America and global public goods

Daily News Egypt
6 Min Read

America is currently transfixed with the problem it has created for itself in Iraq, but the presidential candidates are also beginning to ask what principles should guide United States foreign policy after Iraq. In my view, a focus on global public goods – things everyone can consume without diminishing their availability to others – could help America reconcile its preponderant power with others’ interests.

Of course, pure public goods are rare. Most only partially approach the ideal case of clean air, where none can be excluded and all can benefit simultaneously. Combating global climate change is probably the most dramatic current case.

If the largest beneficiary of a public good (like the US) does not take the lead in devoting disproportionate resources toward its provision, smaller beneficiaries are unlikely to be able to produce it because of the difficulties of organizing collective action when large numbers are involved. While this responsibility often lets others become “free riders, the alternative is no ride for anyone. The US could gain doubly, both from the public goods themselves, and from the way they legitimize its preponderant power in the eyes of others. America can learn from the lesson of the 19th century, when Great Britain was a preponderant power and took the lead in maintaining the balance of power between Europe’s major states, promoting an open international economic system, and maintaining freedom of the seas.

These issues remain relevant today, and the establishment of rules that preserve access for all remains as much a public good now as it was then, even though some of the issues are more complex. Maintaining regional balances of power and dampening local incentives to use force to change borders provides a public good for many (but not all) countries. Similarly, maintaining open global markets is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for alleviating poverty in poor countries even as it benefits the US.

Today, however, global public goods include new issues – not only climate change, but also preservation of endangered species, outer space, and the “virtual commons of cyberspace. A reasonable consensus in American public opinion supports ensuring both these and the “classic global public goods, even if the US has failed to lead on some issues, notably global climate.

There are also three new dimensions of global public goods in today’s world. First, the US should take the lead in helping to develop and maintain international laws and institutions to organize collective action to deal with not only trade and the environment, but also weapons proliferation, peacekeeping, human rights, and other concerns. Others benefit from the order that such efforts provide, but so does the US. Likewise, while unilateralists complain that the US is constrained by international regimes, so are others.

Second, the US should make international development a higher priority. Much of the poor majority of the world is mired in a vicious circle of disease, poverty, and political instability. Financial and scientific help from rich countries is important not only for humanitarian reasons, but also to prevent failed states from becoming sources of disorder for the rest of the world.

Here, too, America’s record is less than impressive. Protectionist trade measures often hurt poor countries most, and foreign assistance is generally unpopular with the American public. Development will take a long time, and the international community needs to explore better ways to make sure that help actually reaches the poor, but both prudence and a concern for soft power suggest that the US should take the lead.

Finally, as a preponderant power, the US can provide an important public good by acting as a mediator and convener. By using its good offices to mediate conflicts in places like Northern Ireland, Morocco, and the Aegean Sea, the US has helped in shaping international order in ways that are beneficial to other nations.

The Middle East is the crucial current case. It is sometimes tempting to let intractable conflicts fester, and there are some situations where other countries can play the mediator’s role more effectively. Even when the US does not want to take the lead, it can share leadership with others, such as with Europe in the Balkans. But often the US is the only country that can bring parties together.

When successful, such leadership increases American soft power while reducing sources of instability. The US can also encourage other countries to share in production of such public goods. Welcoming the rise of Chinese power in terms of that country’s becoming a “responsible stakeholder is an invitation to begin such a dialogue.

Nevertheless, the US is likely to remain the world’s preponderant power even after it extricates itself from Iraq. But it will have to learn to work with other countries to share leadership. That will require combining the soft power of attraction with the hard power of military might to produce a “smart power strategy for providing global public goods.

Joseph S. Nyeis a professor at Harvard and author of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

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