The cover of Professor Lieber's new book, featuring the words Indispensable Nation on a dark background.
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The International Order Benefits When America Plays Its Part, Georgetown Professor Argues in New Book

In his second inaugural address, President Bill Clinton (SFS’68) urged the nation to accept its role as a global leader in the 21st century. “America stands alone,” he said, “as the world’s indispensable nation.” 

Robert Lieber borrows the phrase for the title of his forthcoming book, Indispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in a Turbulent World, wherein he lays out an argument for the United States to maintain a leadership role in the international order, despite considerable domestic backlash to the notion. 

“The U.S. role is essential.  We can’t do everything, but our engagement and leadership is indispensable.” Lieber observes, “this does not require serving as the world’s policeman or sending troops into ‘forever’ wars, nor does it require that the country be omnipotent. What is indispensable is America’s active performance of a role that no other democratic country is able to undertake and that is a catalyst for allies and other countries to collaborate in facing security threats and in sustaining a more secure, rules-based world order.”

Festering Division Prevents Action

A portrait of Robert Lieber wearing a patterned tie and dark gray sports coast.
Prof. Robert Lieber

In the 25 years since President Clinton’s address, much has changed. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of revisionist powers, especially China, a growing diffusion of economic power, and America’s foreign policy retrenchment under recent presidents, have shaped a changing international environment.

On the domestic front, the bipartisan consensus that characterized much of America’s international engagement has sorely eroded, with greater public reluctance to bearing the burdens of world leadership in maintaining alliances and the rules-based order established after World War II.

Lieber emphasizes that bitter political divides between right and left make it harder to sustain a coherent and effective foreign policy, while many politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle now view America’s international standing as an obligation, rather than an asset. Many are wary to assert America’s prerogatives abroad. 

“The domestic basis on which leadership capability rests is threatened,” Lieber says. “Political polarization, deep disagreements across the political spectrum, gridlock in Congress and profound changes in culture and national identity are all fundamental obstacles to America being able to lead in the world.” 

This international reluctance has left democracy and human rights undefended in times of crisis. 

Emboldened Despots Abroad

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and then a wave of democratization and rapid economic globalization, many hoped that these changes would keep aggressive countries in check and produce a new peaceful era. This optimistic economic determinism, absent an active role from the United States, hasn’t worked.  “Nor has the assumption that if we show our adversaries we mean no harm, things will change,” says Lieber. “That view deprives them of agency. It ignores the motivations of authoritarian leaders like Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and the Iranian mullahs, who seek to expand their power and dominate their regions, and threaten global order.”  

Responding to the threats these and other revisionist countries pose requires broad cooperation between the U.S., and our allies. 

“It’s more difficult, the challenges are greater and we have a problematic domestic situation, but the necessity is there,” Lieber argues. “If we shrink away from our role, the world will be more violent, disorderly and corrupt. It will be less democratic, less respectful of human rights and less observant of international law. And it will be more threatening to our national security”

Written before Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine, and published in its wake, the brutal aggression is evidence that America cannot abdicate on her responsibilities, Lieber argues. 

“Meanwhile, the bipartisan consensus that has emerged on aiding Ukraine, I hope, suggests a more receptive environment for the argument I’m making,” Lieber says. 

An Emeritus Professor, Lieber previously served as the Chair of the Department of Government and Interim Chair of the Department of Psychology. He is the author or editor of eighteen books. Indispensable Nation will be published by Yale University Press on September 20.  

-by Hayden Frye (C’17)