Reputations are not derived on what something is or has been, but what people know about it. This holds as true for nations as it does for individuals. For most of its history, the United States has been the world's exceptional nation, the one that did things differently. Through its statements and actions the United States stockpiled a reserve of international goodwill. As a result, much of the world welcomed American international leadership during and immediately after the Cold War. However, memories are notoriously short in international relations and the pages continue to fly off the calendar.
Grand strategies are meant to last many years, so they require the support of future generations of leaders and policy makers. They will be implemented and followed during the careers of today's 30 year olds, who will then, at the ends of their careers, design these grand strategies' successors before moving into retirement. As such, grand strategies must be made with today's 30 year olds in mind or risk being abandoned by them as illegitimately derived by outdated mindsets.
If we mark the beginnings of a person's political awareness somewhere around 16 years old, we find that the average 30-year-old in the world today has roughly fourteen years of personal recollection of American foreign policy. He or she does not remember very much about the strategies and policies of Bill Clinton's first term (14-18 years old), and likely has no recollection of George H.W. Bush's prudence (10-14 years old) or Ronald Reagan's steadfastness (2-10 years old). Within his or her perspective, the idealism of Jimmy Carter, the social upheavals of the sixties, and the heroism of the Second World War are half-remembered history lessons and occasional Jeopardy! questions. What the average 30-year-old learned most clearly about American foreign policy happened during the second Clinton term and the George W. Bush presidency. So what do these fourteen years say about America in the world?
America got some things very right. It put terrorist organizations throughout the world on notice and, in many cases, on the run. It signed far-reaching trade agreements to improve the world trading system. It pushed peace in Ireland and peaceful pursuit of civilian nuclear energy, most notably with India. America also provided disaster aid for natural catastrophes and HIV/AIDS and malaria assistance for biological ones, and increased education support for millions in Africa.
However, America also got some things very wrong. It spent more than seven of the last fourteen years fighting an inconclusive war in Afghanistan and perhaps five of the previous six years doing so in Iraq. American missiles bombed tents in Central Asia and an aspirin factory in Sudan. Some of its most respected and trustworthy leaders provided public and incontrovertible testimony about Iraqi WMD that turned out to be false. The United States imprisoned foreign nationals without due process, tortured at least some of them to protect its own, and claimed throughout to be unconstrained by such niceties as the Geneva Convention. American exceptionalism in these years was more descriptive of the United States' bold claim that it was above the rules of international order than an honorific earned by its unusual greatness.
Finally, in many ways America failed to make good on the potential of these important years. The United Nations at sixty looked very much like the United Nations at forty. NATO gained new members, but not new purpose. American foreign policy continued its long transformation from military intervention in major contests with vital interests (First and Second World Wars) to medium- and small-scale conflicts with increasinly moderate interests (Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Panama, First Gulf War, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda) and, finally, to staying completely out of things completely regardless of interest (Rwanda, Sudan, and Georgia) unless faced with direct or perceived near-term attack (Afghanistan and Iraq). The United States failed to create new security arrangements to address important international problems such as nuclear proliferation (North Korea and Iran), smuggling, drug trafficking, slave trafficking, resource depletion, global climate change, and international piracy. It also failed to build international consensus around important concepts such as the legitimacy of peaceful Islamic governance, the viability of international law, and superior reliability of liberal economics.
America's history is full of greatness, but the sum of recent memories is not a powerful argument for the credibility of American international leadership. The past few years have shown an increasing difficulty in generating support for American initiatives among the international community, and American policy makers have become well aware of the effects of a tarnished reputation on overall American international power. Imagine, for example, the enormous task the current administration would face in creating an American-led international financial stability institution or building support for an international coalition of sanctions and/or military force to remove even obvious threats such as Iran's growing nuclear weapons capabilities. America needs its good reputation back so it can lead the world in meeting the next set of challenges effectively.
Appropriately, the new President's immediate actions represent its strategies of atonement. Recognizing that a lowered internal and external opinion of American moral authority weakened the United States, he moved to end some of the most damaging practices of the previous administration. He ordered the closing of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, a ban on interrogation practices that constitute torture, and began work on a final plan to withdraw American forces from Iraq. These were strong and necessary first steps toward restoring America's stockpile of international respect, the kinds of actions I described in many of my previous posts. Reinforcing them with other, larger actions in the coming months will do much to restore the world's high opinion of American values. This will set the stage for the presumed follow-up strategy, one aimed at reestablishing the world's acceptance of American leadership for vital international issues.