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US Leadership: Engaging with a Changing World

Original Broadcast Date:
April 30, 2016(UTC)

Since the days of President Harry Truman (1884–1972; in office 1945–53), the USA has been seen by many, both domestically and internationally, as a leading global superpower whose role is to advance Western liberal principles of freedom and democracy around the world. Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; in office 1981–89) probably epitomized this worldview as he presented global affairs to the American public in terms that were easy to understand: black-and-white notions of empirical moral right-versus-wrong, in a struggle that demanded US involvement.

But, since the end of the Cold War, the world’s geopolitical landscape has begun to look more complex. Instances of US military intervention that initially seemed just and fair to many have seen US troops sucked into protracted overseas campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq that are now deemed by some to have created instability in the Middle East that has actually worsened the growing global threat of Islamist terrorism. Meanwhile, the rise of China as a dominant force, and the specter of a resurgent Russia also pose questions of America’s role in international leadership.

In 2005 Barack Obama was carried into office on a landslide of popular support, promising a new, more thoughtful, yet still clear vision of what the future held for the US, both domestically and in terms of its interactions with the wider world. But as President Obama reaches the end of his second and final term in office, how successful have consecutive Obama administrations been? How will history judge Obama’s restrained foreign policy doctrine of “strategic patience?”

Our debate took place in March 2016, with a panel of experts including: Walter Russell Mead of leading political think tank the Hudson Institute, an expert on the historical mechanisms of US influence, and advisor on diplomatic policy to successive governments; Former CIA analyst Paul Pillar, whose analysis of the 2003 Iraq War left him highly critical of the Bush administration’s attempts to justify that conflict through misuse of CIA data on weapons of mass destruction; Meghan O’Sullivan of Harvard University’s Kennedy School, formerly advisor on Iraq and Afghanistan to George W. Bush; and Ian Bremmer, political scientist, president of the Eurasia group, and proponent of a geopolitical concept known as “G-Zero World,” in which there are no global leaders. The moderator was Toshihiro Nakayama, of Keio University, scholar of international politics and an expert in US diplomacy.

The panel begins by considering whether or not US economic and military power is on the wane, and whether any such decline is due to a loss of capability or a loss of will, both on the part of the American public, and of the officials they choose to represent them. Fears among US voters that their nation’s overseas interests are being put ahead of domestic issues are seen as underpinning the rise of two anti-establishment presidential candidates from opposite ends of the political spectrum: the outspoken business mogul Donald Trump, and Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders. The impact upon US influence of ongoing internal strife for the European Union, along with developments in Asia and the Middle East are also considered.

When it comes to their assessment of President Obama’s diplomatic efforts while in office, though the panel members unanimously respect his intellectual sophistication, they doubt whether he has played the political game as adeptly as predecessors like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Bremmer is particularly critical of Obama’s selection of key officials for his second term as having missed a vital opportunity to assemble a team with the expertise and experience to offset his own deficiencies. Obama’s stance of Strategic Patience is seen as being based in a series of geopolitical assumptions that have not been borne out by world events. Pillar, though, finds one positive in the way in which Obama has identified overlapping interests and elected to work together on selected initiatives with nations such as Cuba and Iran, both once seen as adversaries of the US.

Our experts also address Obama’s much-vaunted “rebalance” in the focus of both diplomacy and regional security from the Middle East and other regions toward the Asia-Pacific region. This policy stems from Obama’s belief that the Asia-Pacific region, with its steady economic growth, is the most important area for the United States to exercise diplomacy, as well as an awareness of the need to account for the growing power and influence of China. As with strategic patience, the panelists identify a lack of commitment that has undermined this rebalance, sending mixed messages to both allies and rivals in this region, as well as in Europe and the Middle East. Obama’s failure to secure the understanding of the American public over the strategic and economic importance of the Asia-Pacific region is also seen as a failure, albeit one that Obama still has the chance to rectify during his final few months in office.

Finally, when considering the challenges facing President Obama’s successor, the panel agrees on the need to adjust to a social model that is moving away from the postwar paradigm of a mass middle-class sustained by high-wage work in manufacturing, with routine white-collar employment creating social peace within nations that facilitates international cooperation. This is seen as fundamental to the domestic stability that is required to underpin a renewed sense of US national identity that builds with conviction upon what has perhaps been Obama’s greatest contribution; a more nuanced view of world affairs and a willingness to work to forge mutually beneficial relationships with allies and erstwhile rivals alike.


Walter Russell Mead

Distinguished Scholar in American Strategy and Statesmanship
Hudson Institute

Meghan O’Sullivan

Professor, Harvard University Kennedy School
Former special assistant to President George W. Bush
and Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan

Ian Bremmer

Founder and President,
Eurasia Group

Paul Pillar

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Georgetown University
Former intelligence officer, CIA


Toshihiro Nakayama

Professor, Keio University
Adjunct Fellow, Japan Institute of International Affairs