Rethinking the US as a Global Leader

Ian Teunissen van Manen - Special Advisor

Picture Credit Alex Brandon/Associated Press

The Presidency of Donald Trump and the policies thereof has caused many problems, both for the United States itself and the world as a whole. Degradation of democratic values, gross human rights violations, and corruption are really the proverbial “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the issues that the Trump Administration has caused. As a result of the problematic policies and actions, there is a perception in the US that the Trump presidency has degraded international trust in the US and has resulted in the US losing its footing as a world leader. However, this argument makes the very large assumption that the US was trustworthy and a leader in the first place, which is certainly debatable.

The US, long before Trump, was making rash decisions and reneging on various promises and commitments. Treaties with Native American Tribes, President Nixon suddenly ending the gold standard, and the multitude of instances where the US failed to fulfill its commitments in treaties and agreements (1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, Kyoto Protocol, Rome Statute, etc.) are just a few examples that bring into question the idea that the US has historically been trustworthy.

Further, there is the idea that the US was a ‘beacon of freedom and liberty’ before Trump degraded that reputation. People may point to the Trump Administration’s abhorrent policy of separating children from families and keeping individuals in inhumane detention centers as a punishment for crossing the US-Mexico border illegally. However, they might forget that Guantanamo Bay, which is notorious for its human rights violations, was created in the Bush Administration and continued to operate (despite promises to close it) under the Obama Administration. Even before Guantanamo Bay, the US’ establishment of internment camps for Japanese immigrants during World War II has also seemingly been forgotten in recent years. All of these examples beg the question: is Trump alone responsible, or is Trump the culmination of US policy and hypocrisy? There are numerous other examples of the US’ shortcomings and hypocrisy throughout its history, but to examine each in detail would require several volumes of work.

Despite all this, there remains a pervasive assumption that the US is the global leader or the leader of the free world. This is particularly salient in the US: two-thirds of US citizens continue to believe that the US is the leader of the free world. It can be argued that this was true during the Cold War, where the US was the ‘defender of democracy against Communism’, though the US conducted a number of problematic interventions in the name of freedom and democracy during this period. However, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the US has been nothing more than a hegemonic power, owing to its position as both the largest economy and strongest military power in the world. Yet, there is a difference between being a hegemonic power and being a leader. As J.M. Burns said in Leadership, “All leaders are actual or potential power holders, but not all power holders are leaders.” This distinction between power and leadership has become more pronounced since the passing of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In 2015, the UN Member States unanimously adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This Agenda provides a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet”, with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at its center. The adoption of such an agenda indicates the trajectory of global priorities for the coming decades, and is therefore also an indication of the type of global leadership that will be required in order to achieve the goals laid out by the Agenda for Sustainable Development. These goals, in holding all UN Member States to account, thus provide a framework for what a global leader in the 21st century should be.

The most recent Sustainable Development Report (2019) ranked and scored the top 162 countries based on their achievement of the 17 SDGs. The top five countries, in order, are: Denmark, Sweden, Finland, France, and Austria. The US is ranked 35th. It is therefore clear that the US is not the global leader. It requires vast improvements in most of the SDGs: as of the 2019 report, the US is only “on track or maintaining achievement” in 3 of the 17 SDGs. The reality is that the US, with or without Trump, is in dire need of self-evaluation and improvement if it wants to be the global leader it claims to be.

This is not to say that achievement in SDGs automatically qualifies countries to be world leaders. Nor is it to say that Denmark, as the top ranked country in SDGs, should be considered the global leader. Furthermore, this is not a suggestion that the US is a terrible country that is doing nothing right. On the contrary, 35th out of the top 162 is not an inherently “bad” mark. The problem is Denmark does not claim to be the global leader or the leader of the free world. Neither does Sweden, Finland, France or Austria. It is the US that espouses that claim, even while falling short. As the adage goes, “If you are going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk.”

It is therefore incumbent upon the US to do better. This article has briefly summarized arguments against the notion of “American Exceptionalism” that seems to be so pervasive within US society. The fact is, the US only truly emerged as a world leader in the 1940s, and since the end of the Cold War, this leadership has been on the decline. While the US continues to flex its military might, it does not live up to the expectations set out by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Leadership is not equivalent to military power, and the US would do well to invest in clean energy infrastructure, climate action, and finding ways to reduce inequality rather than continuing to spend $732 billion on the military.

Yesterday’s global leaders used their military power to cement their positions and impose their will. Today’s global leaders should be expected to do more. Today’s leaders should invest in their citizens, protect the environment, and invest in the future. It is therefore clear that if the US wants to be the global leader it claims to be, it has a great deal of work to do.


Ian Teunissen van Manen is currently completing his Master's in International Politics at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. He completed his Bachelor's in International Studies at DePaul University in Chicago. He has previously worked as an intern at the European Parliament and at various Non-Profit Organizations in the Chicago Area. Most recently, he was on the staff of Lori Lightfoot's successful mayoral campaign in Chicago.

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