American Global Leadership at a Crossroads

The role of American leadership in the world is under scrutiny at home and abroad from our economic competitiveness to our handling of the "Jasmine Revolution" and our response to current crises in Japan and most visibly in Libya.

In these most recent crises, fault lines have emerged over whether the right kind of American leadership is the unfettered and visible exercise of power or a more subtle orchestration of collective action and shared responsibilities when called for. This debate likely foreshadows the major foreign policy themes of the next presidential election. What will matter most in shaping perceptions both at home and abroad are the ends and not the means.

This question is no longer confined to the corridors of the foreign policy establishment but has spread in town halls, classrooms and companies. Even the president's State of the Union Address called for greater math and science skills in our schools while noting gains in these areas in countries like China and India.

To better understand what the U.S. can do to maintain and build upon its leadership position, Meridian International Center and Gallup recently convened leaders from the government, the diplomatic corps, the private sector and non-governmental organizations. The catalyst for this gathering is a new Gallup survey of over 116 countries that reveals surprising resiliency in the perception of U.S. leadership around the world.

Throughout 2010, the global average median approval and disapproval levels of the job performance of U.S. leadership held relatively steady at 47% and 21% respectively. On a regional basis, perception of U.S. leadership held or gained in Africa, Asia and Europe, all of which witnessed significant investment of U.S. time and attention, yet declined in Latin America and the Middle East.

While many views were expressed, a broad consensus emerged on five steps we could take in 2011 and beyond that would contribute to U.S. security, prosperity and leadership around the world.

First, we should get our own house in order. U.S. leadership in the world depends on basic fundamentals including a strong economy, fiscal discipline and an education system that emphasizes excellence in math, science and innovation. This extends to the economic health required to sustain a strong national defense and honor our security commitments.

Second, we should seize this moment in the Middle East to help build civil society, by rewarding those who reject extremism and seek economic opportunity and a voice in their government. This assistance, both public and private, should focus on entrepreneurship and job creation.

Third, we should continue the "3 D" agenda of Diplomacy, Development and Defense, with an emphasis on public-private initiatives such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and the kind of humanitarian efforts which demonstrate our commitment to the aspirations and needs of people throughout the world.

Fourth, we should advance the development of free and fair trade and the open markets that has been repeatedly called for by the United States. Many of our friends and allies are depending on our commitment to these principles.

Fifth, we need to get smarter about the world. The next generation of Americans will have to compete and lead internationally. From the halls of congress to the classroom, it is vital for Americans to be knowledgeable about the world and connect with their peers in other countries.

How Americans see themselves also will affect the role we play internationally. Today 66% of Americans think that the U.S. should play a leading/major role in solving international problems compared to 75% in 2009.

The rise of other global powers has also focused world opinion on the alternatives. Over the past two years, global perceptions of Chinese leadership have declined from medians of 38% to 31%, a not-insignificant difference of 16 percentage points from the 47% median approval of the U.S., according to Gallup. Though many around the globe say they "don't know" about Chinese leadership, this figure undoubtedly reflects China's growing international role and the world-wide implications of sustaining its rapid economic growth.

Positive perceptions of U.S. leadership are not an end in themselves. Some argue that they should not even be a goal. It is, however, indisputable that our future prosperity and security depends on strong international economic and political relationships. As we have witnessed recently, it is not enough to have a strong relationship with a regime alone.

As the debate over American leadership continues it is important to recognize that our leadership position is not a choice but a responsibility. While perceptions of how we do things matter, it is the outcomes of our actions that matter most.

Stuart Holliday is President of Meridian International Center and a former Ambassador to the United Nations.