Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says the Senate's resolution to strike Syria is too restrictive and doesn't provide enough help to rebel forces in the country.

The Future of American Power

The world wants the protection of American hegemony without American hegemony.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says the Senate's resolution to strike Syria is too restrictive and doesn't provide enough help to rebel forces in the country.

John McCain was one of the few defenders of American power at Davos.

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The World Economic Forum held its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland at the end of January. These meetings are often criticized as hotbeds of anti-American effete elites and this one did not disappoint.

One panel which did not receive much press outside of Davos was one entitled, “The Future of U.S. Power.” The major American player on the panel was Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. He was joined by Aleksei K. Pushkov, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the lower house of the Russian Parliament, former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia.

[See editorial cartoons about President Obama.]

McCain had a hard road to travel. It is difficult for an American of his stature to combine honesty and patriotism. It is uncomfortable to criticize your own government, even when you know that the lack of leadership from the United States is the reason that such a panel even exists. This became especially apparent over the specific issue of Syria. The panelists broke down into the exact camps one would expect. Worried that the United States should not act alone Harman argued for multilateralism and partnering with Russia. Prince Turki al Faisal accused the United States of allowing massacres to take place in Syria, although his main criticism was simply that there is “no direction” in American foreign policy. In a strong effort to resurrect Soviet stereotypes, Pushkov used the opportunity to shill for Assad – claiming that 60 percent of the Syrian people support him – and attempted to deflect the issue by criticizing the United States in Iraq. McCain boldly criticized the Russian government for their continued support of Assad and the “farce” of the peace negotiations. “If you believe Bashar Assad is going to agree to a transitional government, I’ve got beachfront property for you in Arizona,” he said.

His view of American power was not shared and illustrates the impossible position the United States has found itself in for decades: The world wants American hegemony to protect them, yet they don’t want American hegemony. So McCain made it clear that the absence of the United States from the world stage leads to chaos and makes room for others to fill the void. The other panelists (not including Russian, whose country has been clear that it wants an absent America) and many members of the audience want America to take a strong stand in places like Syria – but don’t want American dominance. This impossible formula is one of the many reasons that conferences like Davos have such a detrimental outcome for the United States. This has been the typical refrain for decades: a strong desire for American intervention with the immense cost in American lives and treasure, but an equally strong desire for America to do it on terms that are practically, morally and geopolitically impossible.

[Check out political cartoons about Syria.]

But of greater note was the first and main criticism voiced by the Russian representative, his fear that America “remains the only global missionary nation.” This kind of attitude is fed by those like Harman who stated, “We are an indispensable partner, not an exceptional nation.” Americans should turn this sort of Soviet-era propaganda into American optimism and strength. In 1997 the famous political science Professor Samuel Huntington coined the term “Davos Man.” This was a person loyal only to their “international peer group” who saw “national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations.” The Davos effete elite have a vested interest in American retreat except when it is on their terms of promoting the free flow of money and business across the globe. They are just as absurd as their opposite counterparts among the anti-capitalist, anti-free trade great unwashed. McCain was absolutely correct when he stated that Americans need leadership, not that the leadership is unwanted.

America has a global mission because of, not in spite of, its “exceptionalism.” It is a burden and blessing that Americans have borne for centuries, but it is this very duty that defines America as a people, a culture and a civilization. The future of U.S. power will be determined by the promotion or rejection of this calling. It will not be determined by Davos globalization acolytes, Soviet-era philosophy or the fear of American exceptionalism.

Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of politics at Ripon College, former Fulbright scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and author of "The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future," among other books.You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com.

Clarified on Feb. 3, 2014: This post was updated to make clear that it is about the most recent World Economic Forum meetings.