Does America still want to lead the world?

April 18, 2012

For all their bitter differences, President Obama and Governor Romney share one overwhelming challenge. Whoever is elected will face the growing reality that the greatest risk to global stability over the next 20 years may be the nature of America itself.

Nothing – not Iranian or North Korean nuclear weapons, not violent extremists or Mideast instability, not climate change or economic imbalances – will shape the world as profoundly as the ability of the United States to remain an effective and confident world player advocating its traditional global purpose of individual rights and open societies.

That was the conclusion of the Global Agenda Council on the United States, a group of experts that was brought together by the World Economic Forum and that I have chaired. Even more intriguing, our group tested our views on, among others, a set of Chinese officials and experts, who worried that we would face a world overwhelmed by chaos if the U.S. – facing resource restraints, leadership fatigue and domestic political dysfunction – disengaged from its global responsibilities.

U.S. leadership, with all its shortcomings and missteps, has been the glue and underwriter of global stability since World War Two – more than any other nation. Even with the world experiencing its greatest shift of economic and political power since the 19th century, no other country is emerging – or looks likely to emerge – that would be as prepared or equipped to exercise leadership on behalf of the global good.

Yet many in the world are questioning the role of U.S. leadership, the governance architecture it helped create and even the values for which the U.S. stands. Weary from a decade of war and strained financially, Americans themselves are rethinking whether they can afford global purpose.

The election campaign is unlikely to shed much light on these issues, yet both candidates face an inescapable truth: How the U.S. evolves over the next 15 to 20 years will be most important single variable (and the greatest uncertainty) hovering over the global future. And the two most important elements that will shape the U.S. course, in the view of the Global Agenda Council on the United States, will be American intentions and the capability to act on them.

In short, will Americans continue to see as part of their identity the championing of values such as individual opportunity and open societies that have contributed so richly to the global commons? Second, can the U.S. sufficiently address its domestic challenges to assure its economic, political and societal strength while the world changes at unprecedented velocity?

Consider this: It took Great Britain 155 years to double its gross domestic product per capita in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was the world’s leading power. It took the U.S. 50 years to do the same by 1950, when its population was 152 million. Both India and China have achieved the same growth on a scale and at a pace never experienced before. Both countries have more than a hundred times the population of Britain during its heyday, yet they are achieving similar outcomes in a tenth of the time.

Although China will likely surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy by 2030, Americans retain distinct advantages that could allow them to remain the pivotal power. Think of Uncle Sam as a poker player sitting at a global table of cohorts, holding better cards than anyone else: a free and vibrant society, a history of technological innovation, an ability to attract capital and generate jobs, and a relatively young and regenerating population.

However, it doesn’t matter how good your cards are if you’re playing them poorly. Put another way, the candidate who wins in November is going to be faced with the reality summed up by the cartoon character Pogo in 1971 as he was trying to make his way through a prickly primeval forest without proper footwear: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Imagine two very different scenarios for the world, based on how America rises to its challenges.

The positive scenario would require whoever is elected in November to be a unifier, someone who can rise above our current squabbles and galvanize not only the U.S. but also the world around a greater understanding of this historic moment. He would address the larger U.S. issues of failing infrastructure, falling educational standards, widening deficits and spiraling healthcare costs. He would partner more effectively with rising powers, and China in particular. And he would recognize and act upon the strategic stake the U.S. has in a politically confident, economically healthy Europe.

The doubling of the global middle class by a billion people by 2030 plays into U.S. political and economic strengths, increasing demand for the products and services of information technology where the U.S. excels. Developments that improve the extraction of shale natural gas and oil provide the U.S. and some of its allies disproportionate benefits. Under this positive scenario, the U.S. could log growth rates of 2.7 percent or more each year, compared with 2.5 percent over the past 20 years. Average living standards could rise by 40 percent through 2030, keeping alive the American dream and restoring the global attractiveness of the U.S. model.

The negative scenario results from a U.S. that fails to rise to its current challenges. Great powers decline when they fail to address the problems they recognize. U.S. growth could slow to an average of 1.5 percent per year, if that. The knock-on impact on the world economy could be a half-percent per year. The shift in the perception of the U.S. as a descending power would be more pronounced. This sort of United States would be increasingly incapable of leading and disinclined to try. It is an America that would be more likely to be protectionist and less likely to retool global institutions to make them more effective.

One can already see hints of what such a world would look like.

Middle Eastern diplomats in Washington say the failure of the U.S. to orchestrate a more coherent and generous transatlantic and international response to their region’s upheavals has resulted in a free-for-all for influence that is favoring some of the least enlightened players. Although the U.S. has responded to the euro zone crisis, as a result of its own economic fears, it hasn’t offered a larger vision for the transatlantic future that recognizes its enormous strategic stake in Europe’s future, given global shifts of influence.

The U.S. played a dominant role in reconstructing the post-World War Two international order. The question is whether it will do so again or instead contribute to a dangerous global power vacuum that no one over the next two decades is willing or capable of filling.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

” . . . Americans retain distinct advantages that could allow them to remain the pivotal power. Think of Uncle Sam as a poker player sitting at a global table of cohorts, holding better cards than anyone else: a free and vibrant society, a history of technological innovation, an ability to attract capital and generate jobs, and a relatively young and regenerating population.”

I would have to dispute this “faith” – as it is certainly not based on facts or reality.

One point is correct – America is a gambler, the largest in human history. Its political system has now been hijacked by a very smart but very greedy, parasitic financial class. Under the tutelage of these elites and the pols they own, the American financial industry today is synonymous with TRADING (mostly OTC derivatives), i.e., GAMBLING, and that casino is now over US$700 Trillion (about 50 TIMES the American GDP). NO ECONOMY can withstand this sort of recklessness – and the results are predestined. Unless America gets rid of the gambling, there is no future. It is only a question of when (not if) the next financial meltdown is going to take place.

Yes, the gambling table is there, and Wall Street hopes that the foreign central banks would bring all their worth to the table. But many erstwhile players (German and China especially) have both decided after 2008 to BAN their banks from the massive gambling, while America doubled down, now trying to push the TPP, which unpublished key feature is to remove capital flow control by the member governments in the name of a “free market”, so that the banksters can expand their marauding.

A history of innovations is just that – a history. Today the smartest (not the wisest) of all young Americans all go on to chase the dream of becoming another Master of the Universe, devising even more convoluted scams to loot the productive Main Street. Note that despite the high notional values, derivatives gambling is purely redistributive (taking money from Main Street to give to the banksters), and is not productive – many would say counterproductive, by sucking out resources from the productive segments of society. Talk of enabling “market efficiency” is just part of the scam.

Since only a really tiny fraction of that “relatively young generation” can ever hope to reach the Master of Universe status, the rest of the generation are totally lost at sea, with no hope of finding jobs that will help pay back the hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans (y’see in America everything is bigger, including debts), thanks to the pols who with bipartisan support continues to take and generate whatever wealth the nation does not have, and forked it over to the banksters, to the detriment of everyone else (according to Bloomberg, $7.77 Trillion was given as low and no cost loans to the finance industry since the 2008 debacle. I submit that MOST of these too big to fail entities are actually bankrupt, but for this bottomless purse of unlimited (and unlawful) subsidies.).

It is hard to see how this faith is justifiable. Since 2008, the Dodd Frank Act’s provisions intended to rein in derivatives gambling by the finance industry had been deferred over 30 times, with bipartisan support, so up till today NOTHING had been done. Implementation is now deferred until after the Nov. elections, if ever.

If America is to lead the world, relying on a cargo cult mentality and refusing to address the real problems, will get you the same result (as the cargo cult).

Posted by Zhuubaajie | Report as abusive

You haven’t considered a third possibility.

Once the US disengages, there could of course be a period of chaos which is, as you put it, “a free-for-all for influence that [favors] some of the least enlightened players”.

But that period could pass after most major players realise the costs of such chaos. The UN could become a meaningful body for the first time. We would then have a genuinely democratic setup for the world rather than a single policeman with an inherent conflict of interest.

Your argument is a global variant of “What’s good for GM is good for America”. I’m sorry, but what’s good for America isn’t necessarily good for the world, and the sooner the world stops outsourcing global policy to the US, the better.

Ganesh Prasad

Posted by prasadgc | Report as abusive

Let the American people speak
The tired old parties Demo and Repo are killing our spirit

Posted by whyknot | Report as abusive

Exactly. Unfortunately, it’s hard to believe that our current president understands or agrees with the role and value of America, given his actions, policies, and “faculty lounge” pronouncements. And no president in my lifetime has done more apologizing for America than this president.

In a nutshell, this issue could encapsulate Romney’s presidential race with the following… “defeat America, vote for Barak Obama.”

Posted by Thucydides | Report as abusive

Obama is my shepherd I shall not think
He maketh me lie down instead of work
He leadeth me to welfare offices
He restoreth my unemployment
He leadeth me in paths of bureaucracy
For his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of factories
I will fear no job
For you are with me
Your ACLU and the Union
They protect me.

You prepareth a table before me;
In the presence of working saps;
You refillith my WIC card for free
My beer overflows.
Surely welfare and handouts shall follow me
All the days of my life.
And I shall vote for the house of Democrats, forever.

Posted by GLK | Report as abusive

I think that maybe Americans are just sick and tired of the rest of the world complaining that America is not solving all of their problems.

Then when it does step in, everyone complains about the manner in which it tries to help. The country can do no right. I’m certainly not saying it’s done everything perfectly, but none of its missions were easy.

That might explain the resurgence of the idea of telling the rest of the world to @#$% off and building “Fortress America” — something the country is fully capable of doing given its generous natural resource endowment. Although these days its more likely to be “Fortress North America”.

As for the ME, its a lost cause. It simply can’t be done. The region actually prides itself in being so backwards that every power that has ever gone there has bankrupted itself trying to develop the region. Hence, the “graveyard of empires” moniker given to Afghanistan.

Lets be honest, if the place was floating on an ocean of oil, we wouldn’t be there. There are far more cooperative regions who actually want to develop. Look at Myanmar.

Posted by CapitalismSays | Report as abusive

Does America still want to lead the world?

No, I would say most Americans do not want to lead the world they want to be wealthier than the rest of the world.

“the United States to remain an effective and confident world player advocating its traditional global purpose of individual rights and open societies.”

American citizens have more curtailed civil liberties than many citizens. If America is so open, try to get a simple break down of spending by federal agencies in simple English. It is not so easy.

To the rest of the article, I say:
End all foreign troop deployment.
End all foreign aid.
End unilateral free trade agreements.
Start direct democracy.

Posted by M.C.McBride | Report as abusive

A leader must be responsible and put his interests last and behind the interests of his flock. America has never kept the interests of other nations in mind. This is obvious and frequently stated by Americans themselves. Despite all the hype and constant self promotion by the western media (extensions of the American propaganda institutions), the world sees American and western hypocrisy and devious lies.

Murdering innocents for trophy hunting, urinating on corpses, rendition, bombing and widespread destruction of precious infrastructure in impoverished nations, sexual abuse and exploitation of women, instigating communal violence and ethnic tensions turning brother against brother, bribing and corrupting politicians, setting up puppet regimes and supporting dictators, overthrow of democratically elected governments that do not kowtow to American policies, etc. To date, America has murdered more people than the Nazis during world war 2, dropped more bombs on Vietnam than was used during the entire world war 2, refuses to abide by international court rulings, etc.

Nobody appointed America as the world’s policeman. America has never acted as a policeman but as a bully forcing its agenda on others. The world wishes that America will just disappear and stop troubling the world. America leads only in the minds of Americans.

Posted by WJL | Report as abusive

America will once again, lead the world. After we kicked our current socialist President out to the street. We have a Russian mole in the White House, and he must be weeded out this year. America and Americans will come back stronger than ever!

Posted by tularockstar | Report as abusive

America is the worst thing to happen to the world since hitler!

Some would even say ‘bring back hitler!!!’

One big set of criminal gangs, oligarchy and ruling class tyranny against the american people and the people of the world.

The first truly global dictatorship…

But what can you expect from a nation born of genocide, civil war, treason, imperialism and slavery??

Your years are over America, it was only ever going to be a short stay… soon enough the world starts to hate you for what you have taken from them, and what you have denied them.

Your country is built on the blood of slaves, foreign and domestic.. and the wealth of tyrants, foreign and domestic.

And your economic model cannot survive without constant oppression, invasion and murder.

I see so many similarities between America right now and Rome just before it fell from within, rotten to the core…

And when it comes, which it already has, for those who wonder why it’s happening, think about all your fake, disposable morals… all your vague, hypocritical ideals, and all your psychopathic patriotism.

And know that you are ruined because you chose ‘America’, instead of humanity.

Posted by Austell | Report as abusive

The present leaders of the United States of America are groping in the dark, the blind leading the blind. Hence, America is going through a humbling succession of, moral decline, economic disaster, and military defeat. They are the tail, not anymore the head. This is after years of self exaltation. Remember wisdom: “He who exalts himself will be humbled, he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Now is the time for the United States of America to humble herself by focussing on her economy based on the principle “love your neighbour as yourself”, and all the other things will be taken care off. How to do this is as described by “the World Monetary Order”.

Posted by carlvzdj | Report as abusive

Your article touches on economic progress while posing a humanistic question. My answer is that no one seems to realizes that expensive victory of WWII is being lost on Americans, who continue to invent new technologies – while growing more distant from their neighbors, both foreign and domestic. That sort of psychological regression combined with raw power, does not bode well for our political infrastructure, or the advancement of truth and justice.

We could feed and house and educate the world, but we choose to extract every last bit of savings from our own citizenry.

Maybe the Amish Calvinists are right

Additionally, with growing populations and dwindling resources, America as the R & D leader of the world cannot last, because we do not own the majority of the world’s resources. Will we fight China and Russia to steal Russia’s wealth? Brazil’s?

May God have mercy on our souls.

Posted by blogoleum | Report as abusive

A change in influence may serve the world well. The past century has been dominated by the two greatest wars in history, not to mention the smaller conflicts in which we have alienated many foreign peoples. The US no doubt has serious domestic challenges it must face regardless its standing in the world arena. Unfortunately our dysfunctional political system will not allow us to face those challenges. The US is hamstrung by a system that caters to big money and elects people based on their capacity to attract money rather than their potential to lead. Until we reform our system of campaign finance we will not be capable of competently leading our country much less the world.

Posted by BobWR | Report as abusive

Give Americans their freedom back.

We do not want to rule the world, or more accurately, pay the price for a bunch of disconnected plutocrats to rule the world using our lives and our benefit money. Put too much money in one place and you get what we have — a “Willy Sutton” “republic” which is dominated by people interested in Government because “that is where the money is”.

Restructure our country to make it more democratic and less easy to force into offensive wars.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

@Austell Very well stated.

For american to continue she will have to start acting in the open as she has acted for decades in secret. No country in all recorded history has interfered with more sovereign countries, has murdered more innocents, has stolen more resources, has run rough shod over more democratically elected leaders than the usa.

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

Give me a break!

The reason the is “going down the tubes” IS because we think we are the (self-appointed) savior of the world!

I suggest we get off our messianic binge and come back to reality.

Without a more nationalist outlook, the US will not survive much longer, much less 20 years.

The whole problem with the US is that its wealthy-driven government somehow thinks they are global citizens, regardless of much that damages the US.


Your present attitude (as evidenced in this article) is what is destroying this nation!

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

I believe there is a significant role for America in global affairs. It is not however, as THE global leader. Adherence to a set of principles that do not transform America into anything but a money centric society with increasingly restricted freedoms for those who are unfortunate enough to be poor, a disadvantaged underclass that borders on the third world and a perception that personal, not social responsibilities are of first import, does not deserve to be the world’s policeman. America is morally and financially bankrupt.

As a student many years ago, we learned more about America than our own country. You had it all; a great education system; leadership that worked; equality for all was the goal – what happened? While you have always had a bent towards the individual, you believed that pulling others up helped everyone. Now, people can be reduced to poverty through no fault of their own by disease or accident. If they are unfortunate not to be able to afford insurance, you imply they didn’t work hard enough. At the same time, you set them up to fail with huge student loans and limited opportunity to advance as only the lucky few can make it. Yet you continue to vote the people into power that are significant contributors to the problem.

Bush was a significant contributor to your decline – he seemed to ignore that you are members of a world community, not the only member. Obama has done great things to bring you back on track, but you need to get your own house in order. Pay for the programs that are important to you, reduce the cost of education to make it affordable again, create a safety net (not a trough for freeloaders) that gives people dignity and that may well mean sharing the wealth across a broader population than the 1%.

Your insistence on laws that result in Trayvon Martin type situations leave the rest of the world speechless considering how violent your society has become, yet everyone retains the right to own weapons that were never considered when the 2nd Amendment was drafted. Personal rights have been trampled as the banks have run roughshod over home owner rights. This isn’t the sign of a well run country based on law and order. It is more like the wild west where those with money can get there way or pay their way out of a problem. This isn’t a free society by any standards except yours.

Good luck to you all and the rest of us too.

Posted by askew | Report as abusive

Hello everybody:-) This article opens itself to an answer as long as a book :-) I will try to be concise.
I’m not American. I don’t think that all the American contribution to the human race was negative as much as I don’t think it was all positive. Like any other nation/person there are good things and bad things. Too long to make a list. Let’s be positive and look at a great contribution: You put a man on the moon. Really.
I’m giving this example not only because I’m a space nut. But because it shows that where there is a will there is a way.
That was national endeavour. If you would have put the same effort in curing cancer or finding alternative fuel you would have succeeded.Nothing is impossible when an entire nation put itself to it.
Going back to the article. let’s try to divide the answer in section.
American internal policy: You stopped to be a democracy. You are not even a capitalistic society. You have become a nation guided by greed, in the hands of a Feudalistic Class. They keep themselves in power through propaganda and government based ignorance. Fear is their best tool. Communism, Saddam, Osama Bin Laden and now back to Communism.And they will never give up their power, even if it means the end of everybody else.
America internal economy: It is insane to accept a status quo where 1% has more than the other 99%. A society that accept this is doomed to fail. Before even thinking about growth, job creation, exporting etc the first issue to sort is the distribution of the wealth created by a nation. And by a nation I mean the CEO, the waiter, the cop, the teacher, the IT guy, the garbage man, the doctor, the metalworker etc. They all contribute to a nation wealth, they are all entitled to a “fair” slice of the pie. I don’t want a CEO to live on food stamps, but 16.5 million in an year? When there are people without an home/food? It doesn’t make sense and it will only lead to collapse/revolution.
America in the world: you are still the big boy in the block. But things do change. All empire rise and fall. This is unavoidable. And it is not only you, it is the western world in general. We had a very long run. But nothing is forever. The question is of course what to do. And more or less I give the same answer. Especially now that we live in a world much smaller than 100 years ago (and far more populated) we must try a different approach. we must try to distribute the entire world production in a fairer way. We are all different and we will stay all different. But we must learn how to share this little blue marble. Historically we are at a turning point in the sense that we have reached a point when we can really destroyed ourselves and our planet. Or with atomic bombs or through overproduction passing through another 100 ways. It is really time to change. And going back to the man on the moon it is also possible.
I really wrote too much. Sorry. I think I made my point.
Solutions: education, respect, moderate greed.
That is it.

Posted by anissimene | Report as abusive

The author writes, “The negative scenario results from a U.S. that fails to rise to its current challenges.” It is already failing to rise to its current challenges, domestically. Symptoms include the virtual elimination of the great triumph of human space exploration, the looming failure of a healthcare system due to partisan bickering, crumbling infrastructure, failure to implement mass transit on a useful scale, ongoing internal strife regarding energy production, “leaky” borders, spotty and unfair immigration polices, and so forth. In my view, we should pause to put our own house in order and then, maybe just maybe, we can serve as a better example to the world. Once we are a better example again then perhaps we should focus first on the Western Hemisphere which we have horribly ignored for decades. Let the EU, the Arab League, the African Union, and ASEAN take care of the East for awhile. We’ve got enough problems in our own backyard – – such as the Cartels.

Posted by explorer08 | Report as abusive

The US is leader of the free world and the foremost advocate of moral rectitude. The problem is that the US is operating in a world of nations the majority of which are governed by criminals. It is not surprising, therefore, that conflict and death ensues as the US attempts to subdue these rogue states. On any journey it is normal to encounter squalls and storms but these blow over in time. And as they say in the US ‘When the going gets tough the tough get going’. To those who are envious and prejudiced against the West let them provide their populations with free education so that they can ultimately compete for the fair distribution of world resources that they claim they are denied. Those who are interested in identifying the nations in which morality resides should consult ‘Transparency International’ for a list of the world’s most corrupt nations. Since levels of corruption are a surrogate for illegality these tables demonstrate that only the West is qualified for the leadership role and that the malicious calumnies of the enemies of the West are without foundation

Posted by apophthegm | Report as abusive

I continue to be amazed at the simplistic thinking and downright false conclusions that are arrived at by blaming in various unsophisticated scenarios the President for America’s economic problems. If only serious time would be spent studying the long process that brought us to this point. If people would only consider one point fairly, with no preconceived or political agenda: the massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to the top 1%; how this was initiated and sustained; who gained by this shift; how were the majority convinced that such a policy would benefit them and if this “trickle down” policy is correct why is this the first generation of Americans who can not reasonable expect to do better than their parents.

Posted by 1066ad | Report as abusive

Guess leading world is not a mission for the USA, but for the United Nations. If they lead with no demand or authorization by a leaded sovereign country (I’m talking about coercitive acts, not business), it’s like a foreigner version of a legal adult person receiving orders with no remuneration from a private party, a case of slavery. Moreover it’s implicit leaded people are inferior, unable to lead by themselves, in disagreement with article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on discrimination. Both erga omnes matters.

Posted by Theckho | Report as abusive

The United States has issues. Tell me a country that doesn’t..
The US has been known for invention and innovation since the 1890s and has been the predominant world leader since WWII. Since then, the world has never experienced a leader such as the US, a roll, I might add, that was not asked for, but taken. That alone deserves respect. Who else wanted it bad enough to take it? That is what our country stands for.
That being said, our nation today suffers from incompetence and greed. The rich have the power, will do anything to stay in power, then give the power to their already powerful friends. This is killing our nation. It is dragging the soul out of the American spirit. It is making the middle class lazy, the poor determined but unable. Someone needs to stand tall for our nation with the morals and attitude of our great-great grandfathers, not a bought face made for television.
Internal first: fix our education system. Higher education should be free. Would it not implore our citizens to strive for the most important trait of all: knowledge? Why is my public university not paid for by my, and our, taxes? No, they must go to creating more government jobs therefore creating more red tape to stop the man we need from leading out nation. Fix our political system. Democratic or Republic? Two individuals of an entire nation with working minds and differing abilities? It’s like ordering at a world renown restaurant but only being offered pigs in a blanket or bean sprouts. Fix our health care. Citizens of this nation are protected, but not from disease. We can not bring back the lives of people who hypothetically would die in a tragic event, but we can help a lower-class single mother who has suffered injury or illness. And we should. Become sustainable.
Become. Sustainable.
Lead the World. Help everyone to sustain.

Posted by BlakeLeon | Report as abusive -council-2012/?doing_wp_cron=1342667915. 1901381015777587890625#view/global-agend a-council-2012/councils/the-united-state s/

Posted by BlakeLeon | Report as abusive

Chinese are copycats, they don’t respect copyrights and are always spying the US original ideas then making modified copies. After that they take advantage of developing countries to export their products at cheap prizes.

Posted by w.sanchez | Report as abusive