Why America Should “Serve” As World Leader

Article by Douglas M. Johnston

Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct. And can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period a great nation to give mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that in the course of time and things the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it?
-George Washington in his Farewell Address

As America drifts into the next millennium with no clear strategy to guide its foreign policy, its leaders are facing an increasingly difficult task in keeping track of how everything fits together. Even while the international community searches for a new systemic equilibrium based on evolving multipolarity, U.S. leaders are making countless ad hoc decisions to deal with a growing assortment of vexing situations that defy conceptual integration. Neither “containment” nor “isolationism” – the country’s two longest-running and most successful grand strategies – provides much guidance, nor at this point do “engagement” and “expansion” (of democracy), as practiced to date by the Bush and Clinton administrations. In looking to the future, what America needs is a new organizing principle commensurate with its interests, capabilities, influence, and imagination that will give added meaning to the strategy of engagement and provide a better frame of reference for dealing with an evolving interdependent, multipolar world.

As recent events have demonstrated, foreign policy leadership in the future will place a higher premium on our ability to develop common ideas and approaches in partnership with other nations. Even today, one is hard pressed to think of any serious international challenge that can be fully met on a unilateral basis. Moreover, with the relentless march of technology, today’s interdependence is but a faint shadow of that which is to come. Despite whatever disillusionment may have recently taken hold with regard to multilateral approaches to problem- solving, coalition leadership will be the sine qua non of a successful U.S. foreign policy in the years ahead. And here, we have a problem.

It has become clear over the past year that the United States is experiencing increasing difficulty in finding partners to support its positions in international crises. In seeking to understand why, it may be useful to consult the epigraph at the beginning of this article. The wisdom of George Washington’s admonition to the first generation of Americans about observing “good faith and justice toward all nations” and cultivating “peace and harmony with all” holds even more relevance today than it did then. The nation’s evolution from isolationism and avoidance of “foreign entanglements” contrasts sharply with today’s reality of total engagement and extensive global commitments, a reality that only makes more imperative the need to project Washington’s image of “exalted justice and benevolence.”

In some ways we do project such an image; in others, not at all. Indeed, one is beginning to read with depressing regularity references in overseas accounts to “American arrogance.”  While some of this may be attributable to the normal slings and arrows that often accompany unrivaled success, there is ample evidence to suggest that a disquieting proportion has to do with our actual behavior. For example, we cajole the United Nations to follow our lead in the latest flare-up in Iraq without acknowledging the negative impact of our extended refusal (or inability) to pay our back dues.

Likewise, we trumpet the long-term strategic value of unfettered free trade while simultaneously imposing an endless stream of comprehensive unilateral economic sanctions against countries with whom we have a grievance (some 27 different kinds of grievances at last count). Some of these sanctions include extra-territorial dimensions that often alienate other countries, including some of our closest allies. They feel – as we would feel – that such measures infringe upon their sovereignty, in addition to violating perceived U.S. obligations within the World Trade Organization. Indeed, our adamant refusal to acknowledge the recent longstanding boycott by Arab countries against nations doing business with the state of Israel provides graphic illustration of our own attitude toward such measures.

On a micro-level, we recently demanded that a Georgian diplomat be brought to justice under U.S. criminal law while insisting that our own diplomats be immune from such treatment overseas. Even more recently, we sentenced a Paraguayan national to receive the death penalty without first advising him of his right to seek counsel from a representative of his government, when we ourselves demand that right for any U.S. citizen apprehended in other countries. Over time, such self-centered behavior will inevitably undermine America’s international credibility and moral authority. Meanwhile, the list of global imperatives awaiting a proportional international response – such as combating terrorism and transnational organized crime, eliminating the world’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and reducing the negative effects of rampant industrialization and overpopulation on the global environment – continues to grow at an alarming rate. As Teddy Roosevelt remarked at the beginning of this century, “Nine-tenths of wisdom consists of being wise in time.”

Entering the next century, the United States enjoys unprecedented prosperity and influence. Regardless of which yardstick one uses – political influence, economic strength, military capability, or cultural resonance – America is clearly on top, with no viable challengers on the near-to-intermediate horizon. What better time to pause and reflect, to take stock of where we are going and to anticipate future challenges?

The appeal in Washington’s Farewell Address for good faith, peace, harmony, justice and benevolence toward all nations suggests a need for a different kind of leadership than that which we are currently providing. What is called for is not a single-minded pursuit of narrow national interests as a number of pundits currently advocate, but a dose of what one might properly term “servant-leadership.” As we are reminded in the Book of Luke, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.”[1]


The early vision of America as an exemplary “city upon a hill”[2] – a recurring theme in U.S. politics – was merely a first hint of how America could serve beyond itself. It has been left to subsequent generations of Americans to determine how best to pursue that concept on a broader scale.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Robert K. Greenleaf developed an innovative and comprehensive approach to leadership at the personal and organizational levels that could help facilitate just such a pursuit. His approach – which he christened “servant-leadership” – is a remarkably flexible yet morally grounded formula for leadership which, if adapted for international applications, could go far toward enhancing America’s moral authority over the longer term.

Greenleaf, who was a “lifelong student of organization,” served for 38 years at AT&T in the field of management research, development and education before retiring in 1964 to devote his time to writing and lecturing about servant-leadership. According to Greenleaf’s theory, servant-leadership begins at the individual level:

The servant-leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve – after leadership is established.[3]

For Greenleaf, this distinction between a leader who is a servant first and a leader who is a leader first goes to the heart of that person’s ability to lead for the greater good.

The natural servant, the person who is servant first, is more likely to persevere and refine a particular hypothesis based on what serves another’s highest priority needs than is the person who is leader first and who later serves out of promptings of conscience or in conformity with normative expectations.[4]

Thus, the servant-leader enjoys a natural advantage over even the most well-meaning pragmatist in formulating policies intended to serve the greater good. In short, “public service” means just that.

George Washington, for example, felt very much at home in the role of servant-leader, to the point of regularly signing his personal correspondence, “your humble and obedient servant.” This same spirit also permeated much of his substantive thinking as reflected, for example, in his open letter to the Cherokee Nation in 1796. In this letter, Washington suggests ways in which the United States and the Indian nations on its borders could peacefully coexist and offers friendly advice on how the Cherokee nation in particular might benefit from various colonial agricultural techniques.[5]

Slowly but surely, the concept of servant-leadership is beginning to build a substantial following. As reflected in the thinking of numerous writers, thinkers, and leadership experts, the breadth of its appeal crosses almost all professional boundaries.[6] In large measure, this increasing popularity can be traced to the fact that the very concept itself constitutes a source of political legitimacy. People are naturally drawn to leaders who they perceive as serving the greater good. In fact, Greenleaf often referred to servant-leadership as “a journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness.” Furthermore, in his quintessential essay, “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf argues that the human race is reaching a turning point in what it expects from its leaders:

A fresh critical look is being taken at the issues of power and authority, and people are beginning to learn, however haltingly, to relate to one another in less coercive and more creatively supporting ways. A new moral principle is emerging which holds that the only authority deserving one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.[7]

The Globalization of Servant-Leadership

A new president of the United States committed to the concept of servant-leadership might begin by categorizing and giving precedence to the nation’s vital interests, i.e., those interests the country is prepared to promote unilaterally by whatever means necessary. Beyond a nation’s vital interests, though, further prioritization could take place with an eye toward what serves the greater good. In this regard, the president’s allegiances can be defined by the familial obligations inherent in his (or her) high office, i.e., the country is his immediate family, and the family of nations his extended family. As most people fully understand, though, bonds which may be strong throughout an entire family are understandably stronger in the immediate family. Next strong in this regard would be those countries within the extended family with which we have established a special relationship and which might be thought to have a certain claim on our intentions, such as Great Britain and some of our other allies.

The president’s next task will then be to develop a workable system for bringing these determinations into line with the everyday process of leading, i.e., deciding which of America’s interests are inherently national in character and need to be pursued as such, and which are international in scope and should therefore command a global approach.  For example, interests such as national defense, education and welfare fit comfortably in the first category, while others, such as preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism, and global warming, fall into the second.

A number of policy decisions, of course, will fall somewhere between these two conceptual poles.  For example, while protecting intellectual property rights is clearly in the national interest, this protection cannot be achieved without international cooperation.  Likewise, keeping the sea lanes open in the Persian Gulf is clearly in America’s interests, but doing so in the face of a significant threat becomes difficult without some degree of support from America’s allies.

In determining what serves the greater good, cognizance should be given to, but not dominated by, which parts of the family they affect. In other words, one interest is not more important than another based solely on whether or not it is primarily an American interest. For example, American consumers may benefit financially from purchasing inexpensive foreign products produced in sweat shops or by slave labor, but this benefit is overshadowed by the severe toll visited upon the exploited or enslaved. While each servant-leader will have to develop his or her own formula for comparing “apples and oranges,” the epistemological nature of servant-leadership is ready-made to help guide the leader through such a process.

The final step will consist of integrating these priorities into a comprehensive foreign policy, determining in the process how best to allocate limited political capital in achieving the best possible results. More often than not, the tradeoffs involved will pose a difficult set of choices. Ideally the president should look for the “win-win” possibilities, i.e., those decisions that can serve both our national and international interests. The zero-sum game thinking of a bygone bipolar era would prove counterproductive if applied in today’s fluid international context (or in tomorrow’s multipolar context).

The evolution to a multipolar framework will be hastened as democratization takes even greater hold around the world and other nations adopt the same (or similar) principles of modernization as those to which the United States subscribes. In this eventuality, the principle of organization upon which servant-leadership is based – primus inter pares, or “first among equals” – can provide an effective basis for retaining America’s leadership role.

Implicit in a multipolar world is the necessity of winning the allegiance of one’s peers (or “equals”) on an ongoing basis. Doing so, in turn, will require an institutionalized process of consultation with those peers, but implemented in such a way as not to jeopardize the freedom to act unilaterally when it may be required. While consultation can be very helpful and should be pursued whenever possible, it is sometimes overrated and can lead to paralysis if care is not taken to preserve one’s freedom to act. At the end of the day, some differences will simply be too major to bridge; and although the ultimate course of action taken by the servant-leader may disappoint some or all of the other interested parties, the fact that their opinions were solicited and that they felt a degree of ownership in the decision process should help soften any discontent that might be felt.

The Generic Challenges of Leadership

Any treatment of the subject of leadership would be incomplete if it failed to acknowledge the new and, in some ways, more demanding challenges confronting today’s world leaders.  First and perhaps most significantly, the international landscape has changed dramatically, and leaders have been understandably feeling their way through a period of significant uncertainty and confusion – not an uncommon phenomenon in the wake of fallen empire.

Beyond this sea change in the geopolitical landscape, there are a number of generic obstacles to effective leadership that are only growing more intense with time.  While there is a general awareness of their existence, they are for the most part assumed away, with inadequate appreciation of their total influence.  Perhaps most significant among these obstacles is the impact of the media on the policymaking agenda.  The perceived urgency of daily network coverage on a particular trouble spot in the world, for example, can act to undermine a president’s long-term strategy.  Television forced our hand in getting us into Somalia and again later in getting us out.  One is thus left without a convincing response to the question of why intervene in Somalia but not in Rwanda, Liberia, or any number of other equally pressing situations.

Leaders across the world must also respond to increasingly complex issues in ever shorter periods of time. Staggering advances in communication technologies coupled with information proliferation and international integration are changing the very nature of national decision-making and interactions among states. As a result, planning horizons are being compressed, longer-range considerations are being subordinated to the immediate, and integrated analysis is being overwhelmed by compartmentalized thinking. The potential for ill-considered decisions is rising correspondingly.

Another consequence of this phenomenon is what one might call the democratization of foreign policy. Decision-making that was once the province of autocrats and oligarchs is now forced to take greater account of public views (both those of the country in question and, to a lesser extent, those of other countries). This in and of itself points toward the growing need for servant leadership and its greater potential for eliciting international cooperation.

The range and prospective impact of the above challenges, while intimidating, need not be paralyzing if properly acknowledged and addressed. As a useful first step, current and future administrations should be even more deliberate and forceful in explaining to the public the basic interests that should guide U.S. foreign policy.  Here, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright deserves high marks for her ongoing crusade to make foreign policy relevant to the average voter.  It should be noted that under servant-leadership, both the basic interests and the educational function would be expanded to include the extended family.

The Question of Intervention

Topping the pyramid of U .S. leadership concerns is the timeless question of when we should intervene militarily in response to challenges beyond our borders. A useful starting point might be to act first in those situations where U.S. principles, values, and interests are seen to coincide. Beyond that, the next most helpful litmus test might be to weigh any potential intervention against a predetermined set of considerations to be taken into account when such situations arise. Among other possibilities, such a set might include (1) the scale of the crisis, (2) our capacity to make a difference, (3) the relative effectiveness of unilateral action vs. acting in partnership with others, (4) the probable costs in both lives and money, and (5) the impact of our intervention on the interests and attitudes of other nations and people in the region. This particular set would also fit comfortably within the servant-leader paradigm.

Although there is an understandable tendency to want a hard-and-fast set of criteria for determining when to intervene, it is ultimately up to the president to define the criteria on a situational basis and to rally the support of the American public. In this regard, any foreign policy, to be sustainable, will have to play to the nature of the American public as a people – combining realism with idealism – and, wherever possible, be based on cost-benefit arguments that demonstrate how that policy best serves the United States over the long term (even while serving the greater good).[8]


To illustrate how the “win-win” thinking of a servant-leader approach can serve America’s interests while at the same time serving those of other countries, it becomes useful to revisit the earlier subject of unilateral economic sanctions.

Because of domestic political pressures to react to offensive behavior by other countries, U.S. politicians imposed unilateral economic sanctions against such countries no fewer than 61 times between 1993 and 1996. This, despite the fact that experience has shown that unilateral sanctions almost never achieve the desired change in the target country’s behavior and almost always run counter to U.S. commercial interests (as other global suppliers rush to fill the vacuum that U.S. boycotts create). Beyond the immediate economic losses, though, are the long-term consequences of being perceived as an unreliable supplier.

Several examples out of a much larger number that serve to illustrate the self-defeating nature of unilateral sanctions include those imposed during the 1980s to prevent the Soviets from building a gas pipeline to Europe. At the end of the day, Caterpillar Incorporated was forced to cede the Soviet market to Japanese competitors, 12,000 man-years of work were transferred from Illinois to Japan, and the Soviets completed their pipeline ahead of schedule.[9] Similarly, when the United States imposed the grain embargo against the Soviets to protest their invasion of Afghanistan, they merely turned to other suppliers. American farmers lost $2.3 billion in sales; some 18 years later, U.S. grain exports to Russia have yet to reach their pre-embargo levels.[10]   More recently, Conoco lost a billion dollar deal with Iran to a French company that was only too happy to pick up the business.

Perhaps even more counterproductive, for the reasons cited earlier, have been the secondary boycott measures we have imposed against allies and other countries doing business with Cuba, Iran and Libya. Again, it may be instructive to consult Washington’s Farewell Address:

Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity and interest, But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand: neither seeking nor granting exclusive favours or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing in order to give to trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them.

While today’s world is vastly different from Washington’s, his instincts were prophetic.  Supporting the rights of the country’s merchants (unless they are clearly up to no good) is always a sound idea.

Rather than continuing our current counterproductive knee-jerk response to disruptive and rogue regimes, a servant-leader president would note the growth of new dependencies and sources of influences that are being created by today’s increasingly interdependent world.  He (or she) would also recognize that focusing on coercion after events have turned against us is a poor recipe for effective leadership.  Instead, he would look for fresh ways to influence behavior, starting first with an attempt to expand the array of friendly options, whether they be political, economic, or cultural in nature.  He would operate on the premise that engagement is always preferable to isolation and that inducements for good behavior should enjoy preference over punishments for bad behavior.

Theoretically, the factors (both positive and negative) to inspire changed behavior are only limited by one’s imagination, so long as one remains engaged with the target country in question. Our current practice of imposing comprehensive unilateral economic sanctions, however, essentially eliminates all other possibilities short of military action.

Finally, in his servant-leader capacity, the president would actively consult with key members of Congress and with interested foreign governments as he seeks to orchestrate a coordinated response to an offending country’s behavior.


In summing up, the following quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (now deceased), a former Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, conveys the essence of what servant-leadership is all about:

The greatest sin of man is to forget that he is a prince – that he has royal power. All worlds are in need of exaltation, and everyone is charged to lift what is low, to unite what lies apart, to advance what is left behind. It is as if all worlds…are full of expectancy, of sacred goals to be reached, so that consummation can come to pass. And man is called upon to bring about the climax slowly but decisively. [11]

By the same token, there are the harsh realities of effecting change, as conveyed almost five centuries earlier by Niccolo Machiavelli in his classic work, The Prince:

It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

Despite the obstacles, the time for change is fast approaching. In the years ahead, the opportunities for going it alone will rapidly diminish under the influence of transnational forces and growing interdependence. If we are to stay ahead of the curve, we must begin the process now.


[1] The Holy Bible (King James Version), Luke 12:48.

[2] John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” sermon delivered on board the Arbella, 1630, en route to America.

[3] Robert K. Greenleaf.  Servant-Leadership:  A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (Paulist Press:  1977), 13.

[4] Greenleaf, op. cit., 14

[5] For the entire text, see “Address to the Cherokee Nation, August 19, 1796” in George Washington:  Writings (The Library of America:  1997).

[6]  For example, Max DePree, Chairman of the Herman Miller Company and author of Leadership is an Art (Doubleday, 1989) and Leadership Jazz (Dell Publishing:  1992), has said that “The servanthood of leadership needs to be felt, understood, believed and practiced.”  And Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline:  the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Doubleday:  1990), reportedly tells people “not to bother reading any other book about leadership until you read Robert Greenleaf’s book, Servant-Leadership.  I believe it is the most singular and useful statement on leadership I’ve come across.”

[7] Greenleaf, op. cit., 9-10.

[8] Douglas M. Johnston, ed., Foreign Policy into the 21st Century:  The U.S. Leadership Challenge (Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1996), 37-40.

[9] Testimony of William C. Lane, Washington Director of Government Affairs, Caterpillar Incorporated, On Behalf of USA Engage, Before Subcommittee on International Economic Policy, Export and Trade Promotion, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, March 25, 1998.

[10] Statement by the Honorable Clayton K. Yeutter, Hogan & Hartson, L. L. P., Before the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy, Export and Trade Promotion, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, March 25, 1998.

[11] Greenleaf, op. cit., 133.



Douglas Johnston in The Brown Journal of World Affairs: 67-77.
Summer/Fall 1998

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