Fri, Sep 14, 2007 - Page 9 News List

US should be focusing on global public goods

Washington could go a long way toward lessening global antipathy toward it if it paid more attention to promoting international law, development and humanitarian issues

By Joseph Nye

The US is transfixed at present with the problem it has created for itself in Iraq, but the presidential candidates are also beginning to ask what principles should guide US 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 the US 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.

The US 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 far 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, the US' record is less than impressive. Protectionist trade measures often hurt poor countries most, and foreign assistance is generally unpopular with the American public.

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