The U.S. must grasp that its own interests are those of the rest of the world, argues Stephen Heintz. What’s good for the world is good for the U.S.
As we look to the future of this century, it is abundantly clear that humankind faces multiple, complex challenges. These include intensifying great power competition with China, military confrontation with Russia, an accelerating climate crisis, mass movements of people fleeing violence or climate disruption, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, widening economic inequality, threats to democracy, and the advent of Generative Artificial Intelligence.1 This is a time of profound global turbulence that requires innovative new forms of broader and deeper global cooperation, and fundamental changes in the style and content of U.S. global leadership.
These challenges underscore the fundamental reality of our age: global interdependence. Nearly eight billion human beings and approximately 8.7 million other species share one planetary ecosystem, one climate, and a deeply interconnected global economy. The reality of global interdependence is that crises in one part of the world affect conditions elsewhere. Given its vast wealth, hard and soft power, presumption of moral leadership, and its disproportionate use of finite global resources, the U.S. must play a leading role in shaping a global response. But we need a bold and fundamentally different vision of America’s role in the interdependent world of the 21st century.
Core Principles for a New American Global Policy
A new vision of America’s global role must rest on a set of core principles for constructive, collaborative, results-oriented, and ethical U.S. leadership:
First, we must recognize that efforts to maintain U.S. global primacy are neither possible nor in our national interest. If there was a “unipolar moment” at the end of the Cold War, it was both fleeting and deluding. Given the rapidly evolving distribution of political, economic, and military power already underway when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, we should have seen through the triumphant glow and come to grips with a more sober view of a world with multiple nodes and diverse forms of power. With the temporary boost in the U.S. position at the time, we should have adopted a vision of collaborative global leadership in which the U.S. plays an essential, but not dominant, leadership role. It is imperative that we do so now.
On a relative basis, U.S. military and economic power, while still vast, is shrinking. Perhaps more importantly, our “soft power” – the power of our values, cultural vitality, capacity for scientific and technological innovation, and our example -- has declined. Even among our friends, the U.S. is often seen as arrogant, greedy, too quick to use military force, and hypocritical. We are seen to support the “rules-based liberal international order” as long as we make the rules and enforce the order.
Efforts to assert global primacy breed particular resentment among the very diverse countries that are home to nearly 80 percent of the world’s population. These countries are often referred to as the “global south,” but this is too reductionist. Acknowledging them collectively as the “global majority” gets us closer to the reality of this century. (And, indeed, nearly 90 percent of the world’s population live in the Northern Hemisphere.2)
While our priority will be the security and prosperity of the U.S., we must pursue our national interests with an understanding that, as a general principle, in an interdependent world our wellbeing is directly tied to peaceful and prosperous conditions elsewhere and the fate of the planet. Achieving our national goals will require doing so in concert with others and forging common ground to generate collective benefits. Humility and honesty are essential: we must engage with “strategic empathy.”3 I do not underestimate how challenging this will be given the deep divisions in US domestic politics and influence on our foreign policy.
Second, the U.S. must build strength through teamwork. The freer and faster global movement of people, information, goods, money, disease, pollution, and conflict breeds a host of challenges that no single country, not even a superpower, can surmount. Only persistent teamwork can deal effectively with the agenda of pressing global issues.
Multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations, which are essential fora for
international teamwork, must be reformed and strengthened, not circumvented. It is high time to make these institutions reflect 21st century realities, including the evolving distribution of power. In addition, new institutions, frameworks, or networks must be devised to address regional problems or new threats to peace, stability, or human advancement. Polylateral mechanisms, like the Paris Climate Accord, that mobilize the resources and capacities of government, business, and civil society working in concert will be essential. And we must infuse the international system with more democratic practices regarding inclusion, transparency, and accountability.
The post-World War II global order is obsolete: a new order demands to be invented and the U.S. must provide leadership in building the international system of the future. The U.S. must become the indispensable partner in global affairs.
New tools for complex challenges
Third, we must develop and use a full range of tools. Given the enormous diversity and
complexity of the challenges we face we will need to develop, maintain, and employ a wide variety of robust tools. Overdependence on any one tool won’t get the job done and risks causing unintended consequences.
We must be ready to use military force – when absolutely necessary – to protect the homeland, to confront other urgent threats to peace and security, or to prevent genocide or other massive abuses of human rights. But we must give priority to other tools, diplomacy chief among them, which can help prevent the need for military action. We must invest in a diplomatic surge: recruiting, training, and deploying America’s best and brightest in the service of both our vital national interests and cooperative global problem solving. Larger investments in development assistance, designed with foresight and in partnership with credible local leadership are also essential, both in post-conflict reconstruction and to ameliorate conditions that can breed conflict in the first place.
Military intervention only if it contributes to positive outcomes
Fourth,when circumstances warrant consideration of military action, we must comply with our obligations under the UN Charter, be confident that we are unlikely to do harm and, conversely, are well positioned to contribute to positive outcomes. We Americans must finally learn the lessons of Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan: the use of military force without a deep understanding of the specific political, cultural, regional, and geo-strategic context and a plan for creating conditions for durable peace leads to miscalculation, prolonged engagements, excessive costs in lives and treasure, and unmet objectives.
Civil society and, in particular, women’s organizations, have vital roles to play in conflict prevention and resolution. Nation-building must be driven by the citizens of nations themselves, with legitimate leadership, constraints on corruption, and the basic elements of rule of law. External players, including the U.S., can provide technical and financial support to these indigenous efforts but cannot lead them.
Fifth, we should promote fair play. When America bases its actions on its core values, it earns credibility and respect. The combination of esteem and tangible support is essential to keeping old friends, winning new ones, forming effective coalitions, and averting resentment and misunderstanding. Moreover, to advance shared norms, human rights, and the rule of law as the basis for global stability and progress, America itself has to play by the rules—whether devising trade policies, deploying our military, incarcerating and interrogating prisoners of war, or using global environmental resources.
And last, we must put our strength to great purpose. America has immense capacity to
alleviate suffering, expand opportunity, and help build a more prosperous and equitable global community, and a sustainable planet. Our capacity for doing good is unparalleled. Working with others, we can save millions of lives now taken by infectious disease; we can educate tens of millions of illiterate children; bring hope and health to millions of young girls and women; and protect our irreplaceable planetary ecosystem from irreversible damage.
Like superpowers throughout history, the U.S. now finds itself challenged by other global powers. Indeed, we are unlikely to remain the dominant power in decades to come. Furthermore, the global challenges we face cannot be managed effectively by one nation, no matter how strong, rich, or generous. Rather than striving to preserve our status as the world’s only superpower, the U.S. should use its great power status to lead the community of nations in an urgent process of developing a new global system that relies on the coordination and collaboration of multiple centers of power and authority.
The U.S. must engage the major regional powers in bilateral and collective efforts to devise a global system adequate to the challenges of the 21st century. This is an enormously complex task, and we cannot do it alone. But it will not happen without U.S. leadership. And if we do not put our strength to this great purpose, our strength itself will further erode.
We are living in a complex and dangerous world. The new test for a superpower is how well it cares for global interests. It is time for a new vision of America’s role in the world based on an understanding that what’s good for the world is good for us.
1 Longer term concerns focus on the evolution of Artificial General Intelligence, defined as artificial intelligence capable of generating new knowledge and replicating most tasks humans can perform.
2 World Population Yearbook 2019.
3 H.R. McMaster, Battlegrounds, 2018.
Stephen Heintz has served as president and CEO of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) since 2001. A private foundation established in 1940, the Fund works to help build a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world through grantmaking and other activities in the U.S. and internationally.