America Caught by Inertia
No. 2 2012 April/June
Andrei O. Bezrukov

MGIMO University of International Affairs, Moscow, Russia
Department of Applied International Analysis


E-mail: [email protected]
Address: Room 3036, 76 Vernadsky Prospect, Moscow 119454, Russia

The Future of American Global Leadership

The world, struggling through crises, unrest and uncertainty is craving for visionary leadership. The uncontested U.S. leadership role from the WWII until the turn of the century rested on its ability to create and manage the system of global institutions and drive economic growth. But when American politicians declare again that they want to lead the world, we should ask: Are they really ready to do so?

What is global leadership? A position of global leadership could be claimed by a country that is able to mobilize the global community to solve fundamental problems of the whole world, the one that creates the environment for its sustainable development. This leadership is about understanding the interests of the world as the success of the global ecosystem.

In his remarks on October 14, 2011 in Normandy, upon receipt of the de Tocqueville Prize, Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, probably one of the finest contemporary American strategists, openly questions the ability of the American political class to take interest in the world’s future in a broader, unselfish way. Quoting the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, Brzezinski asserts that early American prosperity and leadership, according to Alexis de Tocqueville, was based on the “self-interest properly understood” – that “common welfare is in fact the precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being”.

According to Brzezinski, in the world that is painfully trying to adjust to new realities – growing interdependence, rebalancing of the economic power and political awakening of the masses – future American capacity to lead will depend on the country’s ability to “properly” understand its own self-interest in the success of the world. The world is craving for natural resources, suffers from sharp inequalities and chaotic migration, and first of all, is asking for stability and security, without which development cannot happen. Sustainable global prosperity requires a predictable, peaceful, rule-based environment that benefits all nations.

Will America be able to lead in the interest of all? How adequate are American solutions to the world’s fundamental problems? Is today’s America able to fulfill the leadership function? Is it possible for the United Stated to become a factor of instability rather than stability?


In 2004, Zbigniew Brzezinski in his book, The Choice. Global Domination or Global Leadership has set the alternatives for the United States: to become a global leader or to attempt global domination. Ten years hence, it is time to check which path America has embraced and to estimate in which direction it will continue. Today, both America and the world are quite different from the ones ten years ago. If the role of the “defender of the free world” is no longer needed, and the global domination that Brzezinski has described is neither affordable nor acceptable, what would America do?

American leadership cannot be an entitlement for which the rest of the world has to pay into the U.S. Treasury. It has to be deserved. The United States has to be willing to work for it. It is for America itself to choose whether it wants to put the future of the whole global ecosystem ahead of its own narrowly understood interests.

To “properly understand” its interests, America first of all needs the desire to understand. The world has changed – but what about the American perception of the world and its own role? The new model of global leadership – if only America wants to have one – will require a new consensus of the U.S. elites, and possibly, a new national consensus.

The first proposal for the new policy consensus has been already made by Captain Porter and Colonel Mykleby under the pseudonym of Mr. Y. Their National Strategic Narrative offers an optimistic perspective on the relations of the United States with the rest of the world.

Mr. Y proposes to take a generational, longer-term view on American security and prosperity, that is built upon the premise that “we must sustain our enduring national interests – prosperity and security – within a ‘strategic ecosystem,’ at home and abroad, … through the application of credible influence and strength, the pursuit of fair competition, acknowledgement of interdependencies and converging interests, and adaptation to complex, dynamic systems.”

Mr. Y sees the foundations of the future American foreign policy in the success of the renewed investment in the internal, especially economic, prosperity of the country. “We cannot isolate our own prosperity and security from the global system,” writes Mr. Y. “It is in our interest to see the rest of the world prosper.”

It is not surprising that the call for a change comes from the military men. The new generation of the American military intelligentsia to which the authors belong represents the country’s best and brightest.

Just as in the eighties, when Soviet Security and Intelligence services were the parts of the establishment the most aware of the true appeal and capabilities of the USSR, thirty years later, the highly “globalized” U.S. officer corps is genuinely concerned about how America can fit in the changing world.

While Mr. Y proposes a new vision for the country’s global role, what is the chance for this vision to become a reality? Such views currently appeal only to a small minority in the American decision making circles. Worldly President Obama may be closer to Mr. Y’s position, but the American political mass is on the other side. To an outside observer, America is not following the path Mr. Y proposes. Powerful systemic inertia and vested interests drive the policy in the direction that is undermining global sustainability, thus increasing the probability of the future conflict with the rest of the world.

The problem is that the renewal of the American engagement with the world, just as its internal revival, require a consorted national effort, a new national consensus, and, possibly, a new global consciousness. Continuing with current policies of preserving the state of the world America has gotten accustomed to, does not require any special effort. This “default option” is the behavior that the American foreign policy bureaucracy is “wired” for. It is built on self-perpetuating beliefs that grew from the experience of ruling the world for the last half a century.

While America approaches its midlife crisis as a dominant superpower, like an aging Hollywood star, it is not yet ready to recognize that it cannot play the same roles forever. Facing multiple internal and external challenges, the country is still in the state of denial, sedated by its enormous wealth and influence.


America’s current crisis of conscience has both economic and societal roots. The country faces new competitive challenges at the end of a long economic cycle. The drivers of industrial growth that helped American corporations dominate the world, such as automobiles, pharmaceuticals or even information technologies, are mature. Technologies of the next cycle are not yet ready to provide the replacement as principal producers of the national wealth. Meanwhile, as the center of global economic activity shifts eastwards, American corporations find their competitive positions threatened by both traditional and emerging rivals.

No longer able to afford its lifestyle and deeply in debt, the United States is monetizing its unique position as the provider of the world’s reserve currency to cover the shortfall. More and more, it has to compete for investments with the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, demographically the United States is becoming a different country. Conservative Patrick J. Buchanan in his new book “Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025?” decries a host of changes that alter what, according to him and many of his “Atlantic” generation, America used to be.

As the Americans of European descent are losing the majority in the country, as American poor become more numerous and desperate, as the “melting pot” of nations in pursuit of happiness becomes a collection of ethnicities demanding recognition, the future according to Buchanan does not look optimistic. The popularity of the book is a symptom of fear and uncertainty of the aging white ruling elites in front of the invasion of traditional America by the outside world.

Seeing the American political class confronted by tectonic changes, it is important to understand how it may respond. The works of Ronald Heifetz, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and probably one of the most daring authorities on leadership today, might offer some answers. Heifetz distinguishes two types of leadership – “technical” and “adaptive.”

The leadership style that addresses a problem for which there is a known solution could be called “technical.” The response of G.W. Bush to the events of 9/11 is a classic example of a leader consolidating the nation and imposing the course of actions that is required to deal with the “clear and present danger”.

But what if an organization or a country is facing a challenge whose nature is not yet understood and for which there is no ready solution? “Adaptive” leadership is about a search for a new paradigm. Those situations almost always mean that a country itself is incapable of seeing, let alone solving a problem, and has to undergo painful internal crisis. Germany after the WWII can make a good example of an adaptive challenge. To be back again on its feet, a country may have to rethink its past and present, develop new value references and political language, and reexamine who its true friends are. The role of an “adaptive” leader is to provoke and maintain a strategic dialogue to explain to the broad population its real strategic interests. The “adaptive” leadership style requires inclusiveness, ability to listen and, above all, patience and tolerance.

Countries that are going through sole-searching are not happy places. Leaders who drive internal reset and renewal usually face angry and determined opposition appealing to the old values and history. According to Heifetz, organizations, especially very successful previously, stubbornly resist uncomfortable internal changes. They tend to deny that changes are needed at all, try to “shake off” leaders that raise painful issues, and crave for “saviors” who offer quick and easy ways out. That is exactly what happened with Weimar Germans that fell for a charismatic Adolf Hitler.

The fear of systemic resistance frequently makes leaders try a “technical,” existing solution when an “adaptive” response is required. In the contemporary United States we see the majority of its political class in denial, holding on to the old political language and searching for a more decisive president. Instead of reexamining how America relates to the world, its elites point to outside threats that should be eliminated.


The national strategic dialogue that would produce appropriate “adaptive” solutions requires three necessary conditions: stakeholders, motivation and leaders.

Mr. Y believes that to win in a new global environment America needs “most importantly a well-informed and supportive citizenry.” American elites and the active part of the middle class would be the principal stakeholders in the dialogue about the future of the country.

From the end of the WWII, the American middle class saw the outside world as a place of business as well as an affordable and exciting playground. It considered American engagement abroad modernizing and democratizing. The underlining fact was that America made money from this engagement – U.S. businesses conquered the world. For the middle class it was a positive experience, confirming their flattering image of their own homeland.

Since the 2000s critical changes have occurred. First, the U.S. middle class lost its ground. Many top American corporations shed their national anchorage, got bruised by global competition and weakened by 2008 crisis. The American middle class instinctively sees the outside world as an unfair competitor which their country needs to defend at its own expense. It has lost its interest in the outside world and American politicians took notice.

Starting a strategic dialogue about future policies is the function of the elites. However, American elites are split about what to do with the world. One can distinguish several groups of elites in the United States: business elite, “bureaucratic” or administrative elite, military and security elite, academic elite, and media elite.

The financial interests of the American business elite pull it into the opposite directions regarding the outside world. There are two parts of the business elite – industrial and financial.

The markets of the American financial elite are truly global. They jet between the Hamptons, Hong Kong, Paris and Saint Bart. The financial elite were the driving force behind the American-led globalization, but up until the turn of the century American industrial corporations were profiting from the global expansion as well.

However, at the turn of the century, according to the article of James Kurtz “The Foreign Policy of Plutocracies” in The American Interest, buoyant Wall Street banks have made a choice to invest in the expansion of mature technologies overseas and in real estate, rather than in the riskier ventures of a next American industrial cycle. Weakened by the “hollowing” of the American manufacturing base, the industrial elite suffer from “unfair” competition, demanding government support and protection from the challengers overseas.

Kurtz makes an interesting argument. Looking at American relations with the world from 1890s, the time the U.S. global expansion begun, he asserts that as it comes to foreign policy and world role “it makes a big difference if (the plutocracy’s) wealth is based upon industrial sectors, or upon a financial one.

“Financial plutocracy,” writes Kurtz, “is ill-suited for effective leadership in the global competition between great powers. Its disdain for a healthy domestic industrial structure is one factor. Their attachment to a global reserve currency is another. Its preference for small wars and imperial policing rather than preparing the nation for deterring great powers and large wars is a third.”

The U.S. military and security elite, backed by the industrial elite, increasingly see the future in terms of competition with an emerging great power – China. The U.S. population, with the help of the media elite, is coming closer to accepting this narrative.

The financial elite take a different view. They believe that China will be able to integrate into the global system without a major conflict. Its goal is to secure the “global arc of instability” that hinders profitable investments into fast-growing emerging markets. It shares this view with the majority of the academic elite, which itself has global background and aspirations. As to the bureaucratic elite, it is split between the two.

While the American industrial elite are fairly heterogenic and dispersed, the financial elite are a tightly knit community, highly concentrated around the centers of administrative power. From their friendship at Ivy League universities, through their careers at Goldman Sachs or at Baker & McKenzie, to the memberships in the Council on Foreign Relations, their grip on decision makers is undeniable.

The sympathy of the broader American population may not be with the Wall Street, but the forces of the middle class that are ready to support the industrial elites are too dispersed and disorganized to force the financial elites from their positions of influence just yet. It is unlikely that the groups currently in power would risk undermining their financial support structures, especially during the election cycle.

The disunity of U.S. elites impedes the strategic dialogue. George Friedman, the CEO of Stratfor, is not optimistic about their readiness to adapt to a new paradigm. According to him, they are not “aware of the political pressures on other elites,… completely misunderstand the alienation of the public,” and “think this can be handled by the elites among themselves. We have a crisis of the elites.”

With the middle class preoccupied with its own future and the elites fighting for influence, what about the national motivation to rethink the U.S. role in the world?

Regardless whom one might hear – President Obama or his Republican challengers – the U.S. is not ready for any other place in the global system except the first. The culture and language of exceptionalism and “divine mission” permeate the policy discourse.

The current political class – the winners over communism – simply cannot accept the world it does not control. In its view, it is not America, but the world that has to change. Even in Davos and Bilderberg there is a growing gap in perceptions and vocabulary between the American and the global political elites.

The optimistic nature of the American historic experiences, relative geographic isolation of the country, and stagnating, but still high standards of living insure that the U.S.-centric views persist even in the age of global internet communities.

Zbigniew Brzezinski draws attention to another phenomenon that hinders “America’s ability to respond to this volatile world.” Brzezinski quotes de Tocqueville’s writings about the influence of the majority: “I know of no country where there is generally less independence of thought and real freedom of debate than in America.” “Today, such ‘despotism’ is manifested in the public’s ignorance of the world around it and in that public’s reluctance to demand and accept short-term and fairly distributed social sacrifice in exchange for long-term renewal,” decries Brzezinski.

“Political correctness,” virtual taboos on some political topics in the media, and what Mr. Y calls “binning” – ideological labeling of political opponents – make questioning of entrenched assumptions of the majority difficult. The atmosphere of political gridlock, hyper-partisanship and populist politicking is not conducive to a serious policy debate.

But what about the third prerequisite for the future policy debate – the leadership of thought?

Unfortunately, the main decision-making body – the Congress – is currently ill positioned to take the lead. Deeply divided along party lines and focused on domestic agenda, it is befriended by the worst enemy of strategic thought – short-termism. For a congressman running for reelection every two years, long-term global sustainability does not make it to the top of his list.

Meanwhile the academic community does not offer a new vision either. The assumptions on which the foreign policy concepts are built are from another era. They rest on two pillars. The one is the belief in the unique nature of the American democratic system that has a global mission of defending the good against evil. The other is the notion of the national interests of the United States. While the first represents a romantic, modernizing, almost spiritual calling in relations with the world, the second one stands for hard, rational needs.

Nowadays, in the absence of a grand ideological enemy, the democratizing appeal can be leveraged towards American goals only in places where basic human rights and freedoms are sorely lacking. As for the rest of the world, American messages of freedom and democracy simply became a part of a universally accepted, civilized practice. Meanwhile, its human rights credentials have been tarnished during the “war on terror.” At the same time, the image of the United Stated as the most modern place in the world does not ring true for a traveler familiar with capitals of Europe and Asia.

But what about the second pillar? The list of “hard” U.S. interests is drawn every few years by a group of scholars, diplomats and politicians. The names of its authors read like the “Who is who” of the American foreign policy community. Wise and brilliant as they might be, their experiences and assumptions come from the time of ideological confrontation. From the list of the national interests it is clear what the United States wants to get from the world. It is not clear what it is ready to sacrifice in the name of the world.



Countries are very complex systems, held together by a web of human, organizational and physical interdependencies, with their inertia of habits, logic of their functional designs and practical conveniences. Government policies create human and physical assets; but such assets, in their turn, create or alter policies.

Built up capabilities – institutions, systems, hardware, and a lot of smart, skilled and motivated people – start living their own lives, finding roles to fulfill and goals to achieve, becoming independent actors. It is not a secret that President Obama’s views are not widely shared in the security community, whose rank and file majority votes Republican. People, while being a part of a system, act according to their interests and convictions, driven by their own vision of what is right for the country.

With the Congress paralyzed, the U.S. government agencies have a free hand to assert national interests as they see them fit their own agenda. Without political leadership, bureaucracy rules. While the public blames the rest of the world for the country’s problems, the American foreign policy is flying on “autopilot.”

The American national security system, despite some recent attempts to make it more compatible with the changes that occurred in the world, runs almost exactly as it was set by the National Security Act of 1947. By its design, this system is “wired” for confrontation and aggressive enforcement of the American will.

U.S. agencies dealing with the outside world – the Departments of Defense, State, Justice, Treasury, Commerce, as well as the Department of Homeland Security and others, such as the CIA and the AID – are built as independent and often competing players. Left to navigate the changing world without a new national doctrine, they operate according to their old mandate, with all the inertia of their past pushing them into the once set direction. Each of the agencies is doing all it can to justify its own role as a defender of American interests abroad, at the same time increasing its power and budget.

Without a longer-term strategic vision, the American bureaucracy can’t figure out how to work with the international system it does not control. It is not excited about the multi-polar world that has been forming during the last ten years. The world of confrontation worked better for the U.S. as the dominant global power. Since then, American competitive position vis-И-vis the European Union and China have deteriorated, while the competition for resources has increased. Continuing the same way without a change in domestic strategy would only weaken American positions further. The American foreign policy bureaucracy has no power over the domestic strategy. To help its country compete, it has to reshape the global environment in favor of the Unites States.

Instead of focusing on the “sustainability” of the future “strategic ecosystem,” the instinctive, “default” reaction of the U.S. government agencies is to make the world more suitable for existing U.S. capabilities and competitive advantages. They are pursuing American strategic self-interest in the narrow sense – as the bureaucracy understands it. On the ground, it translates into the imposition of the extraterritoriality of the American justice system, the readiness to use force without regard to the sovereignty of other countries, and the claims on global resources and infrastructure.

The U.S. is reacting to the changes in the world as a rational, self-preserving system. It is protecting its competitive advantages. However, by behaving selfishly and shortsightedly, American bureaucracy creates strategic problems for itself.

It gave a free hand to its businesses to invest in China, making this country its principal strategic competitor much faster than America itself, China’s Asian neighbors and even China could handle. As a result, American leadership now has to choose between throwing all its remaining might to confront China or to make its main creditor the de-facto heir in the global system.

Despite its long-term need to have Russia as a complementary economy, a partner in stabilizing the most troublesome parts of the world, and a future ally in balancing power in Asia, the United States keeps undermining its internal stability and external security.

The same shortsighted opportunism led the U.S. first to help radical Islamic extremists become a regional military force, then to confront them, inflaming the Islamic world, and then to help militant Islamists to come to power across the Middle East and South Asia.

Many in the U.S. government, including President Obama himself, see the contradictions from which American foreign policy suffers. Their declarations show that they understand the need for new, cooperative approaches. However, because of the nature of American decision making, without a congressional mandate their words cannot be translated into policies.

Unwilling to change, the American bureaucracy wants to change the world to make it conform to the American rules of the game. These policies are not the result of a conscious choice of the American people, but a visceral reaction of the bureaucracy that doesn’t want to question its habits. Unfortunately, these are the policies that are the easiest to pass through the Congress – they create an impression that America is still “in charge”.

The policies of the American bureaucracy run contrary to the imperatives for global prosperity – they prevent the adaptation of the “Atlantic” global order to the increasingly “non-Atlantic” world.

But how sustainable is the American global role when the country’s resources are bound to shrink in size relative to the resources of the rest of the world, and when its influence is in relative decline compared to the ascending BRICS and other emerging powers?

The short-term American interests are in conflict with the long-term ones. At the moment, only a small part of the U.S. elites understands the increasing tension with the rest of the world that this conflict creates, undermining future American leadership.

What will happen if the American policies continue in the same direction? At the moment, the vision of Captain Porter and Colonel Mykleby is not winning in the corridors of power in Washington, DC. A new national consensus will inevitably come, but it won’t be tomorrow.

When Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history,” his message reflected the feelings of the vindicated American elites. They thought that the natural order of things has been achieved. While the world kept moving on and ahead, American elites enjoyed an unstoppable rise of the stock markets, a flow of cheaper goods from China and a jump in the values of their houses. However, more than from hard work, this prosperity came from the privileged economic and political position the United States acquired. Since then, unwilling to sacrifice its good life, America tried to leverage this position to the fullest, spending the money it has borrowed from the world and throwing its weight around to scare potential challengers.

Eventually the world will find its way, with American leadership of without. In the latter case, what Brzezinski feared would come true. The fall of the American influence will finally provoke the reassessment of the U.S. position in the world by the American public. America that understands its true self-interest, with its entrepreneurial spirit, with a renewed confidence in its economy, will not need to throw its weight around to succeed.