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The Big Picture of the U.S. Role in the World

The Big Picture of the U.S. Role in the World

President Obama with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

My posts for the U.S. Role in the World blog tend to focus on specific expressions of the U.S. role that are current and timely (like foreign aid or defense spending) but I was reminded today that it’s sometimes good to step back from the specific and look at the big picture. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) hosted a bipartisan panel discussion today on the role of national security in the 2012 presidential campaign and one of the themes of the discussion was the overarching role of the U.S. in the modern post-war era. The panel participants focused on the book “The World America Made” by Robert Kagan, in which the author takes a big-picture look at how the U.S. has managed the present international order. In Kagan’s opinion, the U.S. has done an excellent job of promoting peace, freedom and prosperity. The idea that a dominant world power will set the rules of the road, make sure everyone follows the rules, and generally provide for the peace and stability of the system is something political scientists like to call hegemonic stability theory. Kagan says the U.S. is doing a good job in that role and fears that a declining U.S. would demonstrate that this world may look very different if ordered by other countries and other value systems. As he wrote for CNN:

International order is not an evolution; it is an imposition. It is the domination of one vision over others — in America’s case, the domination of liberal free market principles of economics, democratic principles of politics, and a peaceful international system that supports these, over other visions that other nations and peoples may have. The present order will last only as long as those who favor it and benefit from it retain the will and capacity to defend it. If and when American power declines, the institutions and norms American power has supported will decline, too. Or they may collapse altogether as we transition into another kind of world order, or into disorder.

Kagan offers as a nice rebuttal to those who focus more on the character of the international system rather than the character of the leader of the system. Yes, we have international system defined by the U.N. and several regional groups, so does it really matter who leads? It does, just ask the people of Libya. An international system dominated by Russia or China would probably have a made a very different call there.

It shouldn’t surprise you that your U.S. Role blogger does share the view that there is something unique to the American role and that it has been generally positive for the world and is worth defending and preserving.

Kagan’s book is bound to inspire more discussion about the U.S. role and although critics will no doubt find many flaws and counter-examples, I’m certain the debate will be helpful, not only for recognizing U.S. leadership but also pointing out the many areas in which the U.S. can improve.



Joel Davis

Joel Davis is the Director of Online Services at the International Studies Association in Tucson, Arizona. He is a graduate of the University of Arizona, where he received his B.A. in Political Science and Master's degree in International Relations. He has lived in the UK, Italy and Eritrea, and his travels have taken him to Canada, Brazil, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Greece.

Follow U.S. Role on Twitter: @FPAUSRole
Follow Joel on Twitter: @joeladavis

Areas of Focus:
State Department; Diplomacy; US Aid; and Alliances.

Contact Joel by e-mail at [email protected].