The Ethical Hegemon

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"The Ethical Hegemon"

Ezra Klein, talking about John Edwards’ speech, made reference to John Edwards’ “focus on humanitarian works as a centerpiece of foreign policy.” I’ve sniffed around this subject a bit, and I think it’s worth saying that this isn’t quite what Edwards is talking about. The thing on his website about “restoring America’s moral leadership” isn’t just a throwaway line; there’s a substantive idea there.


Roughly speaking, Bush’s efforts to run American foreign policy in a robust, yet inept, neo-imperial manner has created a crisis of American hegemony. We’re still (by far) the strongest country out there, but the world’s become pretty unwilling to follow American direction on a wide variety of priorities. The result is John Ikenberry’s “Security Trap” — like quicksand, the harder we thrash around trying to accomplish things the more we alienate the world and the harder it becomes to do what we want, necessitating harder thrashing.

Ikenberry’s solution to this (and mine, and Bob Wright‘s) is institutions. The problem, according to us, is structural. What we need to do is address problems through rules and demonstrate a willingness to abide by the rules and see them enforced even against our special friends in the world (I’m just sketching this out since I really want to talk about Edwards, follow the links for more details).

Edwards, by contrast, sees a non-structural problem here. Bush, on this view, has basically denuded the United States of what you might call the moral capital it built up during WWII and the Cold War era. We’ve become, in essence, bad guys on the world stage. What we need to do, therefore, is commit some overweening acts of goodness — leading the struggle against global poverty and genocide — to rebuild our moral capital. With that done, it’ll then be possible to once again play a leadership role. Edwards’ advisor, Michael Signer, wrote that if we act in Darfur “As it did in the past, the world would most likely reward us with loyalty in other emerging trouble spots.” It seems to me that if President Edwards actually attempts to govern in this way, it’s not going to work, but I’ll save that for another day because I’d primarily like to focus on explaining (also: combating poverty and disease are good things to do even if you don’t buy this theory). The other thing to say is that even though I’m skeptical of Edwards’ solution here, he sees the same problem facing the country that I see — Bush’s policies have not only failed, but actually created a dynamic where it’s now very difficult for the United States to achieve most of our core objectives; one of the first orders of business needs to be breaking out of that dynamic.

Photo by Flickr user Alex de Carvalho used under a Creative Commons License

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