The Ascension

January 21, 2009 Topic: Great Powers Regions: Americas Tags: SuperpowerHeads Of State

The Ascension

Mini Teaser: The creation of Barack Obama’s legacy will play out against three fundamental backdrops: America’s financial crisis; the ability to shore up the power of the United States; and the willingness of Joe Q. Public to spend blood and treasure beyond ou

by Author(s): R. Nicholas Burns

WHEN BARACK Obama steps into the Oval Office for the first time .as president, he will be in the unique position of having earned the support not just of Americans who chose him in a historic and dramatic election but of millions around the world who would have voted for him if they could have. It has been widely observed that on November 4 the United States held the first-ever world election and Obama was the clear winner.

No other American president in memory will have started in office with such broad public support overseas. His international star power will help to recover some of America's credibility and trust lost during the past decade due to Iraq, Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. And, it will allow Obama and his team to more easily negotiate the treacherous foreign-policy waters ahead in their first months in office.

Obama will surely need that capital. Obama mania is so fervent in many parts of the world that expectations for what he might do to transform America's international standing are absurdly high and, in some countries, wildly distorted. German Social Democrats will undoubtedly be disappointed that Obama does not recreate in the United States their version of the welfare state. Arabs and Pakistanis will find that an Obama administration continues to exercise power diplomacy in their regions. Hugo Chávez will undoubtedly discover that a summit in Caracas is not the first step Obama will take in our own hemisphere.

His beginning in office will be unique in another regard. He faces the most difficult and daunting set of domestic- and foreign-policy challenges since at least Franklin D. Roosevelt's own inauguration in 1933. When the postmortems are written on his presidency four to eight years from now, will he have succeeded in constructing, as Woodrow Wilson and FDR before him, a new U.S.-led global order to meet the complex challenges of our time? Or, will America retrace the fate of the British Empire of a century ago and begin a long, gradual slide from world power? Obama faces no less of a test than this: Can America once again reinvent both its future and the international system and thus change history itself?

It will be on Obama's watch that the United States will respond to perhaps the most vital challenge we face-how to guide the American people toward a new type of international leadership in a changing, globalized world. With the cold war long past and America's unipolar moment over, Obama's high-wire balancing act will be to both repair the cracks in America's dominant global position and reach out to others-at home and abroad-bringing them into a more cooperative, collegial and collaborative virtual governing board of the world. Obama's America will need to lead as the strongest global player but do so more consciously with others, especially rising powers China, India and Brazil.

Becoming a more effective global leader requires the Obama team to meet two rather straightforward tests. First, whether President Obama's rhetoric conveys a convincing sense that the U.S. global agenda will benefit people around the world on the issues they care about most. When American rhetoric is heard overseas as "it's my way or the highway," and "you're either with us or against us," it is not a winning message.

If, instead, Obama continues his more inclusive campaign language of using the global "we"-of what the people of the world can accomplish together-he will be much more likely to earn the kind of international support that any great power requires to be successful in its international strategy.

A second test will be whether Obama can convey a sense of confidence and optimism to Americans and the rest of the world that the awesome global challenges we face-such as climate change and terrorism-can be overcome by a united international effort. In short, can he inspire hope around the world in American leadership and not fear?


DESPITE THE conventional gloom and doom about America's current standing in the world, Obama will actually begin his presidency with some rather significant advantages. As he sits down with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates and Jim Jones to assess the basic health of U.S. foreign policy, they will undoubtedly note the strengths of America's international position, and not just the weaknesses.

To start with, the United States is still the single, strongest global power. It will remain so for decades to come. Consider American power by any metric.

Militarily, Commander in Chief Obama can count on the continued supremacy of U.S. forces worldwide. During his time in office, we will still spend more on our national defense than the next ten countries combined. We will still be the only country capable of projecting force on a global basis and sustaining troops in faraway theaters for years at a time. We will remain the only country that leads powerful multinational military alliances in both Europe and Asia-a crucial underpinning of America's global power. And, we will retain the remarkable capacity of our armed forces that have demonstrated their quality and competence in the interventions of the last fifteen years in Bosnia and Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Politically, the United States shall remain, as Madeleine Albright said during her tenure as secretary of state, the world's "indispensable country." While anti-Americanism is pervasive in many parts of the globe, foreign governments still count on us to lead on the toughest problems.

In the Middle East, Palestinians and Israelis still see Washington as the crucial intermediary for peace. In South Asia, we hold, for better or worse, the key to the future of Afghanistan. In Africa, the United States is well respected and many governments desire more American involvement on their continent, not less. In Europe, the United States is still considered by most as the one continental power critical to preserving and safeguarding the peace-a role that has taken on renewed importance with the resurgence of an aggressive Russia. In Asia, we find ourselves called upon to referee tensions between China and Taiwan, and to lead the multinational effort to deal with rogue regimes such as Burma. In our own hemisphere, we are the hub of an axis of market democracies from Canada and Mexico to Brazil, Colombia and Chile that is still a much more attractive model than the one offered by Hugo Chávez and the Castro brothers. The political and diplomatic reach of the United States will be one of President Obama's principle weapons in negotiating the dangers of twenty-first century global politics.

Economically, America is of course in a far more tenuous position. But despite the fact that the American economy is in a downward spiral, and that even worse days could be ahead of us, the United States will remain the largest global economy for years to come. Our economic weight and fate are still the most important factor in global prosperity and stability. The dollar, though weakened, remains the single, most important world currency. Furthermore, as Fareed Zakaria points out in his excellent new book, The Post-American World, the United States is the undisputed leader in two key areas where international economic competitiveness may play out in the future-nanotechnology and biotechnology. And we are well positioned to maintain our lead in science and technology if President Obama launches aggressive government support for a new era of green technologies.

Culturally, we are, as Harvard professor Joe Nye has said, the world's most effective practitioner of soft power. Our most successful companies are still the single, greatest exporter of American influence in an increasingly integrated global market. Microsoft supplies the nerve center for millions of computers worldwide; Starbucks and McDonalds are in every global capital; and Boeing is still the dominant force in international air travel. As Zakaria noted, we still attract the greatest number of foreign students to what is arguably our most successful global brand-our colleges and universities. This pervasive American soft power is a real factor in determining the global balance of power and it helps to augment American strength in the short- and long-term.


THERE IS even more positive, perhaps even surprising, news for Team Obama-it will not need to start from scratch on all of the most difficult foreign-policy challenges. President Bush will have left them some truly daunting problems, to be sure. But, in certain key areas, President Obama will inherit policies that are working well for the United States.

Even Bush administration critics acknowledge that its most important, and perhaps least heralded, accomplishment is the strengthening of our ties to the rising powers of the world. The United States has built an effective and stable relationship with China, no small feat considering the explosive issues-the trade imbalance, differences on human and religious rights and consumer product safety, to name a few-at its heart. On India, President Bush took the baton from President Clinton and constructed a new and promising global-strategic partnership with the world's largest democracy through the Civil Nuclear Accord and newfound military cooperation in the Indian Ocean. This growing strategic partnership promises concrete, long-term benefits for Americans-from increased trade and investment, to growing military ties, to a genuine regional partnership in Asia with the soon-to-be largest country in the world by population. With President Lula of Brazil, Bush engineered a joint biofuels initiative and elevated our joint work for peace and recovery in Haiti.

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