President Obama’s speech on the intervention in Libya served
to highlight a trend in US foreign policy: America no longer leads; it selectively sponsors.
He avoided the idea that the US initiated the intervention in Libya. This was not accidental. Obama was rebuffed in his efforts to push prescriptions on environmental policy in Copenhagen, share
the military burden in Afghanistan and deliver economic coordination at successive G20 meetings. He has discovered that America finds it easier to play a crucial supportive role in sponsoring
global initiatives rather than set the agenda.
The American public, and many of its politicians, are blithely unaware that American legitimacy has nose-dived around the world, despite the president’s personal popularity. They still
believe that the role of the US is to lead, the alternative being politically unacceptable. But a third option has now emerged: sponsoring (or muscularly enforcing) global initiatives.
This trend is well illustrated by events in Libya. The call for intervention was first implored by the Libyan rebel forces, then supported by the Arab League, sanctioned by the UN and then
aggressively pursued by the French and British. There were no American fingerprints to be found. True, the Americans have played a vital role in organising and implementing military operations; but
they have not led in the traditional sense.
Obama’s conservative critics have retreated to the tried and trusted claim that the US is once again acting as ‘the world’s policeman’; a role, they say, it can no longer afford.
But there’s a fundamental difference here. This isn’t the thinly veiled unilateralism of the Iraq war. Nor is it the Balkan war, where the US led a NATO coalition without UN approval.
This is quite a different animal: one of legitimate enforcement, sanctioned by the UN.
Nor is the example of Libya unique. In several important areas, the US has chosen to define its national interest broadly and support polices multilaterally. Since 2001, for example, the Bush
Administration has implemented the UN’s anti-human trafficking protocol. The US State Department set up the annual ‘Trafficking in Persons’ report, publically evaluating allies and
adversaries alike. Through a combination of cajoling, assistance and threats to other governments, the Bush and Obama administrations have worked with their European counterparts to ensure that
governments throughout the world have introduced programmes intended to reduce trafficking and aid victims.
The same is true of American efforts to tackle piracy in accordance with the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea. Again, few voices are raised against aggressive American behaviour as 15 of
its ships routinely patrol the shores off Somalia. And it isn’t all about the use of force. American technical advisors are currently assisting their counterparts at the Fukushima nuclear
plant, as US soldiers provide humanitarian assistance to Japan’s stricken population as part of international efforts.
Sponsorship strategies benefit America as much as its partners. Unlike the military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, they are cheap, pose a low risk to American lives and withdrawal is relatively
easy. And, as the photos of Libyan civilians waving the American flag attest, they help to restore America’s image abroad.
Americans at home, therefore, face a paradox: they enjoy an overwhelming military capacity, have a muted taste for adventure, but still remain committed to global engagement. Big foreign policy
initiatives are not on the agenda. But the determination to sponsor those that are consistent with America’s image of itself and the world is increasingly central to its future.
Simon Reich is former director of research at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House in London, and is currently a professor at Rutgers University. This article was drawn
from his recently published Global Norms, American Sponsorship and the Emerging Patterns of World
Politics. His next book is titled Goodbye Hegemony, co-authored with Richard Ned Lebow.