U.S. Leadership 50 Years Later : A certainty is now open to doubt

James A. Baker III was the 61st secretary of state

The 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings is an occasion to celebrate one of history's greatest military feats and to commemorate the memory of the thousands of soldiers --American and allied--who died achieving it.

But the D-day anniversary is also an appropriate time to reflect on American leadership--a leadership that today has been called into doubt as it has not since before World War II.

When, just after midnight on June 6, 1944, U.S. paratroopers of the 101st and 82nd airborne divisions began landing near the village of Ste Mere-Eglise, their action marked a historic landmark: the emergence of the United States as the senior partner in the Western Alliance.

In 1944, American preeminence reflected a startling sea-change. During World War I, despite our pivotal role in defeating Germany, the United States played junior partner to France and Great Britain. Even after our entry into World War II--in December, 1941--we continued to defer to Britain, already at war with Adolf Hitler's Germany for more than two years.

By June, 1944, however, the overwhelming preponderance of U.S. military might and industrial production had altered the Anglo-American relationship. Britain and our other allies, sometimes at extraordinary sacrifice, would play critical roles in final victory over the Axis. But American primacy within the Western Alliance was unchallenged.

It would remain unchallenged--despite occasional disputes among the allies--through the remainder of World War II and the four decades of the Cold War. Now, 50 years after D-day, that American leadership is in doubt.

Ironically, it is not a foreign power that challenges American leadership. Indeed, the United States today enjoys both a security and stature unparalleled in modern history. Our global adversary of more than 40 years, the Soviet Union, is extinct. Its chief successor state, Russia, no longer represents a conventional threat to the United States or Western Europe. China, though an economic force and regional military power, is as yet incapable of exerting influence on a global basis.

The United States also has no rivals for leadership among its partners in the Western Alliance. Despite economic strength, neither Germany nor Japan is prepared, for powerful historical reasons associated with their roles during World War II, to assume the mantle of Western leadership. And the European Union--as revealed in the tragicomedy of its policy toward the Balkans--does not possess the unity to assume a leadership role.

Rather, it is U.S. foreign policy itself that has called American global leadership into doubt. Granted, there have been some solid foreign-policy achievements in the last 18 months. The North American Free Trade Agreement was approved--thanks, in large part, to the personal engagement, however belated, of President Bill Clinton. Middle East peace talks achieved a breakthrough with the historic Israeli-Palestine Liberation Organization accord--a development inconceivable without U.S. efforts to pave the way. And the Administration has steered a staunchly pro-reform and pro-reformer course toward Russia.

Elsewhere, however, U.S. foreign policy is showing signs of disarray and drift--in formulation and implementation. The Administration and its supporters argue that the nation confronts a far more complex world than it faced during the Cold War. They are right. But that complexity, far from diminishing the need for U.S. leadership, increases it.

In March, U.S. troops finally departed Somalia--but not before enduring last October's tragedy in Mogadishu, a result of an ill-considered shift in U.S. objectives. The Administration's Bosnian policy, with its mismatch between rhetoric and reality, can be charitably described as confused. With Haiti, the Administration has reversed course again and embarked on the latest policy of the month.

On China, the Administration wants to have it both ways. For a year, it threatened to end most-favored-nation status if Beijing did not significantly improve its human-rights policies. China, of course, did nothing of the sort. But the Administration has extended MFN, anyway. And the Administration's stance toward North Korea appears to reflect a weakening of the no-compromise approach on nuclear non-proliferation.

During the Cold War, U.S. relations with the Soviet Union overshadowed all other foreign-policy concerns. Today, in contrast, no single issue possesses such salience. Instead, U.S. policy must address a range of issues--none individually decisive but cumulatively representing a test of U.S. interests and influence. Similarly, it is the cumulative effect of U.S. foreign policy that counts. And that effect, since the Clinton Administration assumed office, has been mixed, at best.

Constant shifts of policies, combined with rhetorical overreach, have rightly raised real concerns about U.S. resolve. Policies toward Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, China and North Korea have sent ambiguous signals about America's seriousness. As a result, there has been a perceptible erosion of U.S. credibility in Europe and elsewhere. That credibility is the coin of U.S. influence. Today it is being devalued.

The decline in U.S. credibility, unless reversed, has three potentially major negative effects.

First is among our allies. Since World War II, U.S. leadership has depended on the trust allies could put in America's word and the confidence they felt in our commitments. The more our rhetoric diverges from reality, the more that trust is undermined. And the more we resort to empty threats, the more that confidence is diminished. There is already a murmur of criticism among our European allies. Unless action is taken to signal clear U.S. resolve, it could become a chorus.

Second, a perception of U.S. weakness will raise hopes among potential adversaries. Last year's fiasco in Port-au-Prince, when a few dozen thugs caused the U.S. Navy to turn tail, has plainly emboldened the military regime there and made more difficult the task of returning Haiti to representative government. An accommodationist line toward North Korea will, similarly, not be lost on other would-be proliferators in such capitals as Tripoli, Tehran and Baghdad.

Third, and perhaps most important, a foreign policy in disarray undermines the domestic consensus in support of U.S. engagement abroad. That popular support, forged during World War II and sustained--despite the interruption of Vietnam--in the decades that followed, remains a precondition of effective U.S. foreign policy.

The Administration is not isolationist. Its stated foreign-policy objectives fall, by and large, within the internationalist tradition that reaches back to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nonetheless, foreign-policy missteps are playing into the hands of isolationists of the political left and right.

A recent poll revealed less than 15% of Americans have a clear idea of the country's foreign policy. This is bad news--not just for the Administration, but for U.S. foreign policy. Americans, it seems, are confused just when they need to understand most clearly America's stakes in the post-Cold War era.

The case for U.S. engagement abroad is compelling for any number of political, economic and historic reasons. But, as the polls make distressingly clear, the Administration has yet to make it.

As we watch the grainy newsreel footage of Utah and Omaha beaches, we cannot avoid being struck by how the world has changed since the summer of 1944. Americans of 1944--at the front and at home--possessed a certainty and optimism that seem so distant today. The Germany we spent so much blood and treasure to defeat 50 years ago is today one of our most trusted allies.

But one thing remains a constant, then as now: the need for U.S. leadership. A half century after D-day, the United States has achieved a unique position of power and prestige in world affairs. Attaining that position, as this week's anniversary reminds us, took leadership. So, too, will maintaining it.*


It didn't begin with Dan Rostenkowski. See Page 2.

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