Foreign Policy Blogs

“Leading from Behind”: What Would Walter McDougall Think?

A little under two weeks ago the Boston Herald published an online editorial suggesting that President Obama “abandon his ‘lead from behind’ stance.”[i]  This facilitated some personal reflection on the President’s supposed foreign policy strategy and America’s role as the global leader.  For those unfamiliar with the term “leading from behind,” it was supposedly coined by White House advisors to describe President Obama’s evolving foreign policy doctrine in which the US defers some of its public leadership to its allies, taking more of a backseat role.  This is a tactic most noticeable in the Obama administration’s handling of Libya and the Arab Spring.  The strategy also suggests that the US acknowledges its decline in global relative power and its negative reputation abroad.  In trying to analyze whether it is an effective policy or not, the question I kept asking myself was “what would Walter McDougall think?”  Walter McDougall is a premier scholar on American foreign policy, currently stationed at the University of Pennsylvania.  He wrote a fabulous book, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776, outlining the different periods and types of American foreign policy.

“Leading from Behind”: What Would Walter McDougall Think?

Is the "leading from behind" foreign policy strategy, as constructed by the Obama administration a good one? (Picture:

McDougall labels the first age of American foreign policy, 1776-1898, the “Old Testament” period.  While the US maintained alliances and dealings abroad, it showed little interest in managing the world.  Foreign policy was a domestic development tool, which used relations with other states to help increase prosperity at home.

The US’s inkling to move towards major global leadership began around 1898 and has continued on to today.  McDougall calls this the “New Testament” period.  It is characterized by the pro-active spread of American and democratic ideology in an attempt to help the world realize their own version of the American Dream.  The “New Testament” reflects an arrogant, moral crusader mission.  Policies were, and still are, less centered on a balanced mix of security and development at home, and more on imposing American will and values on others.  This mentality has created an environment where the US involves itself in unnecessary conflicts, and ends up on the wrong side of public opinion.  The resulting over-extension has overtime helped facilitate its gradual decline in relative power.

If seriously developed, “leading from behind” has the potential to be an even keeled, middle-ground blend of “Old Testament” and “New Testament” policy.  While it might reflect US understanding that its relative power is in decline, a few clarifications need to be made.  The US is and will continue to be for some time, the overwhelming dominant world power.  In 2009, the US economy was worth $14.3 trillion, three times as much as the next closest country, Japan (which has since been overtaken by China).  Additionally, the US was only worth slightly less than the economies of the next four closest states combined.  This represents the widest gap between great powers in modern history.[ii]

US military dominance is in a class of its own.  In 2008, America spent $607 billion on its military, almost half of the world’s total military spending.  The countries that the US is supposedly losing its relative power to—China, India, Japan, and Russia—together only spent $219 billion on their militaries.[iii] America’s relative global power may be decreasing, but no other state comes remotely close to its mix of economic and military power and capability.

Getting back to the strategy itself, “leading from behind” is mainly focused on the use of alliances and the empowerment of the other states involved.  The goal is to alleviate individual public pressure and responsibility on America.  Based on the US’s current predicaments in Iraq and Afghanistan, this seems like a good foundation for securing future diplomatic and international political success.  There are those critics, though, who believe this strategy dilutes Washington’s Rule on America’s freedom and responsibility to act unilaterally.  This is alarmist thinking.  America should trust the alliances it is involved in, knowing it always reserves its right to act unilaterally if it feels it must.  Such was the case with Pakistan and the Osama bin Laden assassination.  But, it also needs to be reasonable in doing so.  Unilateralism in its purest form is the right to act independently in order to protect liberties and self-interest at home; not to “…go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”[iv]

The US should be more concerned with balancing opposition influence and power, not overtaking it.  This can only be done through maintaining and unifying alliances.  Allowing its allies to exert more international political influence, while simultaneously decreasing its own public display, will help repair America’s image.  It will also increase its credibility amongst friends.  This will in turn temper the rise in power of its opponents, as well as increase its own.

If “leading from behind” is a sincere shift in foreign policy, it potentially lays out the possibility of bringing back the most important, and largely lost, aspect of America’s “Old Testament” period: using foreign policy as a tool to ensure and develop liberties and freedoms at home:

[I]f other nations want our style of democracy and/or high rates of economic growth, they know what steps to take to achieve them.  If they do not want to take those steps, the United States cannot force them or take those steps for them…Otherwise, the best way to promote our institutions and values is to strengthen them at home…American Exceptionalism as originally conceived was to be a measure of all that we are, not what we do far away.[v]

Getting involved in some global issues is unavoidable.  For instance, battling groups like Hezbollah and al-Qaeda require activism and a slight imposition on some civil liberties.  However, applying a missionary-like mentality, like that of the Bush Doctrine, has been counter-productive.  Because of its crusades abroad, the US has developed a somewhat fearsome national-security state.  Core civil liberties are under a much greater threat than need be.  By attempting to take on the whole world, the US has created violent enemies that had no quarrel with it before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  “Leading from behind” is a good first step in reversing these trends.

“Leading from Behind”: What Would Walter McDougall Think?

The US always reserves the right to act unilaterally if it must, as was the case in the assassination of Osama bin Laden. However, it must do so within reason. (Picture: Boston Herald)

It is clear that a complete return to the “Old Testament” is impossible.  The Monroe Doctrine of restricting America’s affairs to its own hemisphere is unrealistic (unless you’re Ron Paul).  The US is still the dominant power in the world and will be forced to intervene in certain situations that may not seem to further its national interest.  But, it does not necessarily have to be the face of every major international intervention or issue, nor a crusader of democracy and ideology.

If the US is worried about the rise of un-democratic and illiberal states, it must realize that there is no real competing global organizing logic to liberal internationalism.  Anything centered in Beijing or Moscow would be less open and rule-based, and would hurt China and Russia’s national interests.  While it may feel like these states are not moving towards liberalism, it is merely that they move slower.  There is little evidence that authoritarian states can become truly advanced societies without moving in a liberal democratic direction.[vi]

Given its overseas wars, its attempt at restoring its international reputation, and its domestic problems, the US has begun to feel that it is in need of a foreign policy change to preserve its long-term interests and security.  It is in America’s best interest to adopt a middle of the road policy, and if executed properly the evolving Obama doctrine of “leading from behind” is a good one.  It does not require anything significant or drastic from the American public and is the perfect mix of American modernism and traditionalism.  So what would Walter McDougall think? Get your hands on a copy of Crusader State and read the last chapter.  He would likely agree that moderation is the best policy.


[i] Boston “Leading from behind, again.” Feb. 7, 2012.           

[ii] Joffe, Josef.  “The Default Power.” International Affairs, Sept./Oct. 2009. 25.

[iii] Ibid. 26.

[iv] John Quincy Adams onUS foreign policy. 1821.

[v] McDougall, Walter.  Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776.  Houghton Mifflin:New York. 1997. 210-219.

[vi] Ikenberry, John.  “The Future of the Liberal World Order.” International Affairs, May/June 2011. 63-64.



Rob Lattin

Rob Lattin recently completed his Master's in International Affairs at the City College of New York, where he won the Frank Owarish prize for graduating at the top of his class. His thesis explored Democratic Peace Theory and its applicability to small powers, and used the relationship between Turkey and Israel as its case study. Rob received his B.A. in Near Eastern Studies and Political Science, graduating from the University of Arizona with honors.

Rob has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and has lived in Haifa, Israel. In addition to blogging for FPB, he is the Foreign Affairs Correspondent for He currently splits his time between Washington D.C. and New York City.