behind you can keep up. Democratic politics adds a further twist to the problem of leadership: whatever your virtues, in a democracy you can only lead people where they will agree to go. It seems that some Americans, particularly conservatives, want the aspects of leadership seen in John Wayne movies, without troubling with the harsher aspects of the reality. That, at least, would explain the popularity of claims that the United States has already carried the burden. Unfortunately, this doesn't fit a democratic style of leadership, since it assumes a relationship of dependency.

Let a dispute between American policies and those of any other country catch the attention of a wide public forum such as an web or usenet discussion forum, and you can expect to hear from someone about all the things the world, and in particular the erring nation or nations, owes to the United States.

While some of the appeals for gratitude American conservatives make at least merit discussion, others betray a positively comical misunderstanding of the nature of international relationships and obligations. As a Canadian, I see more than my share of the comic side to this particular perspective, since the history of American and Canadian relations hasn't left Canada owing much to the United States. Americans incensed at the treatment of their interests by the United Nations may point to the record of American foreign aid, but Canada hasn't taken a dime. Americans at odds with Europe can point to the American participation in world war 2, as well as the Marshall plan; Canada got into the war two years before the United States, and actually assisted the Americans in throwing the Japanese off the Aelution islands. Americans who want to claim Canada owes great debts to the United States don't have much to bolster such a claim, but that seems only to act as a spur to their creativity. For example, various people have claimed that Canadians "depend" on the United States because some of us like to buy American products and services. Others have claimed we depend on Americans because we sell products and services to Americans. In one absurd comment on Canadian American relations, the writer lamented that, should Americans find it necessary to invade Canada to set us on the "right" path and save us from ourselves, Canadians would probably neglect to show the proper gratitude. He has that right; we wouldn't.

This rhetoric, of course, only reflects the absurdities prevalent on the fringe of the net. But the dependency model of international relations also finds its way into the House of Representatives. One proposed bill would cut off aid to countries which drew the ire of American jurisdictions by failing to extradite fugitives promptly. The law targets nations, such as France, which have insisted on applying their own laws in cases such Ira Einhorn's. Obviously, the attempt to use foreign aid as a lever makes no sense at all in this case; France has never depended on development assistance from the United States. In its list of proposals for putting pressure on countries to extradite fugitives wanted by American authorities, the bill never refers to the basic principles of extradition law, principles which protect Americans from claims by other governments. Claiming that other countries "owe" the United States clearly avoids many difficult and uncomfortable questions, including the central question of whether American politicians have justified the claim to world leadership in terms that equal and independent people, and nations, can accept.

The complaints heard about American leadership outside the United States fall into two categories: complaints that the American record on matters such as human rights does not justify American moral claims to lead other democracies, and complaints that American actions disrespect or harm international law, and most seriously, complaints that American actions damage the very international order that American politicians hope to lead.

The consistent irritation between Europeans and Amerians over capital punishment provides perhaps the best example of the perceived contradiction between American moral claims and actual behaviour. Regardless of the actual rights and wrongs of the issue, Europeans who oppose capital punishment do not regard the use of capital punishment by the United States as the act of a moral leader. Pointing to the supposed debt owed by Europeeans to the United States will not persuade them. Leaders must persuade those they wish to lead of their moral qualifications, not the other way around. Casting the Europeans as resentful, ungrateful dependents may satisfy some American conservatives, but it does nothing to fulfill the demands of leadership in, or among, democratic societies.

People, and nations, who recognise a great moral leader will make great sacrifices, following where many of them manifestly do not want to go. John Paul the second, Mohandas Ghandi, and Nelson Mandela have all, in various ways, provided this kind of moral leadership. Absent this moral persuasion, the exercise of leadership requires the leader to offer an effective way of getting to where leader and followers both want to go. In this respect, American leadership has disconnected with the rest of the world. Consider the American refusal to ratify the treaty banning anti-personnel land mines, or the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. American politicians have rejected measures such as these, which enjoy wide support in the international community (and substantial support in the United States as well). This does not look like world leadership of the sort we expect to see by a democracy. In fact, on disarmament issues, American politicians sometimes seem less like leaders than very reluctant followers. Considering the reluctance of American legislators to either accept the comprehensive test ban, or to come up with alternative other nations can live with, agree to, it seems the rest of the world could make the same complaint against American leadership that the American colonists made against George the third:

HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.
Declaration of Independence

The rest of the world does not always react to the vagaries of American leadership constructively. Americans have had good reason to react to their treatment by other with annoyance. Voting the United States off the international human rights commission to put Sudan on, for example, may well have crippled the human rights commission, which the hopes of millions of people depend, or used to depend on.

Unfortunately, the nature of the dialog makes it difficult to communicate with American politicians in any more responsible way. The United States government has much the same problem with the rest of the world that the British had with their American colonies in 1776: just as the British discovered that a constitution which sufficed for the inhabitants of a small island nation would not provide democratic governance for a far-flung empire, so American policy makers confront a world which badly needs governance, with no agreement about what global governance means, and certainly with no adequate structure to accomplish the task. Government structures only appear after people realise the need for them; that problem accounts for many of the tragedies of history. We certainly have no structure which would make it possible for the United States, or any other country or goup of countries, to "lead" a world of six billion people. While we cannot say what a structure for global governance will look like, assuming we even achieve it, I believe that it must have a basis in democracy and equality. Attempting to cast the rest of the world as envious dependents will not solve problem. Americans who wish their country to assume the mantle of leadership must accept the burdens as well. Claims that the whole world owes the American people, whether true or not, simply will not serve their purposes.

John Spragge is president of Dancing Cat Software of Ann Arbor Michigan. His Medicine Line columns appear from time to time in the Ethical Spectacle.