Due regard for these potent realities, however, was doomed by the word “behind.” The idea was ill-named and ill-explained, and the foreign-policy gods descended with lethal fury. They likened the phrase to a military officer commanding his troops to charge while he sipped tea at headquarters. “Behind,” they intoned, reeked of weakness and indecision, of fear to wield American power in a world still quietly craving U.S. leadership. Unsurprisingly, the slogan’s originator remains anonymous, surely trembling that Bob Woodward might soon unmask him or her.
Here are the useful insights hidden within “leading from behind,” and here’s how they can be put together to fashion a new strategy for using international power in the 21st century. First, the “behind” must be banished. If foreign-policy hands the world over agree on anything, it is that only Washington can lead on major international issues for some time to come. Americans shouldn’t shrink from this; it’s still the best way to protect U.S. interests. If Washington is to lead effectively, however, it must do so in a new way — through genuine partnerships. Unless others are treated as actual partners, they won’t follow, and any resulting coalition will lack the power to prevail. From time to time, Obama has suggested that this is indeed his approach to foreign policy, but as in so many matters he has never proved the point.
These future partnerships must be grounded in the idea of mutual indispensability, wherein the United States is the indispensable leader and other countries are the indispensable partners. This is not the Lone Ranger and Tonto, nor many Tontos without the Lone Ranger. Rather, as Washington takes the lead on important matters, other countries will buy in because their interests are served. It works because all parties understand that a coalition provides the best opportunity to achieve common goals — that mutual indispensability is a power multiplier. It doesn’t take a Bismarck to see that most international problems can’t be solved without such power partnerships.