Obama Take Two: Back to Reality

The Illinois senator may be a breath of fresh air, but he can’t work miracles. No matter who the next president is, he’ll struggle to regain America’s “global leadership.”

Both candidates talk a great deal about American leadership and multilateralism. Senator Obama, for instance, has declared, "I want to use all elements of American power to keep us safe, and prosperous, and free. Instead of alienating ourselves from the world, I want America-once again-to lead."

Yet those hopeful that U.S. global leadership can be easily restored when the Bush administration leaves office received a rude wakeup call this past Saturday, when the UN Security Council failed to enact sanctions against Zimbabwe and the joint U.S.-British resolution was vetoed. This setback follows on the heels of acrimonious behind-the-scenes arguments earlier this year between the Western powers and "the rest" about what to do about Burma in the wake of the catastrophe that followed Cyclone Nargis.

It is tempting-especially since Vietnam and Libya joined Russia and China in voting against the Zimbabwe resolution-to see this as an example of the predicted clash between "the democracies" and "the autocracies." But South Africa's "nay" vote and Indonesia's abstention points to a more complicated divide-a divergence not simply between democrats and dictators but a growing chasm between the developed north and west versus the rising south and east. On a whole host of issues, from climate change to governance, a debate is playing out between "the West's" desire to universalize its norms and standards and "the rest's" wish to preserve and protect state sovereignty.

And many of the "southern democracies" are tilting more toward the rest instead of the West. India and Brazil, linked with South Africa in the IBSA forum, do seem sympathetic to Praetoria's claim that Zimbabwe is best handled as a regional matter. Earlier this year, in Yekaterinburg, New Delhi and Brasilia joined with Moscow and Beijing in endorsing a view of the international system more protective of states' rights (including, implicitly, a higher barrier for approving intervention into the internal affairs of a country) than may be the preference, certainly in Europe.

None of this impedes the possibility of a consensus position emerging-but it means that American diplomats, in the future, may need to be prepared to compromise much more than they have been prepared to do up until now. More ominously, last week's vote puts pad to the claim that when Europe and America work together, they can prevail in setting the global agenda. Yes, a decade ago, Russia and China, when faced with NATO's unity, ended up reluctantly and retroactively legitimizing the Kosovo mission. Now, they seem much more prepared to stick to their guns, even in the face of a joint Anglo-American resolution that enjoyed strong transatlantic support. So, one of the leading priorities of both presidential candidates-repairing the relationship with Europe-may still be insufficient to catapult the American agenda forward in the face of growing opposition from other rising and resurgent powers.

If there is a silver lining, it is whether the Zimbabwe vote might galvanize democracies to take collective action in implementing sanctions-and test the real-world salience of the various proposals, especially those advanced by advisors to both Senators Obama and McCain, for a "league of democracies" where the members would more consciously coordinate their foreign policies together. If Sudan is any guide, though, we may see a number of countries express their righteous indignation at the Russians and Chinese but use the deadlock in the Security Council as an excuse for their own inaction. Indeed, after its African neighbors, the United States is still a major market for Zimbabwean products.

The recent inaction in New York, and the inability of the expanded G-13 format to achieve any real consensus on climate change, makes it clear that simply changing the guard at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will not be sufficient to reverse these trends. Haggling may become the order of the day in future international meetings. The next U.S. president better become much more comfortable with horse-trading if any agenda is to move forward-and this is going to require more than simple platitudes.


Nikolas Gvosdev is a senior editor at The National Interest and is joining the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own.