Xenia Wickett
Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs
Today’s global challenges cannot be resolved without Washington's leadership.
Nepalese soldiers unload relief supplies from a US Osprey aircraft on 9 May 2015. Photo by Getty Images.Nepalese soldiers unload relief supplies from a US Osprey aircraft on 9 May 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

In 1998, Madeleine Albright described the US as ‘the indispensable nation’. Since then, and in particular since the 2008 financial crisis, there have been many debates over the decline of the US and whether it is still, or ever was, indispensable.

The fact remains that, today, the US is indispensable – a necessary, if not sufficient actor in addressing the world’s biggest challenges.

These challenges include terrorism, pandemics (such as Ebola), climate change, natural resource constraints (such as energy, food and water), traditional state-on-state challenges in eastern Europe or the Asia-Pacific, and internal unrest in the Middle East. To this extensive list could be added issues such as economic instability, humanitarian and natural disasters and the use of weapons of mass destruction.

For any of these, it is hard to imagine an effective response that does not involve US businesses, civil society organizations or the government.

In the response to Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea last year, the US pharmaceutical industry played an irreplaceable role in the search for a vaccine and a cure. The US military and USAID among others also played their parts, as they have done alongside American NGOs in response to the recent earthquakes in Nepal.

On climate change, while the US – the world’s largest CO2 emitter – has been accused of dragging its feet, a solution will not be found without American involvement. Progress was made in 2014 when the US signed a joint climate agreement with China. While the US government may not be the main driving force, American companies and cities are often leading the way to finding new solutions. Meanwhile, the shale gas revolution has rapidly driven US gas production upwards to 20.6 per cent of the global total.

On more traditional security challenges the US military continues to provide invaluable resources. As the UK and France found in 2011, their operations in Libya could not long be conducted without the support of US capabilities ranging from intelligence to ammunition to strategic lift. The US military is also indispensable for tackling current non-traditional security challenges, such as the air campaign against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). And it is impossible to imagine cyber-defence taking place without the involvement of US information technology companies.

New ways of leading

But this indispensability comes with caveats.

Indispensability does not necessarily mean that the US is always right in its policy choices or in how it goes about achieving them. The US should not be proud of its carbon emissions nor of how it has occasionally gone about pursuing its foreign policy.

Indispensability is also not eternal. As the US resists change, such as the reformation of long-standing organizations like the IMF and World Bank, it should not be surprised when emerging powers resort to using other mechanisms to achieve their ends, such as China’s pursuit of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Finally, indispensability does not mean leading from in front. The US is a necessary actor in addressing these challenges but it cannot act alone. Sometimes the US will need to exert traditional leadership. But other times, it must merely be one actor of many and others will need to lead. For example, some have suggested that the recent Minsk agreement with Russia would have been more difficult to achieve had the US taken the lead, rather than Germany and France.  Equally, in Asia it might make more sense to have ASEAN members lead on an initiative to agree a maritime code of conduct rather than the US pushing the agenda.

Today, the US remains the only truly global nation. Its military is without comparison, as are its entrepreneurs, its universities and its NGOs (among others). But it will not necessarily always remain this way. For the foreseeable future, the US will remain indispensable; on specific issues, so too will others such as China, Germany, the UK and Indonesia. But the US needs to learn new ways of leading and of retaining its legitimacy and its followers – of, in the words of Joseph Nye, using its soft power. It needs to understand that by bringing others alongside it into global leadership positions it raises its influence and values rather than limiting them.

A version of this article was originally published in German in International Politik und Gesellschaft.

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