Obama's Opportunity: Defining Power and Purpose in U.S. Foreign Policy
The American Century
Otto von Bismarck once said that God takes care of fools, drunkards, and the United States of America. At the time he made that observation, the United States had not yet arrived as a major global power, having just survived a civil war and some major economic challenges. But the following century told a different story about the United States - and that story became known as the American century. By the end of that century, the United States was to become the most powerful nation on the globe. Some explained the development with arguments about the exceptional nature of the United States - in terms of its powerful economy, its vast military strength, and its vibrant democracy. Others were to call the period following the end of the Cold War a uni-polar moment, making comparisons of the United States with the vast power of the Roman Empire 2,000 years earlier. During the American century, 5 percent of the world's population generated a quarter of the global GDP.
But the fact is that neither the Romans then nor the Americans 2,000 years later ever experienced a uni-polar moment. There were other parts of the world which were able to get along without Roman interference and all of the power accumulated by the United States during the twentieth century still left it unable to control or solve conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Rwanda, or the Middle East, Nor was it able to prevent North Korea, Pakistan, or India from developing nuclear weapons technology. And for decades the U.S. and the Soviet Union were facing each other with thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready while engaging in many proxy wars around the world. Additionally, we were not able to prevent an attack on two of the nation's major cities only eight years ago.
Militarily and Economically Dominant - But How to Use It?
America is a powerful country by any standard, yet in order to use that power effectively, it needs partners. America can project and use military power anywhere on the globe. It maintains close to 200,000 people in its defense forces on 766 bases in forty foreign countries around the world. That capacity can respond to both military crises but also to crises like tsunamis, earthquakes, and other disasters as no other country can. But in order to do that, it needs to spend more money than most of the world combined spends on their defense, and with the cooperation of partner countries which offer their help.
The U.S. has been the world's dominant economy with a global impact, for better and as we can see for now, for worse. The U.S. is now the world's biggest debtor nation, and has been running enormous budget deficits, causing some to be concerned about the long-term stability of the dollar. Other economic powers, such as the European Union or China, are gaining strength.
The debate about how to use American influence and power is as old as the country itself. We debated the issue even when we had very little power to project. There were those who felt that America's global role was to lead with the power of our example, while others argued that it is the example of our power which leads other countries to follow. It is a battle between those who promote what is called soft power - the power to persuade - and those who believe that America must always exercise hard power - the power to demonstrate political will and the ability to back it up with the threat or use of force. During recent years, proponents of both sides have seen the weaknesses of their argument. The Clinton presidency demonstrated the failure of persuasion when it was initially not interested in stopping the violence in the Balkans and did not intervene in the genocide in Rwanda. The Bush presidency has demonstrated the limits of the use of military power in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the failure to prevent others from pursing their own hard power in the form of nuclear weapons. So where does that leave President Obama and future leaders who wish to leave their mark on the world?
Today we are seeing both change and continuity in an American debate about the priorities we need to set in the twenty-first century. When President Obama took office four months ago, most of the world's reaction was positive. Of course, simply not being George W. Bush was enough for many people to greet the new president with enthusiasm. But the fact is that the challenges of preventing nuclear proliferation and terrorist attacks, climate change, energy security, and the global economic recession were still all there waiting for the new occupant of the White House.
The Limits of Force
The idea that one can transform some of these conflicts solely with military force has shown its limits in numerous instances, especially over the past decade. The example of the way the United States involved itself in Panama twenty years ago - launching an attack, winning in a few weeks and then installing a new government - contrasts dramatically with the last six years in Iraq or the last eight years in Afghanistan, where military force has not been enough to completely stabilize either country.
In fact, the composition of international power has shifted more into an economic form, with the increasing interdependencies of nations forcing them to find ways to engage in securing economic security and stability within their own borders as well as across them. States can link their economic power to foreign policy goals. Yet the increasing degree of interdependence among them has made consensus at once more difficult and at the same time more necessary. In this framework, the role of the United States has not been diminished. But it's also clear that the new equations of power require the engagement of ever more players. The best illustration of both is the recent meetings of the G20 as well as the increased role of the IMF in dealing with the current economic crisis. The conclusion one can draw from this is an increasing need to recognize mutual interdependence or mutual indispensability on the global stage.
The Importance of Leadership in Success
In that framework however, the United States is still cast in the role of being a global leader, or put another way, a global balancer. To lead, however, is not to be able to dominate. It means primarily the ability to lead the way to solving problems. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said about American leadership: "Success will be less a matter of imposing one's will and more a function of shaping behavior - of our friends, our adversaries, and, most importantly, the people in between." Success will also be determined by the degree to which those engaged in solving problems believe that progress is being made under the leadership of the United States. One can argue that self-interest is always more enlightened when the interests of others are also considered. In a world in which power is becoming more diffuse or splintered, it is that much more important that everyone feel a sense of being empowered to solve problems.
How can the United States engage itself most effectively in the twenty-first century? Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek has recently laid out a rationale for American leadership. He suggests that the United States could play the role of an honest broker - a role he sees Germany having briefly played in the late nineteenth century - by "forging relations with each of the major countries, ties that were closer than the ones [the major] countries had with one another." He says that this is the role the U.S. should be playing - not as a traditional superpower, but one which practices consultation, cooperation, and compromise. The U.S. should derive its power by setting the agenda, defining the issues, and mobilizing coalitions, not in a top-down hierarchy in which it makes decisions and then informs the world of its intentions. The power of today is based on being able to galvanize coalitions to solve or at least manage major threats and problems. It is the process of creating what is called a stakeholder approach to the agenda.
Seizing the Opportunity
President Obama has been given the opportunity to engage U.S. power to address the multitude of challenges the United States must confront. Given that there are so many challenges, the key question to be answered is how can the United States use its finite resources most effectively? There are several things of particular importance to success. The capacity of American power and diplomacy will depend not only on how we use them but on the effectiveness of the policies and goals we are pursuing. The Bush years were marked by policies which lacked both diplomacy as well as the ability to compromise. He was a prisoner of his own ideological making, straitjacketed by his policies instead of having the willingness to make changes when needed.
Another important dimension is that of maintaining the power of legitimacy. Generating support for policies - at home and abroad - is not an option, it is a necessity, especially when the use of force is involved. Generating international public support for American foreign policy is critical in a world in which nations have their own interpretation of events and actions. The battle of ideas remains at the core of a successful foreign policy. Our foreign policy is not only what we do, it is also what we are. As demonstrated by his recent speech in Cairo, what Obama has done is to refocus the world on what America is. How successful he will be in places around the world which appear to have intractable and hopeless problems will depend on his ability to lead the country in the direction of joining forces to solve those problems.
As the U.S. considers its leadership role in taking on these global challenges, it must continue to transform how it implements the global power it has amassed. The changing world requires that the old paradigm of military force give way to moderated leadership based on effective policies with legitimate support, something Obama has slowly moved towards to date. This will be the greatest challenge of them all.