CFR Presents

Asia Unbound

CFR experts give their take on the cutting-edge issues emerging in Asia today.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


When the United States Abdicates the Throne, Who Will Lead?

by Elizabeth C. Economy
February 6, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up to reporters as he waits to speak by phone with the Saudi Arabia's King Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst U.S. President Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up to reporters as he waits to speak by phone with Saudi Arabia's King Salman in the Oval Office on January 29, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)


President Donald J. Trump’s initial forays into foreign policy suggest a desire to abdicate the throne. Not his own position as president of course, but rather the United States’ position as the world’s preeminent power—both as a driver of a globalized world and a defender of the traditional liberal order. He has withdrawn the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Asia-Pacific trade pact that would have cemented U.S. leadership among the economies that make up 40 percent of the world’s GDP. He has claimed that climate change is a hoax and wants to raise the U.S. fossil fuel industry from the dead. He is moving forward to build a wall to prevent Mexican citizens from crossing through to the United States, and he has issued a ban on Muslims traveling to the United States from seven different countries. (Whatever happened to the “welcoming pledges” that cities all across the United States adopted in the late 2000s to help immigrants adapt and thrive?) His brand of “Make America Great Again,” rejects the notion that American greatness depends in large measure on values that underpin the current global system. Thus, President Trump has little interest in supporting—much less leading—a globalized world.

Who, then, can fill the vacuum? Leading in an era of globalization requires three things: domestic institutions that promote the free flow of goods, information, and people; the economic wherewithal to shape world affairs; and the vision to look beyond one’s own immediate interests. Surprisingly, it is not difficult to find countries that fit the bill. To begin with, there are countries that epitomize open markets in the form of free trade and investment. Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand achieve top status, but they are too small to drive the world economy. China as the world’s largest trading nation would certainly qualify in economic heft but it fails the test of openness, ranking 144th on Heritage’s “Economic Freedom” scale. The countries that rank high on both metrics include the United States, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan.

Also essential to a well-functioning globalized world is the free flow of information. Here, too, tiny countries take top billing. Estonia and Iceland rank first and second in net freedom. But Canada, the United States, Germany, Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom follow closely on their heels. China, in contrast, ranked last out of the sixty-five countries evaluated by Freedom House, earning it the title of “worst of the worst.”

Globalization also relies on the free flow of people. Unsurprisingly, large liberal democracies dominate the top group. The countries perceived as having the most open immigration policies are Canada, Australia, Germany, Singapore (an exception to the rule), and the United States. To be fair, however, the countries that bear the burden of the largest number of refugees are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, and Ethiopia.

While openness to the flow of goods and services, information, and people is critical to leadership in a globalized world, countries must also demonstrate the capacity to adopt the interests of the broader international community as one’s own. For example, when disaster strikes, who can be counted on to help? In terms of humanitarian assistance, the United States stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world, spending more than twice as much as the United Kingdom, the second largest donor. Germany, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, and Canada rank next in line.  Several of the same countries—the United States, Germany, Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom—top the list for donations to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees; and financial support to meet the Ebola crisis in 2015 brought out a similar group of supporters: the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Sweden, Japan and Canada. While the United States and China have received credit for their leadership on climate change, neither breaks into the top twenty for actual performance, ranking 34th and 47th respectively in Germanwatch’s Climate Change Performance Index. Instead, look to the United Kingdom and Germany among the large economies, along with Denmark, Sweden, and Morocco, for true leadership on the issue.

Finally, there is the issue of will. What country is ready to succeed the United States? China was quick off the starting block. At the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering of political and economic elites in Davos this past January, Chinese president Xi Jinping used his star turn to assert Beijing’s desire to wear the crown. Yet China is a mere pretender to the throne, demonstrating none of the qualities necessary to support, much less lead, a globalized world. Justin Trudeau, in contrast, replied to President Trump’s ban on Muslim refugees by welcoming the refugees to Canada, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has long kept the door open to refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East.

The reality may well be that there is no one, individual country that can replace the United States. Instead, an informal alliance of countries may need to step up to the plate. Germany, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom all emerge as important pillars of a globalized world, with different combinations playing a central role on different issues.  And in some cases, smaller countries may become the true leaders. After President Trump announced a ban on American funding for overseas non-governmental organizations that provide abortion services, for example, the Netherlands emerged to rally a group of twenty-odd countries to begin to fill the $600 million funding gap. Many Americans will undoubtedly despair that the United States is no longer the essential power. What really matters, however, is that the values and institutions that the United States helped create and sustain for more that seventy years are strong enough to withstand the loss of its leadership.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Jim Pursley

    Donald Trump’s hold on power is only one serious error from running into impeachment difficulty. I agree with the two main points in your article – that there is no heir apparent to be global hegemon and a Coalition Of The Willing (my words, borrowed of course) pick up globalization’s pieces in an ad hoc way. But which one pillar is the most crucial to maintaining shared responsibility for events and movements outside of one’s borders which do not immediately threaten national interest nor national security? Is the lynch pin to be found in economics – in supply chains and foreign markets? Protectionism can easily quash global trade flows though not all at once. And protectionism in the U.S. is not a simple process, though the Executive has authority to “punish” rule breakers (whose rules?).

    I’ll dispense with the other possibilities for globalization’s lynch pin and say that I think that personal identification is probably the strongest test to see if globalization endures. But personal identification with globalization will need to rally with whatever common cause globalists can find. Meanwhile, income inequality will worsen as automation strips jobs from the rolls – apparently transportation workers (mostly male) are next on automation’s guillotine.

    Welcome to the post crisis world.


    I enjoy your podcasts, E.E., please keep them up. A podcast on globalization is surely warranted, then another – and another.


  • Posted by D.Hayward

    The accept image of the United States in the world of smaller nations
    is the final arbter of all conclusions.
    The continuing stream of information about the superior U.S control
    of all aspects of Medical/Structural/Electronic. is I believe simply for their home consumption

  • Posted by Steele

    In the post-war, U.N., World Bank and IMF environment, U.S. citizens (read: taxpayers) have been led through an increasing array of fiscal taps on income (i.e. rising taxes). Between the expansion of domestic entitlement programs, expansions of our foreign trade ambitions (read: subliminal colonialism), rising exports of arms and war material instead of peaceful commerce, and supporting both our’s and the militaries of half the world’s “free” nations with money and expensive weapons systems, we are just about “tapped out”, in terms of willing support for this American “supremacy”. Whoever made us “God” in the sense that we have to provide a living and entitlements to half the planet ?? Let’s let the recipients of this historic largess grow up and start to become “big boys” now and earn their own allowance for a change. Then — just perhaps — America will be able to become “great” again. I guess that makes me a “populist”, though I detest labels.


    As always , Elizabeth Economy provides excellent perspectives and
    insights …her basic question about who will lead is probably the most important long term issue in world affairs today and her criteria
    is very valid . I would add one more attribute that is essential…
    a record of political stability and the prospect of political stability in such a leader.
    Thus , if this criterion is added to her list , China’s ” candidature”
    is less formidable ..if Europe can get its act together in the next few years ,it could be a contender …as would the much overlooked ASEAN group..if they can develop the kind of visionary leadership that originally brought about European unity ..Economy’s “informal
    alliance of countries ” is an useful thought but, in practice, too
    cumbersome and diffused …before any action can be taken by such a group coordinating negotiations will be necessary …imagine this happening every time an actionable situation arises ..

    Nonetheless, congratulations to Economy for her farsighted thinking ….. others who see themselves as global pundits and proclaim
    their views daily , have a lot to learn from Economy’s approach..

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required