On December 2, 1823, President James Monroe delivered his seventh annual message to Congress. In it, he outlined a new foreign policy vision for the United States, which eventually became know as the “Monroe Doctrine.”
The United States and the “Old World” (i.e., Europe) are different systems and therefore constitute different spheres, Monroe stated.
Therefore, the U.S. would not interfere in the affairs and wars of the “Old World,” and would perceive any attempt by a European power to control or oppress a people or a territory in the “New World” as a hostile act against the United States.
Monroe’s secretary of state – and later the sixth president – John Quincy Adams summed up the ideological imperative underlining the new policy, saying America was “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
While the specific concerns the U.S. (and Britain) had pertained to Latin America and Russia’s ambitions and claims for the northwest coast of North America, the Monroe Doctrine essentially asserted U.S. power and legitimacy over the entire Western Hemisphere.
The doctrine is often regarded, evoked and quoted from as the foundation of American isolationism. In effect, however, it was anything but isolationist. After a bloody and formative period of U.S. nation-building – the Revolutionary War, territorial conquest and incorporation into the Union of the American West – the Monroe Doctrine was replaced in 1845 by the ambitious “Manifest Destiny” ideology and policy approach: America will project its power and gain territory, albeit within the broad confines of its hemispheric boundaries (Alaska, Hawaii, Central America).
But by the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. had already fought the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, in 1917 it joined World War I and, in its wake, President Woodrow Wilson tried – and failed – to create a new world order.
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The 20-year period between the two world wars represented a reversion of sorts to the Monroe Doctrine, compounded by the Great Depression and overriding domestic priorities.
America’s relations with the world changed forever in 1945, as it emerged from World War II not only as a dominant superpower, but arguably the strongest, most durable and multidimensional power in history. It became, perhaps reluctantly, “the leader of the Free World” – a term first used in Frank Capra’s WWII propaganda films.
The “Pax Americana” since 1945 represented a dramatic change in international relations, both in terms of the structure and dynamics of world politics. The U.S. created a new world order, derived ostensibly from one overarching strategic objective: containing the Soviet Union, not building an expansive empire.
This order was predicated on strong alliances, ad hoc regional alliances and nurturing of allies, international institutions and processes. The U.S. was the unchallenged hegemon in this structure: it set the agenda, it crafted the list of priorities, it mediated conflicts, it was the arbitrator between countervailing interests.
This became even more emphatically expressed in the decade after the dissolution of the USSR at the end of 1991. The U.S. was the sole superpower at a time when liberal democracy seemed destined to prevail everywhere (remember political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”?), China was by no measure a world power, and the bipolar world of 1945 turned into a U.S.-dominated unipolar world.
This brief history lesson brings us to 2021 and four key questions: Can the U.S. be – and does the U.S. want to be – “the leader of the Free World”? Will this “Free World” still accept America as a model to follow and emulate? What constitutes “leadership”? And who exactly is “the Free World”?
In the last several years, and particularly since Joe Biden became president six months ago, a debate is taking place on the merits of American global leadership, and how it is linked to the U.S.’ domestic political weaknesses and systemic cracks.
An inconvenient truth
Harvard professor Stephen Walt, a noted scholar of U.S. foreign policy and international relations, concluded in a recent Foreign Policy article that U.S. leadership and mentorship is essentially impossible given its political weakness, both in terms of the system and the residual damage done by former President Donald Trump. However, in the absence of an alternative, the U.S. can perform the task – provided it fixes itself. It’s a negative and depressing way of thinking about it, he concedes, but there seems to be no choice.
For President Biden, the “Pax Americana” era was a formative political life experience that shaped his values and perceptions of America’s place in the world.
Since his election, he speaks frequently about the importance of reaffirming and strengthening alliances; building regional coalitions; multilateral diplomacy’ identifying common challenges and threats together; and abiding by, respecting and expanding treaties and international institutions. “America is back,” he has proclaimed on several occasions.
Part of this is naturally intended to draw a clear distinction between his administration and the disoriented and chaotic Trump years, characterized by an incoherent policy of “America First,” disdain for alliances, dismissal of other countries’ concerns, a crude transactional approach to allies, and a major credibility deficit in the world accrued by America.
But on the other side, there is a genuine attempt to reassert, or at least try to redefine, the American role in the world along the familiar lines of Pax Americana: A dominant superpower setting much of the global agenda, relations with China, climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and terrorism – and realizing that attaining its own vital interests depends, to a large extent, on coalitions, alliances and consultations.
Washington and the U.S. media are replete with outdated and irrelevant bumper-sticker platitudes about American leadership, American exceptionalism, America as a bastion and mentor of freedom, liberty, human rights, and so on. And while the world still views America as a potent superpower and appreciates America’s might, thanks to the Trump era – and particularly to Trump himself and his supporters – it is weary and apprehensive about America’s direction.
Trump may have been resoundingly defeated but Trumpism hasn’t, and as far as the world is concerned, a recurrence of Trumpism in 2024 or 2028 is very possible. While Biden reaffirmed the U.S.’ commitment to NATO, rejoined the Paris climate treaty and engaged in the ongoing effort to reenter the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA), the world isn’t proving so quick to join an American orbit automatically and without reservation. Justifiable fatigue, disillusionment and impatience with foreign entanglements led the U.S. to disinterest, standoffishness and partial disengagement from regions and focal points of problems.
Yet America’s designated leadership of the Free World is less about its foreign commitments and more about its sorry internal state of political affairs. America, formerly known as “the Shining City on a Hill” and “the Indispensable Nation,” is broken from the inside. The republic is fixable, and Biden seems intent and resolute on embarking on this grand, historic undertaking. But the world is not oblivious to its political decay.
“Leader of the Free World” was based not just on economic power and military prowess, but on America being a model of political stability, supremacy of the Constitution and law, a functioning system of government, effective checks and balances, civil rights, an independent judiciary and an independent press. That is not what the world saw over the last year.
According to The Economist’s Democracy Index, the U.S. moved from the category of “full democracy” to “flawed democracy.” That was back in 2017, and it hasn’t changed since.
When the U.S. Senate becomes a euphemism for a dysfunctional and patently unrepresentative body, on course for a dismal 70:30 model (70 percent of Americans will be represented by 30 senators while 30 percent will have 70 senators representing them, based on the constitutional principle of one state equals two senators, irrespective of a state’s population). When 53 percent of Republican voters believe the election was stolen and Trump is the legitimate president. When the Supreme Court has a 6:3 conservative majority, out of sync with America’s cultural and demographic majorities. And when 17 states legislate new and prohibitive voting laws that hinder or outrightly suppress voter turnout – when all of this happens, it is hard to be a model or a dependable beacon.
All this has a direct effect on Israel. This is not about Ben & Jerry’s. Israel’s relations with the U.S. are a central tenet of national security, and an invaluable and irreplaceable strategic asset. These relations have a military and advanced technological component, but equally important is the political and diplomatic support and cover. Israel, therefore, has a vested interest in the U.S. being strong and powerful, and capable of projecting its political power in the world.
Any weakening of America, or the perception that its influence and stature are diminishing, by extension tangibly damages Israel.
The U.S. remains the dominant superpower in the international system. It maintains clear advantages over any other country in the six fundamental measurements of “superpower”: economic and financial power; military might and projection; technological and scientific capabilities; energy independence; diplomatic clout and influence; and cultural exports.
It is true that the relative advantage in several of these categories has been eroded, but America’s – and by extension Israel’s – major weakness is its internal problems.
Unless and until they are somehow mitigated, America is “the leader of the Free World” by default only, not on merit.