The U.S. Leader the World Needs
31 October 2008By Chris Patten
Around the world, the U.S. presidential election campaign has attracted as much
attention as domestic political controversies in each of our own countries. The
interest the world has taken in the U.S. vote is the best example of the United
States' soft power and a lesson in democracy from the world's only superpower.
If only we could all vote as well as watch and listen, because the outcome is
vital for everyone around the world.
What does the world want -- and, perhaps more importantly, what does it need --
from a new U.S. president?
Much as some may hate to admit it, anti-Americanism is a sentiment that has
been fed and nurtured during the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency.
Yet the world still needs U.S. leadership.
Yes, we are witnessing the emergence of China, Brazil and India as important
global economic players. Yes, we have watched the humiliating fall of Wall
Street's masters of the universe. Yes, U.S. military prowess has drained away
into what Winston Churchill called "the thoughtless deserts of Mesopotamia,"
and its moral authority has been weakened by events in places from Guantanamo
Bay to Abu Ghraib.
All that is true. Yet the United States remains the world's only superpower,
the only nation that matters in every part of the globe and the only country
capable of mobilizing international action to tackle global problems.
A new president's first task will be to return the United States' economic
competitiveness and self-confidence. It will not be easy to rein in
overspending and overborrowing, to restore the real family values of saving,
thrift, responsibility and fair reward. Achieving these goals is bound to
involve a greater regard for social equality, after a period in which the very
rich have been able to protect a "Roaring Twenties" lifestyle.
With the United States turning away from its global role of borrower of last
resort, the rest of us will need to sharpen our competitive edge to sell in
other markets. What is imperative is that this should not be impeded by a
return to protectionism. A new U.S. president would do well to remember the
disastrous consequences of protectionism in the 1920s and 1930s. President
Herbert Hoover's failures should be a sanguinary lesson.
We all look to the next U.S. president to re-engage with the world community
and international organizations, accepting that even a superpower should accept
the rules that apply to others. The United Nations is far from perfect. It
needs reform, as do the bodies that provide global economic governance. That
will take time. But a necessary if not sufficient condition for change is the
U.S. commitment to and leadership of the process. Forget the distraction of
trying to create an alternative to the UN -- the so-called League of
Democracies. It won't work.
We want a new president who will aim to make a success of the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty renewal conference in 2010 by scrapping more weapons,
abandoning research into them and challenging others to do the same. That would
be the best backdrop to establishing tougher surveillance and monitoring,
beginning to engage with Iran and searching for a way to involve India and
Pakistan in a global nuclear agreement.
Ahead of that, a new president should unleash the United States' creative
potential in boosting energy efficiency and developing clean technologies. It
would be a welcome surprise if a comprehensive follow-up to the Kyoto treaty
could be agreed next year. But at least we should aim to agree on the process
that will move worldwide discussions in the right direction and, as part of
that, the United States should aim to engage Europe, China and especially India
on technological developments like clean coal.
The U.S. relationship with China will be a key to prosperity and security in
this new century. I do not think that a struggle for hegemony is inevitable or
that it would be desirable. The United States should focus more attention on
China, without ever pretending that Beijing's record on human rights can be
swept under the carpet. China cannot sustain its economic development without
political changes and environmental improvements.
In the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered wise advice to
the next U.S. president upon his retirement. Israel and Palestine have become,
he said, the hopeless and bloody prism through which U.S. diplomacy often seems
to see the world. It has long since been time to move on, making a sustained
drive for the sort of settlement that was almost achieved in the years of Bill
There is a paradox in all this. The world has for years called for a
multilateral approach from Washington. When we get one, will the rest of us --
Europe, for example -- actually respond with sufficient commitment and drive?
It would at least be a welcome challenge to be required to put our efforts
where our mouths have been.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, is chancellor of Oxford
University and a member of the British House of Lords. © Project Syndicate