Kofi Annan gave his “farewell speech” yesterday, choosing a very interesting and symbolic location for the address–the Truman Library in Missouri. As a good farewell speech should, it crystallizes the wisdom of a career of international civil service and provides a call to action to those who will carry on in his stead. What I found most interesting, though, was the location and theme of the speech and how it took a very nuanced approach to the United States. (full text of speech here).

To really get where I’m going with this, my reaction to the speech was shaped by my one of my current pressing projects–putting together my syllabus for my course next semester on “Hegemony and US Foreign Policy in the 21st Century.” So, I’m now on the look-out for anything talk talks about US hegemony, with an eye toward the constitutive power of the US to define the international order, not just regulate it.

Annan seems to really appreciate this in his speech. He picked the Truman Library because:

Truman’s name will for ever be associated with the memory of far-sighted American leadership in a great global endeavor. And you will see that every one of my five lessons brings me to the conclusion that such leadership is no less sorely needed now than it was sixty years ago.

In particular, US leadership.

As President Truman said, “the responsibility of the great states is to serve and not dominate the peoples of the world.” He showed what can be achieved when the US assumes that responsibility. And still today, none of our global institutions can accomplish much when the US remains aloof. But when it is fully engaged, the sky’s the limit….

You Americans did so much, in the last century, to build an effective multilateral system, with the United Nations at its heart. Do you need it less today, and does it need you less, than 60 years ago?

Surely not. More than ever today Americans, like the rest of humanity, need a functioning global system through which the world’s peoples can face global challenges together. And in order to function, the system still cries out for far-sighted American leadership, in the Truman tradition.

I hope and pray that the American leaders of today, and tomorrow, will provide it.

I think Annan articulates a powerful, a very powerful, point here. We live in a system designed by the United States, reflecting certain American Ideals, put in place to manage the common international welfare because, as has been the case since 1945, “In today’s world, the security of every one of us is linked to that of everyone else.” Truman used US hegemony to build the UN system as the global system for addressing–defining and then regulating–issues of political and economic (through the Bretton Woods component of it) security.

The system was designed as a style of hegemonic stability, and it works, as a famous scholar once said, because the US acts as the stabilizer. When the US embraces this role, the system can function and maybe even have a chance to flourish. When the US shirks this role, the system drifts toward chaos. US leadership is so key because the alternative is in fact chaos– there is no alternative order out there at the moment. The US may have a number of challengers and detractors, but none of them seek to replace the role of the US as system manager. China, Europe, or Al-Queada may all chafe under aspects of US rules, but none of them are yet able to provide a global currency, for example.

The Bush Administration has been a notable critic of the UN system, and has run a great deal of US Foreign Policy outside and counter to that system. That harms the system, and, most importantly, leaves nothing in its place.Hence Annan’s call for the US to resume its leadership role. He’s not critical of the US nor the role that the US plays, he’s critical of the way the US acts on the international stage. He sees the potential of an US active and engaged in the UN system and wants us all to realize it.

Filed as: