America and Global Public Goods

America is currently transfixed with the problem it has created for itself in Iraq, but the presidential candidates are also beginning to ask what principles should guide United States 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 America 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. America can learn from the lesson the nineteenth 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.