war on the rocks

A Flawed Focus on American Leadership

September 16, 2016

When a surprising event occurs that threatens U.S. interests, many are quick to blame Washington’s lack of leadership and deride the administration for failing to anticipate and prevent the crisis. Recent examples from the continuing conflict in Syria, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and even the attempted coup in Turkey, all illustrate how this is a regular impulse for the foreign policy punditry class. This impulse, while comforting to some, fails to consider the interests and agency of the other countries involved in the crisis. Instead of turning to detailed analysis and tracing the international context of a crisis, often we are bombarded with an abundance of concerns about a lack of American leadership. It is easy to look at a situation where the interests of the United States are harmed and blame the current administration for it. Unfortunately, for those who demand an increase in American leadership, the United States does not get final say in all global political matters. Rather, the United States has to negotiate around the interests and goals of other actors in the international system.

The emphasis on American leadership is emblematic of a larger problem in some international affairs commentary, namely an overreliance upon what is called “monadic analysis.” Monadic analysis is a form of analysis that only focuses on a single country or actor. For example, one type of monadic analysis of the Russian annexation of Crimea would focus only on what the United States failed to do to prevent Russian action. A monadic analysis of Crimea could also focus solely on dysfunction inside Russia without any other reference to Ukraine or the United States. However, the focus on the United States and a supposed lack of leadership is the most troubling form of monadic analysis that has taken root in popular op-ed pages and columns. Over-reliance on monadic reasoning leads to dangerous analysis on all sides of the political spectrum, often prompting commentators to advocate for expansive foreign policy goals without consideration of the conditions and actions under which a positive outcome is feasible.

Why One-Sided Analysis is a Problem

Why is monadic analysis sometimes a problem? Monadic analysis focuses on a single unit when describing an event in question, and does not pay attention to other units that interact and impact the choices of the unit in question. With the Russia-Ukraine crisis example, monadic analysis only considers what steps American policymakers can try to resolve the crisis, but does not consider the Kremlin response and whether American action is sufficient to deter further Russian incursion. Under monadic analysis, the preferred U.S. outcome appears more feasible than it really is because it assumes other countries will not respond in kind to American action, thereby hindering American goals. In such an analytic process, considerations of other countries’ political goals, internal dynamics, and military force calculations are ignored. Instead, only characteristics inside the U.S. decision space are considered relevant for determining the outcome.

The major problem with this form of monadic analysis is that it oversimplifies the complexity of international relations. Every country in the international system is part of a network of relationships with other units, and how the countries interact with each other often determines outcomes more so than individual characteristics of any country, America included. Every country has their own national interests, their own goals, and their own resolve, and increased U.S. leadership does not axiomatically overcome these differing interests.

The monadic view creates a blind spot where only the United States matters when discussing international crises, and any failure is directed back to U.S. leadership without thinking about the asymmetry in interests that might exist. Focusing on leadership and other non-tangible characteristics does not improve the foreign policy posture of the United States. Greater leadership or resolve alone may force other countries to operate without agency or against their own interests.

Consider two examples: In case A, increased U.S. action and resolve could affect an international outcome regardless of actions by another actor. In case B, greater American pressure has a lessened impact on the crisis as another country has their own interests or is more willing to escalate to a higher level of conflict than the United States. In case A, increased threats and action by the United States is enough to overcome any resistance or plans by any other country. The number of cases where the United States can achieve their policy goals through sheer will and increased determination are quite low, especially in the face of increased domestic turmoil and internal political issues that can drive foreign policy in other countries. Rather, much more often increased determination and capabilities help set the stage for the beginning of crises that fall in case B scenarios. While it is more comforting to think we are more often facing case A, case B is far more prevalent.

While monadic analysis, especially in situations similar to case A, is beneficial at times, relying exclusively upon monadic analysis to think about policy options once a crisis begins often leads to sub-optimal policy proposals. Establishing what capabilities and interests the United States or other countries possess before a crisis emerges is an important analytical step. However once the crisis begins, other countries and actors often have a more direct or definitive say in the final outcome, making the dynamic analysis an important step in identifying and refining policy options.

The Benefits of Dynamic Analysis

In many cases, a more constructive form of analysis can be extremely beneficial if it not only examines the qualities of the United States but also how the interests of the United States interact with the interests and capabilities of other countries. Why? Analysis between two countries (called dyadic analysis), or an even greater number of countries (systemic analysis), can help us understand how their interactions might play out given a potential conflict.

Dynamic analysis encourages discussion of actionable, tangible steps the United States can take during an international crisis. When analysts and policymakers focus on the dynamic interactions between various actors, the debate over potential solutions is often elevated and illustrates the complexity of many international crises. Focusing on this type of analysis, when the United States is facing a potential lengthy crisis, is a more productive venture. Weighing potential policy options against the interests and likely responses of other countries, rather than simply deriding any action by another country as a failure, produces a more productive national debate. Discussing the competing interests among various other actors helps create a clear baseline for determining whether U.S. involvement in a crisis is advantageous or not.

Dynamic analysis has an additional benefit: it can help determine whether positive outcomes are attainable in certain contexts. For example, when deciding about the proper response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, dynamic analysis prompts the United States to consider whether its own interests in Ukraine and Eastern Europe outweigh the likely interests and reactions of Russia, Ukraine, and other regional actors. And if the United States’ interests do not outweigh the interests of Russia, then contemplating whether it is truly worth engaging in armed conflict in light of this imbalance of interests is important. Instead of discussing whether the United States needs greater leadership to force Russia out of Crimea, a discussion of competing interests, goals, and capabilities allows for commentators to recommend tangible policy options.  When discussions center on the balance of interests and the likely responses by others in a given conflict, the international affairs discussion, the relevant policy space for the United States, is expanded and the debate is improved.

The characteristics and capabilities of other countries help define the policy options available to the United States. Without consideration of the constraints placed on the United States given other countries’ interests, policy discussions stagnate and are often unproductive. Greater American leadership, or other monadic qualities, does not remove Russia’s or another country’s interests, military capabilities, or their ability to respond in kind. The United States cannot axiomatically achieve anything they set their mind to. The dynamic nature of the international system and the interests of other actors in the system constrain the policy options available to the United States. While at times less optimistic about the ability for the United States to resolve some crises, dynamic analysis that places a premium on tangible policy steps and realistic outcomes improves our discourse on international affairs.

Striving for Better Commentary

Sadly, op-eds and campaign speeches that call for greater American leadership will continue to resonate with their relatively simplistic monadic analysis. The idea that if America tries hard enough, we can stop any conflict, win any negotiation, and achieve any goal regardless of the interests of other nations is a comforting notion that appeals to many readers. Fortunately, the number of smart outlets and commentators that do focus on dynamic analysis and consider the complex arena the United States operates in continues to grow, providing needed analysis for international affairs. However, we should all strive to remind those who invoke monadic analysis inappropriately and the language of American leadership that the interests of other states constrain and limit the policy options available to the United States. Other actors have a say in international affairs, and greater American leadership does not take that away.


Ben Denison is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, specifically focusing on International Relations. His research focuses on of the causes and consequences of military occupation and other forms of foreign rule.