Battle in Print: The domestic limits to American international leadership after Bush

Tara McCormack, 7 October 2008

If the rest of the world could cast a vote in the American elections on 4 November, there is no doubt which candidate would become president. A recent BBC poll conducted in 22 countries showed Barack Obama was the most popular candidate and it was generally believed that relations between America and the rest of the world would improve were he to become leader. A poll carried out in the US at the same time showed that similar opinions prevailed there concerning the likely effect on America’s reputation. Obama is widely supported in Europe as the candidate who can both restore the rest of the world’s faith in American leadership and who will embark on a less aggressive and unilateral foreign policy. When Obama went to Germany in July a staggering 200,000 people gathered to hear his speech in Berlin: pictures from the event resemble scenes from a rock concert. Whilst it was not so clear exactly what the assembled Germans liked about Obama or his policies, one thing he was certainly loved for was not being George W Bush or Republican. 

Obama’s trip to Europe did not impress everyone of course. The McCain camp dismissed it as a stunt to try and gain a bit of celebrity status. It may even have done some damage to Obama’s standing at home, his intense European popularity perhaps reminding some US voters of the misconceived Guardian campaign during the 2004 elections, during which the newspaper provided the names and addresses of thousands of voters in Clark County, Ohio (finely balanced between Republicans and Democrats) and called upon readers to write to the voters and urge them not to vote for Bush. Americans, like most people, what ever they might think of their government, do not take kindly to being told how to vote and needless to say the campaign did not have the desired effect. In fact, Clark County swung decisively to the Republicans (a case of it was the Guardian wot won it for Bush perhaps?). It is highly unlikely however that Obama shares the belief that non-Americans should have a say in choosing the American President. Obama’s trip was not simply about gaining some ersatz celebrity or an international ego-trip but about showing voters at home that he could be the candidate who would restore international legitimacy to American leadership.

During the Cold War the legitimacy of American leadership was broadly uncontested in the West, but it has become more problematic since the turn of the century. In particular, the legitimacy of American leadership is widely perceived to have been seriously eroded by George W Bush’s presidency. For example, during the Iraq war, there were sharp disagreements between America and its European allies. Although the disagreements were not about political principles (for example, no European state argued for non-intervention) nonetheless the open disagreements about what kind of intervention there should be revealed that even staunch allies of America were less inclined to accept American prescriptions. The Iraq war and its aftermath exposed the difficulties facing the US in asserting its post-Cold War role in the world.

Thus the restoration of legitimate American leadership has been an important part of Obama’s policy platform. In his major policy statement published in Foreign Affairs last year, ‘Renewing American Leadership’, Obama promises to renew American leadership diplomatically, morally and militarily. This concern with the loss of American legitimacy is not limited to the Democrats however. Despite Republican criticism of Obama’s trip to Europe, McCain is just as acutely aware of the problematic implications of the loss of legitimacy for American leadership in the world. In McCain’s major policy statement, ‘An Enduring Peace Built on Freedom’, also published last year in Foreign Affairs, he argues:

America needs a president who can revitalize our country’s purpose and standing in the world, defeat terrorist adversaries who threaten liberty at home and abroad, and build enduring peace. … Our next president will need to rally nations across the world around common causes as only America can. … The next president must be prepared to lead America and the world to victory - and to seize the opportunities afforded by the unprecedented liberty and prosperity in the world today to build a peace that will last a century.

Various suggestions have been mooted by both candidates and their foreign policy advisors about new ways of organizing internationally that can lead to a renewal and revitalization of American leadership in the world. McCain, for example, has suggested a ‘league of democracies’ (an idea developed at length by McCain’s foreign policy advisor, Robert Kagan, in his new book, The Return of History and the End of Dreams), whilst Obama’s foreign policy advisors Ivo Daalder and James Linsay have suggested a ‘concert of democracies’. Both candidates have stressed that under their leadership America will work more ‘multilaterally’ in the international arena, change policy towards Iraq and have pledged aid and help for Africa.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of these proposals (which are beyond the scope of this essay) there is a more fundamental limitation to any attempt to revive American legitimacy through foreign policy or in the international arena. Neither Obama nor McCain will be able to rehabilitate American leadership through new international institutions or even through foreign policy actions such as withdrawing from Iraq. Although it may sound paradoxical, what both Republicans and Democrats fail to grasp is that international legitimacy of the kind that caused the West to accept American leadership after World War Two must derive, ultimately, from domestic politics. International legitimacy cannot be restored solely through actions in the international sphere.

American hegemony was accepted by Western capitalist political elites after the Second World War because they all had a shared interest in defending their domestic political arrangements against Communism. Thus the problem of American international legitimacy today is not simply a result of unpopular international policies nor an unpopular leader. The real source of the loss of international legitimacy lies in changes in domestic politics. With the demise of serious domestic political contestation in the late 1980s, and the subsequent shift in the West to more managerial, non-ideological governing programmes, American hegemony became more contentious. International legitimacy depends first of all on ideological coherence in the domestic political sphere.

Obama and McCain are not the only politicians who fail to understand that domestic politics are constitutive of international politics, and to seek to resolve what are essentially domestic matters in the international sphere. With the end of the domestic political contestation which gave content and direction to ideological programmes, political parties of all shades have been left floundering with no clear orientation, future goals or political programme (Laidi). In fact, lacking a meaningful political programme at home, post-Cold War British, American and European governments of all persuasions have attempted to reverse the relationship between domestic and international politics, skipping straight to the international sphere, and imagining this can help them re-forge a coherent domestic political identity.

During the 1990s both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair launched wars which were not authorised by the UN and were explicitly for ‘values’ rather than material or political national interests. These wars were aimed primarily at a domestic audience. Policy under Bush did not represent a total change in direction: the War on Terror has also been a war about ‘values’, and an attempt to define what America stands for in the absence of any domestic consensus. Whether grandstanding about global poverty or civil wars on other continents, or fighting wars for ‘values’ against terrorists, political elites have sought to resolve their domestic problems in the international sphere (Hammond).

Whichever candidate becomes the next American president, we are unlikely to see much of a change in foreign policy. Neither candidates’ foreign policy statements read any differently from Bush’s notorious 2002 National Security Strategy; both present a world of new threats, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and both reserve the right to pre-emptive strikes. Obama, for example, might pull troops out of Iraq earlier than McCain, but has shown himself to be an enthusiastic supporter of potential American intervention elsewhere and he has picked ‘liberal hawk’ Joe Biden as his vice president. Whichever candidate wins, he will continue with an interventionist foreign policy as he will be continue to attempt to resolve domestic political problems, both in terms of defining American values and attempting to restore legitimacy to American leadership, in the international arena.

So will either Obama or McCain be able to legitimise American leadership after Bush? If Obama wins the election then it is possible that there will be a temporary rise in American popularity, but in the long run the answer to this question is probably no, whichever candidate wins. As has become apparent throughout 1990s and 2000s, action in the international sphere which is not linked to a coherent domestic political programme and values has only a limited effect, and cannot serve to create the legitimacy for leadership that derived from domestic politics.



Dr Tara McCormack lectures in international relations and politics at Brunel University. Tara has a BA in Politics from Queen Mary College (University of London) and an MSc in International Relations and Government from the London School of Economics and a PhD from the Centre for Study of Democracy, University of Westminster.


Philip Hammond (2007), Media, War and Postmodernity (London: Routledge)
Robert Kagan (2008), The Return of History and the End of Dreams (London: Atlantic Books)
Zaki Laidi (1998), A World Without Meaning (Routledge)
John McCain (2007), ‘An Enduring Peace Built on Freedom’, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2007
Barack Obama (2007), ‘Renewing American Leadership’, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007

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