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Should America lead the world?

Mark Mardell | 20:20 UK time, Tuesday, 25 May 2010

President Obama at West Point AcademyPresident Barack Obama will outline his first National Security Strategy on Thursday. Much time and effort will be spent deciding on how it differs from President George W Bush's 2006 document, but I have a feeling he will duck the biggest question - America's role in the world.

The document will obviously centre on Mr Obama's mission to engage more with other countries. But it is easy to see that as a change of means, not ends.

There was a sneak preview of the president's likely approach at West Point this weekend when he said:

"We are clear-eyed about the shortfalls of our international system. But America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of co-operation - we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don't."

There will be the rather tired argument about whether engagement is weakness or strength. But the bigger question is whether America sees itself as a leader for at least part of the globe, first among equals in a multi-polar world, or a partner in a kaleidoscope of shifting alliances.

The former Mayor of New York, Ed Koch, has written an interesting article arguing that engagement with Russia and China has meant the US has not stood up for its allies and gives way to bullies in return for insubstantial kind words from the two big powers. But what struck me most forcefully was his take on Turkey and Brazil's talks with Iran, which he describes as "infuriating" and aimed at humiliating and denigrating the United States.

The former mayor's analysis may be rather simplistic. But it is true that while Mr Obama has recognised the growing importance of medium-sized regional powers, he hasn't really outlined what to do if they join together to oppose perceived American interests.

In a critical but friendly report on the strategy of engagement, the Center for a New American Security argues: "America as a nation appears unsure of its own role and voice in the world and is highly divided internally." It adds:

"It is time to renew America's capacity for global leadership by reaffirming the values and interests we share with friends, investing in a better understanding of the world around us, reaching out to a new generation of young people around the world, standing firmly on the side of justice and free­dom, and restoring America's moral authority."

The president didn't talk about "global leadership" in his West Point speech, but he did suggest that the US should mould the future.

"We have to shape an international order that can meet the challenges of our generation. We will be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well, including those who will serve by your side in Afghanistan and around the globe. As influence extends to more countries and capitals, we also have to build new partnerships and shape stronger international standards and institutions."

There is no question that some countries, including the UK, look to America for leadership, whether for sentimental or practical reasons. Should it be less ambiguous about giving that lead or a more humble partner in power?


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