The need, even the necessity, for United States leadership in international affairs has, at least since 1945, been taken for granted by most of the world’s governments. Great international projects, including the United Nations itself, were carried out as the result of American initiatives. In the immediate postwar years when recovery and rehabilitation were an overwhelming priority, even the Soviet Union tacitly acknowledged US leadership and accepted it in practice in the work of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which was sponsored by the US. During the cold war, countries outside the Soviet bloc accepted the United States at its own valuation as “leader of the free world.” Again, in the euphoria of the immediate post–cold war period, especially in parts of the world stricken by man-made or natural disasters, the United States was seen as, in Madeleine Albright’s words, “the indispensable nation.”
Only in the twenty-first century has this unique and previously unassailable position been subjected to question and doubt. This is happening at a time when the traditional threat to peace, wars between great powers, has, for the moment at least, receded. It has been supplanted by a series of global threats to human society—nuclear proliferation, global warming, terrorism, poverty, global epidemics, and more. These challenges can only be addressed by collective action, led by determined and imaginative men and women. In the first years of the new century it would seem that leadership of that kind would still most effectively come from the United States. This would be acceptable to the rest of the world, however, only if there is an agreed set of consistent and sound policies evolved through consultation and consensus. Current United States policy does not meet that requirement. In view of the seriousness of the new threats, however, there is not a moment to lose.
Richard Haass addresses this situation in his new book, The Opportunity: America’s Moment to Alter History’s Course. Haass’s credentials are impressive. He has served in the State Department and the Pentagon under Presidents Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush. He has had ample practical experience of the difficulty of launching carefully thought out policies amid the ideological currents and political storms that dominate Washington—a political climate that has seldom been as eccentric or ideologically charged as it is today. In The Reluctant Sheriff: The United States After the Cold War (1998), written during the Clinton administration, Haass addressed the problem of how “to bridge the gap between the demands of regulating a deregulated world and a society reluctant to play the role of sheriff,” i.e., the United States. Under the Bush administration he served as director of policy planning for the State Department and was a principal adviser to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He is currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
A series of important but low-key disagreements with current US policy run throughout Haass’s book …