A new kind of [American] leadership

The predictable lack of coverage of the opening of the Union for the Mediterranean is symptomatic of a broader disinterest in the ever more rapid geopolitical evolution taking place across the globe. This follows, I think, from a tendency in this rather consistently narcissistic political culture to dismiss the creation of institutions lacking imperium, in the classical Roman sense. If a body hasn’t got an army, how can it be of any concern to the United States? Add to this the short attention span of American politicians and pundocrats and the national disease of the United States become clear.

Many Americans are missing the exciting developments that are building the world order of the 21st century. The axis of world power is shifting from a predominantly vertical one to an increasingly horizontal one, in which political and economic influence is no longer wielded by the global North over the global South and more and more between Southern actors (as well as Northern ones). The pace of South-South cooperation has become quickened over the past decade, the result of higher gas prices, a bemused America, a stronger EU, and more robust globalization. Poorer states have become less poor, more integrated into the global economy, and their ambitions less opaque. They have grown accustomed to an increasing degree of agency over their own markets and others. The failures of many of the initiatives and consensuses that marked the era of American “hegemony” in the international order have encouraged many of them to pursue alternate paths to wealth and power. States in Latin America, Africa, and Asia have adopted regional strategies of integration, building ever more relevant nodes of influence that will shape 21st century world politics. The AU, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, IBSA, and Mercosur are just a few examples of the regionalization of world political and economic power. Each of these groups has its headman state, that will take a place the leader of one of the various poles within the international system that will emerge in coming decades.

The Union for the Mediterranean is not in itself the construction of a new pole; it instead is an attempt to fortify the EU pole, and, inside of that, to strengthen France’s position. It seeks to put France in a headman position, so that it occupies a place of primary leadership within its region that is comparable to Brazil’s within Mercosur, South Africa’s within the SADC, and China’s within the SCO. Concerns over immigration agriculture aside, France seeks to balance off Germany, whose rising sphere of influence is in the new EU member states of Eastern Europe, by picking up new partner states in the eastern and south-western Mediterranean. It is very likely that France’s attempt to pick up prestige by approaching the Middle East with more realism than the United States has, engaging all regional actors – radical and conservative, Israeli and Arab – on “equal footing” and without human rights pressures, will not amount to much.

While the organization’s inaugural meeting was dubbed a success for bringing together Syria and Israel and making an otherwise impressive show of attendance from around the Mediterranean basin, the Europeans remain skeptical of its purpose and utility and many of the region’s conflicts seem to be deeper than the club’s teeth can reach. The Algerian-Moroccan rivalry seems stronger than either state’s genuine interest in the Union, as evidenced by Mohammad VI’s no show and Algeria’s rather lukewarm endorsement. Libya snubbed the event, terming it a “humiliating” effort to divide the Arabs from Africa and frustrate efforts at Arab and African unity.

The American response has been muted, and the Americans did not even take an observer seat at the Union’s meeting. The Americans do not seem to believe that effort will mount to much, and the presidential candidates are not particularly interested in it. Americans see themselves their influence and utility as a fact of life. They often look at EU policy in the Middle East as being at least vaguely complementary to their own, and do not seem to see the Mediterranean project as a challenge to their own role in the region (especially because they perceive it and other regionalization mechanisms as being so weak), even if they view it through the offshore balancer lens of realism.

American presidential hopefuls are obsessed with Manichean dichotomies and the restoration of American leadership. Both speak of a division between a grand and sacred America and an existential and evil Islamist (or Islamic) terrorist threat, though one does so more out of conviction than out of conformity. Both place this within a wider framework of a militarized American exceptionalism being America’s claim to international legitimacy, as opposed to its adherence to international law and norms. It is a zero-sum perspective that finds its root in the troubled pre vs. post-9/11 dichotomy upon which much of the Bush Doctrine was based.

Those who seek to “restore” America’s place of leadership in the world are problematically confronted with a world system that will not accommodate the kind of leadership that they seek to reinstitute. The unipolar leadership Americans remember so fondly existed for a fleeting moment that has since passed. The regional bodies and cooperatives taking root the world over are the building blocks of a multipolar world. American leadership in the 21st century should be based on a recognition that its preponderance of influence is increasingly ephemeral, and that the only way for the United States to remain as an institution of global agency and to ensure that its values survive in the coming order is to lead the transition from the Post-War era to the post-post-war era. The Euro-Atlantic institutions that have been the basis for global governance and order for more than half a century are increasingly out date. From the organization of the United Nations to world financial relief and aid agencies, the international system needs amendment. A nation intoxicated with dreams of singular dominance in which increasingly powerful states, long denied prestige and broadness in their freedom of action, are mere partners. Americans need a leadership that is confident enough and brave enough to press through a strategic adjustment in the country’s foreign policy and structural adjustment in the international system.


6 thoughts on “A new kind of [American] leadership

  1. Ah, Bob Keohane would be proud, Nouri; you’ve taken a page (or the whole argument, actually) from “After Hegemony”.

    Don’t let the dark Bush years and Russia’s noisy posturing fool you, however. Lackluster news coverage at home aside, none of these facts are lost on the United States or any of the world. The US knows the era of realpolitik is over. They know that the state is quickly becoming an outmoded convention — to be supplanted by international and regional institutions, as well as the connections of firms, domestic entities and so forth.

    As the former hegemon, though, the US is going through a nasty transitional period, which can manifest itself in realist tantrums like the Bush era, or flagging economics with the onslaught of global markets. The rhetoric may be discouraging for people like you and me, but Obama and McCain both know that these are facts that cannot be avoided. But these presidential seats won’t fill themselves, and the people who are going to put you there don’t want to hear about global governance and uncertainty. The US doesn’t watch the rise of the EU and global South alliances with dismissive scoffs, but it’s also beholden to a public that is currently refusing to be fed the ugly truth.

    And, let’s not count the state out yet. Ironically, by your own assessment, states are using these supra-national forms of regional governance to assert their own state powers (e.g. your example of France in the UPM, or even Germany in the EU). I’m no realist, but even the staunchest institutionalists readily admit that state sovereignty is not going to go away quietly. And what about identity (in my graduate program, one of my colleagues was hard at work on assessing when and how strong European identity in the EU manifested itself in favor of state identity)? Breaking down state barriers may be good for business and redistribution of wealth, but the state is more than just a fence that separates two actors. The state is an idea that exists in the minds of people, and much like common experiences and values, it binds groups and shapes their actions.

    I share in your frustration with the lack of interest displayed by the US in supra-national governance. Heck, I live in a part of the country still desperately trying to come to grips with the loss of the US manufacturing industry, and sometimes it can be aggravating to see the way people still feel entitled to live in a world where their country sits at the top and dictates to those below. I *wish* our politicians would spend more time trying to ease people into the new reality, as opposed to feeding them nonsense about salvaging some of the past. But if I know Americans, they won’t tolerate extended economic slumps. They may be kicking in screaming, but eventually, they will be forced to join the fold.

    P.S. Speaking of Libya on the UMP, check out the get-up on Gaddafi: http://polyticksblog.wordpress.com/2008/07/15/maghrebi-vice/

  2. I’m not saying the State is going anywhere and I don’t think realpolitik is going away either. I’m not saying that regional organizations are going to replace states. I’m saying that states are using them as a means of enhancing their power and influence and that this will increasingly be the tenor of world power. I don’t buy into most arguments about states giving up authority to supernational organizations. States are the ultimate agents of any organization or effort. I think that’s why there are so many regional bodies now. It’s a way for strongish states to band together with their neighbors and become stronger and more legitimate.

    As for Qaddafi’s outfit…he’s done better. There’s a funny analysis of his wardrobe in Monocle this month.

  3. I don’t suggest you don’t think states are important. You say this:

    “[The US looks at] at EU policy in the Middle East as being at least vaguely complementary to their own, and do not seem to see the Mediterranean project as a challenge to their own role in the region (especially because they perceive it and other regionalization mechanisms as being so weak), even if they view it through the offshore balancer lens of realism.”

    You’re stating that you don’t think the US attaches enough importance to these regional alliances, because the US is singlemindedly concerned with achieving hegemony again, which, by your assessment, is a realist approach to international politics. These regional arrangements, on the other hand, provide opportunities for states to strengthen their positions relative to one another.

    I am saying that states *do* give up *some measure* of authority when they use supranational institutions. The reason for the EU or the Mediterranean partnership is that the states system is too cumbersome to achieve the desired goals. Regional players may use institutions to increase their power via-a-vis neighbors, but the institution by nature supplants some state power, or it would not be needed at all.

    I think the world is slowly moving away from a realpolitik-style approach to governance, because these partnerships reduce the need for realist-style power jockeying and conflict, not increase opportunities for them.

    I suggest the US is very aware of this and further, the fact that they choose not to observe or take interest in these partnerships points to the fact that they realize becoming an overseeing hegemon is no longer an option. I think the rhetoric from Washington belies a truth to which even the hardest of liners are waking up.

  4. Well, I am not so sure about both your analysis on regional “bodies”. I think there are two very different types of regional organisations. One is the EU and the other includes all the others (including the Union for the Mediterranean). I am not saying this out of arrogance or ideology, but simply looking at institutional aspects.

    Unlike all other groupings of the like, the EU institutional system is “de jure” superior to the local legislations of its member states. This does certainly create tensions with these states institutions, but it is the basis of the EU legal system. One, I’d say that makes its nature entirely different from other transnational organisations.

    Also, I don’t buy that the USA are actually any further in some understanding of the new ways of the world. The recent decisions about the executions of Mexican citizens in Texas shows that the US institutions have only contempt for international treaties and institutions. Even when the Administration itself tries to make them applied, the Supreme Court blocks such initiatives.

    This is extremely dangerous from a political point of view, of course. Not just because it makes the USA look like bullies (this image is already beyond salvage at this point), but because it sends the signal to all countries in the world that US diplomacy means nothing: they can break any treaty they want without consequences. In other words, negotiating any agreement with the USA does not make any sense.

  5. “One, I’d say that makes [the EU’s] nature entirely different from other transnational organisations.”

    Right, but the institution constrains state behavior. The states adhere to the rules based on a cost/benefit analysis, where they have more to gain (per state) than without the rules, but they sacrifice some measure of sovereignty to do so. France cannot use the EU to singlemindedly pursue French goals; France is bound by contract to the rules of the EU. So yes, states are alive and well, but no, institutions do not exist as a single vector feeding into states. States have to feed back into them, and it is changing the way we view the classic convention of a sovereign state.

    My argument vis-a-vis the US was not an apology or defense for reprehensible diplomacy. Unless I understood wrong, I took Nouri’s entry to say that the US seems steadfast in their desire to continue realpolitik-style diplomacy, and has no interest in the emerging forms of world governance. My only argument was that the advantages of changing the tack are not lost on the US, but the US is beholden to a public that is not interested in hearing that or electing people who support that.

    Plus, we’re coming off the heels of the bleak Bush years, where a small group of people applied a demented Reaganesque philosophy of international diplomacy, and it has left the US in a *very* awkward and unfortunate place.

  6. I am saying that the hegemonic enterprise is not realist behavior, because it is incompatible with the emerging order. Hegemony is a fantasy.

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