Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s support for the transatlantic alliance was tested by fire the year he was elected prime minister of Denmark in 2001. Following 9/11, Denmark proved to be one of the United States’ closest allies, deploying over 4 percent of its active-duty military to the NATO mission in Afghanistan and suffering one of the highest casualty rates of any nation in that war. The bond between the two countries would be strengthened by subsequent crises, including the showdown with Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the deadly international riots over Danish depictions of Muhammad in 2005. Rasmussen stepped down as president of Denmark to become secretary-general of NATO in 2009, two years before NATO launched an air campaign to oust Muammar Gaddafi. His final days in that position in 2014 were marked by increasing Russian interference in Eastern Europe, which culminated in an invasion of Ukraine.
For almost 15 years, then, Rasmussen had an elevated vantage point from which to observe global crises and the responses to them by two U.S. presidents. What he sees today disturbs him.
Syria has unraveled into a slaughterhouse state contested by terrorists, rebels, government thugs, Iranians, Russians, and American special forces, to name a few; survivors from the civil war and other violent Middle Eastern countries have flooded into Europe for refuge, overwhelming border controls, threatening safety and social cohesion, and fueling the rise of far-right political parties. Authoritarian states like China and Russia repress internal enemies and flex their muscles to intimidate their neighbors.
"[I]t has become a cliché to talk of the ‘global village,'" Rasmussen writes in his new book, The Will to Lead. "Right now, the village is burning, and the neighbors are fighting in the light of the flames."
The outgoing American president was elected on a promise to end the war in Iraq. He promised to replace the cowboy spirit of his predecessor with a cautious, cosmopolitan spirit that would accept a greater role in world affairs for other powers, be they allies or adversaries. It later came to be understood that his policy would center around not doing "stupid shit." He did not keep the first promise, but he largely delivered on the second. As to the stupid stuff, citizens can judge for themselves.
Reflecting on Obama’s legacy, Rasmussen concludes that America should ditch the self-doubt and reassume its leadership position in the world. Only America, he states, has the resources and moral stature to lead the free world against the forces of chaos and tyranny. "We need a policeman to restore order; we need a fireman to put out the fire; we need a mayor, smart and sensible, to lead the rebuilding," Rasmussen writes.
As a concept, America as the world’s policeman has long been mocked. Rasmussen points out, however, that America has largely played that role since the mid-1940s, when it emerged as the only major country with an intact industrial base after six years of world war. Under the strong internationalist leadership of presidents like Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, the United States built institutions that enabled never-before-seen prosperity, a flowering of democracy, and the eventual defeat of the Soviet Union. Rasmussen devotes three chapters of the book to profiles of Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan, and outline how their words and deeds in fact did make America great.
The rest of the book is a grab bag of topics, part history lesson, part threat assessment, part apologia and memoir (he recounts a breakfast meeting with George W. Bush where Bush ordered nothing but three varieties of corn flakes). Throughout, Rasmussen contrasts his vision of a unipolar world against the rarely stated vision of critics like Obama and former French President Jacques Chirac. These men want America’s power to be balanced by other countries and institutions, likely including countries with less of a commitment to human rights and liberty than our own.
"The key question is whether we want to live in a bipolar or multipolar world with the alliance of repressive states working together to deny their peoples' legitimate demands for change—which is what the balance of power ultimately means," Rasmussen writes. "Or do we want a unipolar world with strong and determined leadership by one liberal democratic power assisted by a network of like-minded allies and partners?"
The book is also studded with policy proposals that reveal Rasmussen’s interest in markets. Some of the ideas, like a transatlantic free trade zone among trusted, developed allies seem like they might have a chance even in a political environment that has become bearish on free trade. Others, like an increase in low-skilled immigration coupled with restrictions of welfare benefits, seem not to have taken today’s politics into account at all.
Rasmussen has published The Will to Lead at either an inopportune moment, or an essential one, depending on your point of view. This year’s presidential election pits a right-wing nationalist whose promotes the slogan "America First" against a liberal internationalist who has seemingly repudiated every international initiative she has ever supported in an attempt to shore up support on her left flank. This is the year of Brexit, the white working class, and refugee panic; of Nigel Farage, Jeff Sessions, and Marine Le Pen.
Rasmussen does not do enough to address the anxieties and fears that have driven these developments. He mounts a sound and knowledgeable defense of institutions that have made us free and prosperous, but he does so in the way one might expect from a Danish Minister of Taxation, a role he served in from 1987 to 1992. But what is needed is for friends of American leadership and the rules-based international order to think and act like the statesmen Rasmussen identifies in his book—which is to say, they need to consider how to push mass opinion in the right direction.