We are again in a contest of ideas and values. It is not a military contest. A new grand strategy cannot rely on military preeminence, since force and coercion are counterproductive when pursuing political goals that require winning agreement from nations with whom we are unlikely to ever find ourselves at war. Nor can defeating terrorism serve as an organizing principle. While only the United States has the means or the ideas to pursue a world ruled by law rather than force, being irreplaceable does not guarantee leadership, particularly when we face a skeptical global audience that includes powerful nations eager to challenge American ideas on how international relations should work and ready to assert regional authority against the global power.
One response to the leaks would be to wait, do nothing, and hope that the Snowden effect will simply go away. But inaction guarantees damage. An apology would be ludicrous, given the behavior of other countries. A recitation of slogans is inadequate. The best response to the leaks and those who trumpet them is that the justification for our actions is not exceptionalism (or hegemony) but the continued pursuit of peaceful international relations based on the beliefs that have shaped American policy since it became a global power. A world in which America is less capable or steps back will be neither pleasant nor safe (a point that escapes both European leftists and Congressional isolationists). The applause that greeted the leaks from a not overly astute audience obscures this danger. The Snowden effect is a warning of how our influence has been damaged-and provides an opportunity to rebuild it.