Jake Sullivan, Distinguished Lecture at School of International Service, American University, Nov 8, 2012

Jake Sullivan, Distinguished Lecture at School of International Service, American University, Nov 8, 2012

(Summary of key points)

The world is changing.  Power shifts, new technologies, and empowered non-state actors are transforming the international arena.  And, according to Jake Sullivan, Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. needs to keep up with those changes, while still maintaining the leadership role that has characterized it since World War II.

During a talk  organized by the Transnational Challenges and Emerging Nations Dialogue, at the School of International Service on November 8, Sullivan gave his thoughts about the model of foreign policy that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have implemented.  For the past four years, he has travelled to 112 countries with Secretary of State Clinton, and seen “up close and personal” the role of the U.S. in the world.

The Obama model is based on three premises: that the United States still has great convening power, that other countries still look to it for leadership, and that the world is changing. 

“The key point is that effective leadership has to look different than it did 20 years ago, because the world looks different,” said Sullivan.

He described four core values that will fulfill the task.  The first one is “leadership with purpose.”  Sullivan commented that, as in the past, the U.S. needs to work “beyond self interest…driven by the desire to be on the right side of history.”  This, according to him, is important in order to counter perceptions created by the most recent wars that the U.S. “is not a friend.”

The second value is “leadership through burden sharing.”  The aim is to have mutual responsibility, respect, and dialogue.  He mentioned the sanctions imposed by multiple countries on Iran as instructive of how burden can be shared. 

Nevertheless, he highlighted the importance of the U.S. in solving such problems.  “While it is true that no global challenge can be solved by just any one country, no global challenge can be solved without us.”

The third value is “leadership through enforcement of the rules.”

Professor Amitav Acharya, who is the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and Director of TRANSCEND at SIS, said that the biggest challenge for US foreign policy in the coming decades is how to deal with the rising powers, who want changes in international decision making structures and rules. According to Sullivan, the U.S. has to keep the international order, albeit with adjustments to global changes. Acharya noted that the U.S. needs to be more clear about which rules it wants to be kept and which it won’t mind changed.

Sullivan emphasized that they cannot allow any country “to pick and choose” the rules. However, Acharya argued  that “Western countries are as selective as the rising powers. There is no guarantee that the U.S. will play by the rules that it claims to advocate.”

The final value is “leadership by example.” “This means we need to put the house in order,” said Sullivan, referring to building a strong economy and political consensus.

With those guides, Sullivan seemed hopeful about what the United States could do for the rest of the world. “I have become jaded about many things in my job, but one thing I haven’t become jaded about is getting off that plane and thinking of what we can deliver to that country,” he affirmed.

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