America: Indispensable Nation, Or Indispensable Partner?

One of the many strange things about the current U.S. election is that the fight on foreign policy is over whether or not to accept the reality that the world has changed since Madeline Albright coined the term "indispensable nation" as secretary of state 18 years ago.

America and its global role have been redefined during those 18 years; we are no longer the indispensable nation, we are the indispensable partner, and there is a big philosophical difference between those two ideas. The indispensable nation -- like the individual entrepreneur, i.e. Donald Trump -- takes independent risks to protect its own status. The indispensable partner leads and takes risks to protect the stability of its network -- the new joint ventured world -- and to grow that network.

The joint ventured world is synonymous with the business concept of joint ventures -- pragmatic partnerships in which companies (sometimes rivals) jointly undertake an investment for mutual profit, each contributing assets and sharing risks. The joint ventured world springs from the globalized economic inter­dependence of countries, altering the traditional concept of sovereignty.

In 1848, when England was at the height of its global power, British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston said in a speech to Parliament that Britain had "no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies, our interests are eter­nal and perpetual." Palmerston's words have been used over the last 168 years as one of the definitive statements on how the singular power can maneuver to protects its interest around the world.

His words no longer ring so true today. If the topic is leading an interconnected and globalized world, the narrowness of Palmerston's statement is as outdated as mercantilism.

Of course as specific situations evolve, every country will still act in what it perceives to be its own interest, more or less according to Palmerston's rule. But the differences now among the globalized, joint ventured nations are twofold. First, self-interest includes not only your country's success, but the success and economic wellbeing of your partners, whether those be China, Germany, or Japan. Second, and this is as important, success is based on the stability of the system. Stability is the obvious key; without it no global economic and political alliance could work and grow, and lack of stability in any part of the system threatens the entire globe.

Think of this in reference to modern network the­ory. Power today must be found in leading the network -- being what in network theory would be called the central node. This is much more complicated and demands a much more delicate strategy than building a coalition of the willing. The cen­tral node is the point where the most important lines meet and then move on to connect to other nodes and lines. But leading the network also implies a concentration on the economic and politi­cal wellbeing of the network leader. If the central node is not healthy, then the network is vulnerable. Which brings us back to the question: Is the United States up to the task of leading a joint ventured world?

Can the American people, who have heard consistently since 1945 that America is the singular leader of the free world and who have in part wrapped their personal identity around that concept, now accept globalization's demands of more intrusive interlinked international relations? Or does this become both belittling and frightening? Politically, and in terms of foreign policy, the prestige of being the indispensable nation, of being the global cop, along with the nationalistic overtones that were derived from that idea, had offered enough positive feedback to dampen America's reoccurring dream of isolationism. But as that feedback dissipates, the fear of change directly translates to the building of walls, which is the exact opposite of the foreign policy that America needs to continue to prosper and grow.

Just as the United States is finally freeing itself of energy dependence, a situation that forced its foreign policy to disproportionately concentrate on energy-producing regions, the slow demise during the past 40 years of the United States' isolated continental marketplace has brought new and less easily defined foreign policy challenges. While what happens in the Nigerian oil fields or Saudi Arabia becomes less important to America, what happens in much more elusive areas such as Beijing real estate or the actions of the European Central Bank becomes more important.

Today's geopolitical environment, shapeless and chaotic, no longer calls out for a singular world leader, but instead for a managing partner to guide and promote stability within the system -- the indispensable partner in a networked system of interrelated relationships.

But politically and culturally, can America, whose experience has been to be the hegemon, now adapt and change its role to that of the indispensable partner in a globalized, joint ventured world? Or, as a culture, is the subtlety and nuance needed to lead in a networked multipolar world now beyond us? Under the Obama administration, with some caveats, our foreign policy had begun to adapt to the joint venture model. The question now is whether the American people, who are both the recipients and originators of its foreign policy, agree to continue with a foreign policy based on economic realism. Will they understand that by backing away from the role of indispensable nation, America is not demonstrating weakness, but just the opposite, is showing a clear understanding of the restraints and the opportunities in the globalized, joint ventured world? Or will the Ameri­can people, frightened by the severe economic and technological changes that have been brought on by globalization, demand that America's foreign policy revert back to the old-fashioned good guy/bad guy view of the world?

Edward Goldberg teaches international political economy at New York University's Center for Global Affairs. He is also a Scholarly Practitioner at Zicklin Graduate School of Business, Baruch College where he specializes in globalization. The main points in this essay have been taken from his new book, "The Joint Ventured Nation: Why America Needs A New Foreign Policy" which will be released this week by Skyhorse. This essay first appeared in Real Clear World