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Assumptions Testing Series

November 3, 2021

Assumption #3: US leadership is indispensable to the health of the global order

By Christopher Preble

What’s the issue?

Experts often assume that US power is essential to global peace and prosperity. They believe that an international order dominated by a single state is more stable and secure than a multipolar order with many capable actors and tend to see the United States as ideally suited to be that single dominant power.

However, such claims of US indispensability often overstate the United States’ power and influence, while simultaneously undervaluing the contributions of others, including key US allies and partners.

Although the United States did play a critical role in establishing many international institutions and defining acceptable norms of behavior since World War II, other global actors have helped to create a resilient international system that delivers tangible benefits to many. US policy should aim to strengthen and deepen that order in which the United States remains a very important actor, but no longer an indispensable one.

The case for a resilient and adaptable global order

A realistic assessment of the United States’ power, and a realization that it will be impossible to restore the United States to its formerly dominant position, should inform how US policy makers exercise that influence globally. On balance, Americans should welcome and encourage others, especially US allies and partners, to play a more active role in regional and global affairs.

Several policy implications flow from this:

  • The United States should restrain its impulse to wield its military and economic power in a coercive way and do so only when essential to advancing its security and prosperity. Restrictions on trade, in particular, are injurious to US prosperity, and inconsistent with US values of openness, and policy makers should, therefore, impose them only when necessary to safeguard US security.
  • When addressing global or regional challenges, the United States should expect to have a seat at the table, but not always at the head of the table. Americans should not presume to be the primary actor in every region of the world.
  • US power is finite, and strategic objectives must be aligned to available resources. US policy makers should prioritize, act with humility, take account of other states’ legitimate interests, and be prepared to compromise.
  • US officials should recommit themselves to upholding the principles and norms that are broadly conducive to global peace and prosperity—and expect to face resistance if they fail to do so.

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