Must America Lead?

Must America Lead?
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Has America lost its will to carry the burden of the world’s only superpower?  This is the animating question behind Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s new book, “The Will to Lead” (Broadside, 2016). Mr. Rasmussen, who served as Prime Minister of Denmark from 2001 to 2009 and Secretary General of NATO from 2009 to 2014, believes America is suffering a crisis of conviction, preferring consensus to leadership. Mr. Rasmussen argues that global security is stronger, universal human rights more respected and the light of liberty more radiant when America fulfills its duty to police the world. Or, as Mr. Rasmussen writes it, to be the “world policeman.”  “The bleak truth is that there are regimes in the world that would like nothing better than to be able to break the rules of the international community and get away with it, and they will only stick with the rules if they know that transgressions will be punished.” 

Until recently, America’s leaders chose to punish such transgressions.  In 1991, after Saddam Hussein dispatched one hundred thousand Iraqi troops across Kuwait’s northern border, President George H. W. Bush deployed American soldiers to the Persian Gulf to protect the rule of law and reject “the law of the jungle.”  Following a few years as “gatekeeper of American security rather than policeman of the world,” which included the Rwandan genocide in 1994, America rode into the fray again in 1995, spearheading NATO’s campaign to stanch the bloodletting perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs in the Balkans. As President Bill Clinton declared at the conclusion of NATO’s effective 1999 bombing campaign against Serbian forces threatening Kosovo, “Hesitation is a license to kill. But action and resolve can stop armies and save lives.”  From Mr. Rasmussen’s vantage, the lesson of the 1990s was clear: America is the only country with the military capacity, decision-making ability and political will to protect world order.

So how did America in 2016 become the “reluctant policeman,” and what must the next president do in order to repair and reinforce a rules-based international system? RealClearBooks spoke with Anders Fogh Rasmussen about these questions.

Q:  Can you describe the current condition of the international order?

We are currently witnessing a Middle East in flames, an increasingly assertive Russia and the rise of radical Islam. Russia is continuing its hostile actions in Eastern Europe and the European Union is on the verge of a breakdown. In other words, the world is at a tipping point. Based on my experience, the only way to revert this negative trend is for the United States to resume its role as a strong, global leader.

Q:  Why must America be the “global policeman”?

As former Prime Minister of Denmark and former Secretary General of NATO, I have a very clear message: the world needs a policeman. Look at history - it has been shown time and again that the United States is the only state capable of acting in that capacity. When America is willing to step forward and defend the rules-based order that it did so much to create, the result is peace and stability. When America steps back, authoritarian states think they can break the rules and get away with it, and the result is conflict and chaos. As an example, I would highlight Syria. The conflict is a mess. The Obama administration’s unwillingness to draw an effective “red-line” vis á vis the Bashar al-Assad regime has diminished U.S. credibility internationally and left a power vacuum in Syria which has allowed Russia to intensify the conflict.

Q:  People across the world are showing a preference for nationalism over globalism. In light of this trend, how do you convince national leaders to strengthen their commitment to intergovernmental institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United Nations (UN)?

It’s true that we across the Western world see anti-globalization movements growing stronger day by day. We have reached a stage where we need to act determinedly to revert this alarming trend. Institutions such as the NATO, the UN and the European Union (EU) were created for a reason.  They were created to forge international cooperation and protect countries from tyranny and oppression. Their reason for existing and pursuing their original purpose is more valid today than ever.

Many years in national and international politics have taught me that we should pursue three objectives in order to ensure continued national support for international cooperation: First, politicians at the national level should address the concerns and problems close to people’s hearts and minds. If we fail to address issues such as unemployment or inequality at national level, public grievance will quickly turn into populism and anti-globalization movements. Second, international institutions – in particular the UN and the EU – should be reformed. Big international institutions are often suffering from inefficiency and a lack of political focus. If we fail to address this problem, national support will gradually dwindle. Third, national politicians should display statesmanship by supporting reforms of our international organizations while promoting the case for international cooperation within their respective countries. In an increasingly globalized world, politicians should know that isolationism is not the answer.

Q:  What is your greatest regret from your time as Secretary General of NATO? What was your greatest achievement?

I regret that the relationship between Russia and the Western world worsened during my tenure as secretary general. Obviously I am not to blame for this negative development, but I had indeed wished for something else. In fact, the first speech I gave as secretary general back in 2009 focused on how NATO and the Western world could restore its relationship with Russia. In concrete terms, I proposed enhanced practical cooperation, more joint focus on preventing the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and I even proposed that Russia could join the missile defense system in Europe.

On a more positive note, I am glad that we were able to reverse the trend of declining defense budgets during my time as Secretary General of NATO. At the Wales Summit in 2014 NATO allies agreed to pledge a minimum of 2% of their GDP to defense spending. In this dangerous world we live in, I think this was an important contribution to the freedom and stability of NATO allies and partners.

Q:  Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the international order?

I’m basically optimistic. In the end, our free and capitalist societies are much stronger than the authoritarian forces threatening us. However, we should be careful not to become complacent. If we fail to uphold liberal values, promote free trade and defend our allies – our system will gradually erode and we will pave the way for authoritarian forces and a less prosperous future. I firmly believe that each generation has an obligation to contribute positively to the world and the societies they live in. That’s why I think it is so important to protect our liberal values and promote international cooperation. And therefore, I believe that the world’s democracies should unite in an “Alliance for Democracy” to strengthen the forces of liberty against the forces of oppression.

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