Source: Daniel Drezner, The National Interest

The World Obama Faces: Take Cover

Can Obama's soft power help us toughen up again?

To describe the current international environment as complex would be an understatement. To appreciate the depth of these external challenges, consider the Princeton Project on National Security. This was a multi-year, multi-pronged effort to develop a 21st century doctrine that could achieve what containment accomplished during the Cold War. The effort to create a "Kennan by committee" involved hundreds of foreign policy analysts. After dozens of meetings, the final report concluded, however, "it became clear that such an organizing principle – such as containment, enlargement, balancing or democracy promotion – would not be forthcoming. Indeed, no overarching concept fit because no one danger facing the United States is the overarching threat." If today's leading foreign policy analysts cannot agree on a single heuristic to anchor U.S. foreign policy, policy planning becomes that much more difficult.

From a conventional, state-centric perspective, the greatest conundrum is coping with the rise of developing county great powers. Power is a relative measure, and the United States is in relative decline because of the astonishing growth rates and capital surpluses of the developing world. Last year the French foreign minister declared that "the magic is over" for America's image, and this fall the German finance minister declared that the United States would soon lose its status as a financial superpower. Among the rising powers, China and India stand out in particular. China possesses two trillion dollars in hard currency reserves – and is starting to use its financial muscle to achieve foreign policy objectives. Both countries are nuclear powers that aspire for blue-water navies. To date, their ascent has been impressive, but the future is what grabs everyone's attention. By 2020, the National Intelligence Council projects China and India to have the world's second and fourth largest economies. The growth of India and China will push world politics into a new multipolar era.

The growth of these states is a challenge unto itself, but it also highlights a related problem. This tectonic shift in world politics further weakens the international institutions that were previously thought to "matter." The United States helped establish a bevy of global governance structures between 1945 and 1955: the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, GATT, NATO, OECD, etc. As long as the United States and its allies were the most important actors in the world, these institutions served the twin purpose of coordinating and legitimizing the global rules of the game. As the distribution of power in the world shifts, however, the United States needs to think about how to revamp these institutions in order to maintain their relevance. To its credit, the Bush administration recognized this problem, but its efforts at addressing the problem were fitful. Key institutions – like the G-8 or the WTO – threaten to be overwhelmed by a spaghetti bowl of newer arrangements. A recent Foreign Affairs essay recommended that the United States and its Western allies simply get out of the way, and let the developing world have its turn at global governance.

Handling a power transition is tricky, but handling it while simultaneously coping with a rise in systemic threats is even trickier. Concerns about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction will, for obvious reasons, remain near the top of the list for the incoming administration. Of related concern is the growth of non-state actors, like Hamas and Hezbollah, that appear to be more powerful than the territorial governments in which they are based. Just as the balance of power is shifting away from the United States, power is also shifting from states to non-state actors. Richard Haass warns about the rise in "nonpolarity" – the ebbing of power from governments to more amorphous, networked actors; Niall Ferguson makes a similar claim when he talks about "apolarity." The Obama administration will need to figure out how best to interface with these new kinds of foreign policy actors.

The most novel threats, however, are even more non-traditional in nature. In the past calendar year, global markets in financial assets, food, and energy have been buffeted by a series of shocks. None of them appear to be functioning terribly well in response. In all three sectors, national governments have responded with greater intervention. It is far from clear, however, whether these interventions will be welfare-enhancing on any level. Beyond the failures of global markets, there are additional concerns. Global warming will increasingly insert itself onto the international policy agenda. The specter of a global disease pandemic remains ever present.

It would be dangerous to exaggerate the challenges posed to the United States. The relative decline of the United States is not likely to be as drastic as, say, the decline and fall of the British empire. And America's external adversaries have their own problems and policy reversals. As of this writing, it has become abundantly clear that Al Qaeda is facing even greater challenges. They are suffering from strong ideological rejection and pushback in the Middle East – even among those sympathetic to the idea of jihad. Following a raft of books hailing China as the challenger to American hegemony, Beijing suffered an annus horriblus of health and safety scares, foreign policy blowback in Africa, erratic and unstable allies on its border, ecological catastrophe, and natural disasters.

Despite these caveats, the trend line is disturbing. The distribution of power is shifting away from the United States. The distribution of preferences is also shifting away from America. The Washington Consensus is a dead letter, and American values seem less enticing than they did a decade ago. Simply put, at the end of 2008 the United States generated less respect, less influence, less goodwill, less standing, and less relative power in world politics than it did at any time during the post-Cold War era.

It is difficult for a single administration to beat back these kind of gale-wind structural forces. It is worth remembering, however, that five years ago the foreign policy discourse was all about the unprecedented agglomeration of American power. The best thing an Obama administration can do is avoid further overextension – with luck, the "soft power" bump that Obama's election might generate will provide cover the retrenchment of hard power resources. These resources should be devoted to boosting America's economic productivity, innovation, and infrastructure. Historically, America's comparative advantage has been its ability to respond more nimbly to crises than other countries in the world. We'll see if that historical generality holds for the near future as well.

Daniel Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest.

Source: Daniel Drezner, The National Interest

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