Simon Reich

Goodbye hegemony?

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.

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