AS HE begins his second term in office, President Barack Obama must reconsider his foreign-policy priorities. Though the president successfully convinced Americans that he could handle international affairs more effectively than his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, this was not a particularly demanding standard since Romney identified himself all too closely with the legacy of former president George W. Bush to the extent that he focused on foreign policy at all. And it took little effort at a time when Americans were preoccupied with domestic concerns and thus largely satisfied with clichés and pandering on issues. Obama now has a real opportunity to lead if he is prepared to start a serious national debate on America’s role in the world.
At another time, Obama’s cautious, tactical and reactive approach to foreign policy might be sufficient. The problem today is that we are present at the creation of a new international system in which the United States and its allies remain predominant but are no longer unchallenged. The rise of “the rest”—emerging powers that don’t necessarily share Western interests or values—is changing international security, economics and politics. Though “the rest” are not unified, and emerging powers such as China face their own serious challenges, most share a degree of frustration with the Western-defined international order. Many likely are prepared to be responsible stakeholders but believe that being a stakeholder at all means having a role in writing the rules and connect this role to their own national interests and dignity. The United States needs a proactive strategic policy to preserve its international leadership and can ignore changing realities only at grave peril.