Ri Insights

The Indispensable American Partner

By Ana Palacio*

Exclusively written for RI Insights – Rai Institute

MADRID – The United States is gearing up for that most intoxicating (and exhausting) of political events: an open-seat race for the presidency. Given that Vice President Joe Biden appears unlikely to run, the race will be without an incumbent. As a result, the election could be less a referendum on the last eight years than a contest of ideas, with foreign policy emerging as a key topic.

The potential candidates have already sought to stake out their positions on key foreign-policy issues, with early Republican frontrunner Jeb Bush, for example, delivering a speech devoted entirely to the topic. As for the Democrats, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s likely nomination (despite recent revelations that she used her personal email account to conduct government business) reinforces foreign policy’s centrality to the election.

Recognizing this trend, the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council has brought together a group of experts and practitioners to help infuse substance into the foreign-policy discussions leading up to the US election, including by preparing a public discussion paper. From my perspective as the group’s only European member, the overarching message should be that the US must conceive of itself not as “the indispensable power,” as it now does, but as “the indispensable partner.”

This is not merely a matter of semantics; such a change will require the US to re-conceive its role in the world. But the payoff, for both the US and the liberal world order that it created, would be substantial. The key to success will be America’s ability to retain the best – and abandon the worst – of that most American of notions: exceptionalism.

The sense in the US that the country is unique, with a special mission to promote prosperity, security, and freedom worldwide, has long shaped American foreign policy. The idea extends as far back as 1630, when John Winthrop, the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor, declared that his community must act as a “city upon a hill,” setting an example for the world. In doing so, he planted the seed of the values-based approach that was adopted by the US as it spearheaded the development of the rules and structures that order today’s world.

Those rules and structures have delivered unprecedented economic growth, benefiting all (though the US has reaped the greatest rewards). But, ironically, the notion of American exceptionalism often has led the US to undermine the international system that it nurtured. Indeed, US history reveals a persistent isolationist streak, in which the “city upon a hill” is not a beacon, but a fortress.

At times, including over the last six years, the belief that the US is better off going it alone has led to withdrawal from the world. This tendency was not a serious issue before World War II (though the people of Abyssinia and Manchuria may beg to differ). But today, US withdrawal from the international system that it built has serious ramifications – namely, the kind of chaos and lawlessness exemplified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Yet isolationism is not America’s most destructive impulse. Worse is its “exemptionalism”: its penchant for opting out of the rules that it promotes – and often actively enforces – elsewhere. The lengthy – and growing – list of major international conventions left unratified by the US includes the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Mine Ban Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Beyond the resentment that such an attitude engenders, American exemptionalism directly undermines multilateral institutions’ capacity to address challenges that the US is unwilling or unable to resolve on its own. How can the US expect China to follow rules on maritime delimitation in the East and South China Seas when it refuses to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea?

US President Barack Obama’s administration has tried to create the illusion of a change of course in this regard, pushing “soft” deals that allow the US to participate without submitting to binding rules. Such was the case with the much-lauded “handshake agreement” between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping on carbon-dioxide emissions in November.

But, though such arrangements make for great headlines, they do not provide the stability and predictability necessary for long-term success. For that, hard rules and strong institutions are essential.

If the US is to serve as the world’s “indispensable partner,” it must recommit to the rules-based order that has served it – and the world – so well for the last seven decades. It should begin by strengthening the flagging institutions that have served as the backbone of the liberal international order. Specifically, the US should finally approve the International Monetary Fund reform package that was agreed in 2010; promote real progress at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in May; and ensure that this December’s UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference in Paris yields formal commitments.

Indispensable partnership is about helping countries help themselves. It requires vision, commitment, and, most important, leadership. A frank discussion about America’s foreign policy could prove vital to ensuring that this “city upon a hill” remains a beacon of hope – and a catalyst of progress.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former Senior Vice President of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State and a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University.

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