Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Still in Demand: Why the World Needs America

Robert J. Joustra


America is having its existential humbling this election. Viewed from the outside, this was first a little cathartic, but now it’s more than a little nerve-wracking. The adolescent antics have yielded the kind of crippling introspection of bipolar youth: a nation that oscillates from thinking it is the greatest ever, to thinking it is the worst and nothing can ever be made right; an America that has everything to offer the world, or one that can barely hold its own affairs together. Somewhere in between lies the promise of the next century—perhaps not a hubristic American one like the last, but one with unapologetic American leadership nonetheless. Because to critics inside and outside America who say that America isn’t needed, that its work is finished, or that America owes the world nothing, it has to be said: they are wrong. America is still in demand, and the world needs it.

It is, at this point, an almost ritual confession to say that we live amidst a politics of fear. Anxiety might be a better term. I have called it the politics of apocalypse, those sometimes unsettling revelations about who we are at the “end of things,” at a turning point in global order. Our wealth is growing, but at very different paces for different people. Those lucky enough to have pensions are rightly nervous about their fragility. Our society is wracked with deep division, the kind we’re not at all sure our public vocabulary and our legal institutions are capable of managing. The national (and monumental) financial deficits of America are symptomatic and are not themselves the crucial problem. The deficit that is really ruining the Republic is that of trust.

Americans are not at all sure they trust each other, and they’re certainly not sure they trust the world. And it is this cycle of mistrust that can, and is having, ruinous consequences for the world. Neither major party presidential candidate has advocated a platform of open societies or open economies, the kind of liberal economic and political policy that has driven prosperity and peace since World War II. Donald Trump, while hard to understand clearly in many respects, is at least crystal clear on this: foreign competition is undermining American prosperity. He has threatened to dismantle the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and ignite a trade war with China (which holds the world’s largest foreign-exchange reserves in US dollar denominated assets ). Hillary Clinton, for whatever political reasons, has parted ways with the Obama administration on TPP too, and now denounces it. So it’s been left to outgoing Vice-President Biden in the pages of Foreign Affairs to offer whatever diminishing support remains for TPP in the month or so that the administration has left.

Globalization and the Economy

The world badly needs American leadership that can say two things clearly. First, globalization, open societies and open trade, are the driving mechanisms of prosperity and cooperation. When this vision first emerged after World War II, 8 percent of world GDP was in export (1950). Today it is almost 20 percent. Export-led growth and foreign investment have pulled millions out of poverty. Inside America, exporting firms continue to pay higher wages than those that only serve the domestic market. More than half of America’s exports go to countries with which it has free trade deals. Even the Great Recession of 2008, which exposed real, systematic problems with global financial infrastructure, has not undercut liberal economic order.

John Ikenberry observed, “The last decade has brought remarkable upheavals in the global system – the emergence of new powers, financial crises, a global recession, and bitter disputes among allies… Despite these upheavals, liberal international order as an organizational logic of world politics has proven resilient. It is still in demand.” Writes Daniel Drezner, “after the biggest stress test the world has seen in seventy years, the open global economic has endured.” It must endure because the only other option is sliding into pessimistic protectionism, deglobalization, stalled growth, plunging wages, and general economic apocalypse. Those who suffer the most during such cataclysms are not the fat cats and tycoons the occupiers have in their crosshairs, but the poor and the marginal, especially around the globe.

One of the greatest failures of the British leadership supporting the Remain side during the so-called Brexit referendum was their total inability, or at least tardy messaging, to articulate a full-throated defense of economic cooperation and integration. That the E.U. is dysfunctional in many spectacular respects is largely axiomatic, but its overall goal of open trade and open societies is crucial. Maybe this can be done other ways, leaving the Eurocrats behind, but America must not fail where some think Britain did. The world needs the next American president to know that American-led liberal economic order is still in demand, and why.

Second, American leaderships needs to name much more frankly globalization’s flaws. Economists can sometimes get so excited about their growth line-graphs they forget that growth happens unevenly across sectors, and that real people are losing their jobs. In this significant respect, Donald Trump is right: foreign competition has eliminated American jobs. Quite a lot of them, in fact. Liberal economic defenders are sometimes so blinded by the fact that the GDP line is moving up (more jobs are being gained than lost), and the net benefit to the American economy of prosperity over the whole system, that they neglect the creative destruction which has become a cul-de-sac of unemployment and marginalization, especially for the rural poor.

These economists sometimes shrug this off a little too cavalierly, claiming that the economy will self-adjust as some kinds of labor move abroad where there is “comparative advantage” (in this case, cheaper labor), while other industries in America grow (generally higher educated, better paid labor). This may be true, but it happens over a long period of time, and the now unemployed wonder why their government ignores, belittles, and condescends their plight, with graphs of coast-driven prosperity from which they seem perpetually cut out. In other words, political economy needs to stop lapsing into economic modeling about how it will all be better someday, and start frankly naming that some demographics in America are on the short-term losing side of globalization and that they need more help – now - to plug into the comparative advantages that America brings to the world.

Because in this equally significant respect, Donald Trump is wrong: the former American jobs that have been lost overseas are, in the immortal words of Taylor Swift, never – ever – getting back together. Some of those jobs that went to China are now even leaving China, to which they will never, ever, return. These economies have gotten too rich and the labor too expensive for low-skilled labor, and so those jobs are also going elsewhere. The only way America will get those manufacturing jobs back is if it suffers total economic collapse to put it on par with a Vietnam or a Bangladesh so its labor can compete.

American leadership needs to affirm, at home and abroad, that the System Works, but not for everyone, right now, and not in the same ways. The solution isn’t blowing the system up, but rather making the system better. This requires frankly naming the failures and listening to the grievances of those cut out of the prosperity of globalization.

Globalization and Geopolitics

Geopolitically, the same argument has to be made. Stephen Walt took to the pages of Foreign Policy earlier this year to argue that the next American president should adopt a harder realism, one with a lot of retrospective lessons about the quagmires of American adventurism in the last two decades. But international politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

Take Aleppo, the new Grozny of the Middle East, according to The Economist. Syria has taken the form of long training exercises for Russian munitions and armed forces, with the fragile ceasefire brokered by America annihilated when Russia bombed aid trucks on September 19. Reports of bunker-buster, incendiary, and white phosphorus bombs now pour out of Aleppo. President Obama may have read his Stephen Walt, gun-shy after an uncertain Afghan surge and the debacle that has become Libya. Quoted in Vanity Fair the president seems convinced there is nothing more to be done. “Was there some move that is beyond what was being presented to me that maybe a Churchill could have seen, or an Eisenhower might have figured out?”

The next administration and US Congress will inherit this geopolitical brain teaser, because Russia setting the rules is nowhere near being in America’s – or the world’s – best interests. The repeated refrain of politics is often about choosing “the least bad option,” and while we may have plenty of criticisms of America’s role in the world, it remains – by far – the least bad option for global leadership. America may not be able to fix Syria, but somewhere between ceding the field to Vladimir Putin’s bombardment of Aleppo and landing an occupation force lies a world of foreign policy options that the world badly needs America’s help to find.

Who will be the power that brokers some humanitarian pause in the world’s most intractable conflicts? Will Turkey, with its failed coup and Kurdish agenda? Or China, its resource hungry calling card preceding it across Africa? Will Britain as it recovers and reorients from Brexit? What nation, other than America, retains the power, the intellect, and the moral resources to lead and to sacrifice. Like our economic institutions, our global political ones are undergoing an enormous stress test. Their fragility is real, and they will break or be mended under America’s leadership.

Or what about the near extermination, what the United Nations has called a genocide, of minority religions in Iraq and Syria? American leadership on freedom of religion or belief has been an essential catalyst for other states, once upon a time Canada, but still Britain, Germany, Norway, and others, on this increasingly besieged human right. Vice-President Biden’s somewhat sentimental axiom not withstanding, there is real truth that “America’s greatest strength is not the example of our power but the power of our example.” That example, too, is still in demand.

Why the US Elections Matter to the World

No election on the planet attracts the kind of attention, criticism, and anxiety as the American presidential election. In the world of foreign affairs, certainly, it may be the most important post on the planet. I’m not an American citizen, and I don’t get a vote (happily, my wife does). But I will live in a world with the consequences of the choices that Americans make in November. Presidents, congressional representatives, senators, the give and take of their work on trade, on immigration, on war, and peace, on the very fabric of our global order, will produce – however piecemeal and negotiated among themselves– the answers to who America will be, and how it will matter. Americans and the representatives they choose will decide whether that is a world where they are the humiliated victims of a world order they close the book on, or the protagonists of an open global society they will lead in.

That choice matters to a lot more than just Americans, and its consequences will reverberate far outside the United States of America. It will be felt in emerging stock markets across sub-Saharan Africa, in textile manufacturing in Bangladesh, in Colombia’s faltering peace accords, across the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, in homes pounded by Russian bombs in Aleppo. The world needs audacious and once idealistic Americans again. I hope we find some.

--  Robert Joustra (PhD, University of Bath) is a fellow with the Center for Public Justice and with the Institute for Global Engagement. He is director of the Centre for Christian Scholarship at Redeemer University College in the greater Toronto area, where he also teaches politics and international studies. His latest book is forthcoming from Routledge, The Religious Problem with Religious Freedom: A North American Case for Political Theology (2017).


Extending Justice Questions:

  1. What do you consider to be America’s role in the world? How has this changed and evolved over time? What do you wish it could be?
  2. What are some of the world issues that matter most to your friends and neighbors? What role do they think America should play on the spectrum between intervention and isolation? What ideas in this article do you think are particularly helpful in advocating for just and engaged American leadership abroad?
  3. Do any of the candidates for elected office on your ballot, other than candidates for president, play a role in helping to shape our foreign policy objectives? Think in terms of economics and trade, immigration, refugees, international religious freedom, military engagement, and humanitarian aid. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”