American leadership in a globalized world


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On Feb. 10, 2009, F.W. de Klerk, former president of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner, will present “Bridging the Gap: Globalization without Isolation.” The lecture is the Lewis E. Harris Lecture on Public Policy, part of the E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues. The opinions in this essay are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Thompson Forum or other sponsoring organizations.

By F.W. de Klerk

If the world has become a globalized village, there can be little doubt that—for the time being—the United States is its mayor and its chief of police. America’s role as de facto global leader bears with it heavy burdens and responsibilities:

*The United States has to spend a disproportionate share of its national wealth on the upkeep of its global military capability.

*Its preeminence makes it a target for disaffected groups all over the world.

*The price of preeminence is, and always has been, unpopularity. The United States is likely to be criticised, whatever it does.

How then should America react to this burden? When the United States first ascended the stage of world power at the beginning of the last century, President Teddy Roosevelt’s approach was to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” He said that by so doing America would go far. He was right.

The big stick is undoubtedly necessary. After the terrorist outrage of Sept. 11, 2001, it was essential for the United States to use its big stick against international terrorism.

But it is equally important to remember Teddy Roosevelt’s advice “to speak softly.” It is much easier to start wars than to end them. Also, the outcome of war is always uncertain. In the same way, great powers should think very carefully about beginning military adventures far from their shores with few sure allies in very volatile neighborhoods.

Another question is whether the United States—as a human rights-based democracy—has the will to remain involved in long, difficult and expensive overseas ground conflicts for indefinite periods. There are clear limitations to the use of the “big stick.” It is essential to deal with clear and present threats—when the big stick can be wielded swiftly, accurately and effectively—but it is problematic when it requires long, costly and unpopular operations on foreign soil.

That is why the United States should also consider the necessity of speaking softly. Speaking softly requires a multilateral approach to international crises. It does not mean that the international community must forgo the option of using the big stick; but it does mean that if it is finally used, there will be less criticism and a greater chance of success.

The speaking softly option also recognises that long-term solutions can be achieved only by addressing the root causes of conflict: They are poverty, repression, ignorance and fanaticism.

In a shrinking world, the problems of one region will inevitably become the problems of other regions and ultimately of the whole world:

*Diseases like AIDS—which first appeared in Africa—do not observe international boundaries;

*As we are now witnessing, the subprime crisis here in the United States is impacting on economies all over the world.

*Conflicts and instability in distant societies can also reverberate throughout the whole international community.

*Whether we live in the first world or the third world, we all share the same fragile global environment.

Problems of global development, global security and protection of the global environment can be dealt with only if the international community works in concert. The United States can—and must—play a pivotal leadership role in this process—but it cannot achieve success alone.

The United States should take the lead in

*Tackling the problem of underdevelopment and continuing third world poverty;

*Promoting conditions in which good governance, democracy and basic human rights will be enjoyed by all mankind; and

*Finding peaceful solutions to the conflicts that continue to afflict the world—and particularly intercommunity conflicts and the impasse between Israel and Palestine.

The United States, as the last remaining superpower, will inevitably have to play a disproportionate role in addressing these challenges. It is part of the burden of world leadership. Above all, world leadership requires firm and continuing belief in, and commitment to, the ideals for which the United States stands.

It should be remembered that most of the great civilizations declined and disappeared from the world stage because they lost belief in the ideals that inspired their birth and growth. In shouldering the burden of world leadership, Americans should not forget why their country became so preeminent in the first place. The key to addressing its global role may be for the United States to resist the temptation of becoming absorbed into what it is accused of doing wrong. It should perhaps redouble its commitment to the things that it has done right.

In the final analysis, the greatness of the United States does not lie in the undoubted strength of its armies, its navies and its air forces: It lies in the values and ideals of personal and economic freedom that it represents. If it can remain true to these ideals, it will succeed in carrying out its historic global leadership role.


President de Klerk’s lecture will take place Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009, at 7:00 p.m. at the Lied Center for Performing Arts, 12th and R Streets, Lincoln, Neb. All lectures in the E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues are free and open to the public. To reserve a seat in advance, contact the Lied Center at 402-472-4747 or 800-432-3231. You may also pick up tickets in person or download a ticket order form from the Thompson Forum Web site at and order by mail or fax. Tickets for the de Klerk lecture and all the spring lectures will be available beginning Jan. 5, 2009. The lecture will be streamed live on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Web site,, and aired live on Lincoln’s TimeWarner Cable Channel 21 and KRNU 90.3 FM. For more information on this year’s Thompson Forum, go to


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