A Global Americans Review of The American Imperative

[Runde's] view of international development is transformational, where outside assistance can catalyze internal reforms and lead to broad-based economic growth.


Daniel F. Runde, The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership through Soft Power. Bombardier Books, February 2023.

Price: USD 28.00 | 280 pages

Daniel Runde’s forthcoming book, The American Imperative: Reclaiming Global Leadership through Soft Power, is a sweeping examination of the U.S. role in international development. Runde, a Senior Vice President at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), has worked on the front lines of development policy for the last two decades and, fittingly, draws on this experience to explain why U.S. rhetoric has so often differed from policy in recent years. Just as importantly, he charts a new course for U.S. leadership in development amid rising great power competition.

Runde divides his book into two sections—the first assessing the challenges in international development today and the second proposing tools to overcome these challenges. His view of international development is transformational, where outside assistance can catalyze internal reforms and lead to broad-based economic growth.

His view is also a political one. In a refreshingly candid analysis of U.S. aid, Runde not only accepts, but also endorses the combination of strategic and altruistic motives that drive foreign policy decisions.

In recounting the history of U.S. overseas assistance, Runde adds nuance to the narratives that many of us have previously heard. Many accounts of the East Asian economic miracle, for example, stress the role of domestic infrastructure investment. This was certainly a major factor in the success of the Four Asian Tiger economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. However, as Runde notes, outside help was also a significant catalyst. In the 1950s and 1960s, U.S. aid was roughly half of the public investment in Taiwan. For South Korea during the same period, U.S. scholarships provided high-quality, low-cost education to thousands of future leaders in business and government. These leaders drew on their educational experience to propel the country’s postwar economic boom. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) office in Seoul closed in 1980 and, by 2009, South Korea had joined the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Once an aid recipient, South Korea is now a major donor.

Runde’s book is at its strongest when he examines a puzzle from recent history. The Trump administration constantly questioned U.S. aid commitments, proposed a 30 percent budget cut for diplomacy and development, and even sought to subsume USAID under the Department of State. Yet, in the end, Trump’s time in office was not nearly as catastrophic for the United States’ global development posture as it could have been.

What explains this puzzle? In part, it was the advocacy of Runde and his conservative internationalist allies. When the White House sought to cut funding for USAID and the Department of State, Runde lobbied his Congressional colleagues in the Republican Party to prevent the move. When China advanced its favored candidate as head of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)—an obscure, but important multilateral body—it would have been easy for isolationists and unilateralists in the Trump administration to do nothing. Instead, Runde organized State Department officials to successfully back a pro-U.S. Singaporean candidate for the role. Runde’s advocacy not only limited the harms of the Trump administration, but also advanced new, positive initiatives, such as the launch of the U.S. Development Finance Corporation.

In both his advocacy with policymakers and his book, Runde roots his arguments for U.S. global leadership in the need to respond to China. Here, however, his analysis is on more contentious ground. At several instances in the book, Runde argues that China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a form of “debt-trap diplomacy,” a concept that has gained currency among foreign policy hands, but is disputed by leading BRI experts such as Deborah Brautigam, Meg Rithmire, and Jonathan Hillman. As I have previously written for Global Americans, choosing a Chinese loan over a U.S. or multilateral offer entails tradeoffs for any developing country. Leaders who accept a Chinese loan are not necessarily being tricked or taking bribes; rather they could be making the best choice for their people. This is particularly true in Latin America, which suffers from deep and persistent infrastructure gaps.

Whatever the shortcomings of Runde’s analysis of China’s foreign policy aims, he astutely recognizes the political benefits of framing the need for U.S. leadership in terms of U.S.-China competition. Runde’s success in advancing U.S. engagement is largely due to his argument that the United States is losing to China and that policymakers must do more to keep up. This argument has shown continued relevance in the Biden years, as Runde has successfully pushed for the confirmation of several ambassadorial nominees and marshaled support for a U.S. candidate to replace the Chinese head of the International Telecommunication Union.

With the continued influence of “America First” legislators in the U.S. Congress, Runde’s approach to garnering support for U.S. engagement will stay relevant. By emphasizing the benefits of diplomacy and development and framing them in a way that is compelling to policymakers across the ideological spectrum, Runde’s book could not have arrived at a more important time.

Robert (Bo) Carlson is a Research Associate at Global Americans and a MA candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He has previously written for World Politics Review and The Diplomat. You can find him on Twitter: @bocarlson1.

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