President Obama inherited the most daunting and intractable tangle of foreign policy challenges of any American leader since the early years of the Cold War. The new Administration found itself saddled with crises and festering problems complex in character and long in the making: unfinished and unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stalled peace talks in the Middle East, hostile states acquiring nuclear capabilities and a deteriorating non-proliferation regime, a global financial crisis and deep economic recession, looming climate and environmental dangers, mounting public debt and strained budgets, and growing “multipolar” worries brought on by a rising China and an estranged Russia. Added to this, the new Administration entered office after years of turmoil in which American popularity around the world and standing among Western allies had fallen to unprecedented lows.
Under these circumstances, it is probably forgivable if the new Administration has not yet achieved a long list of breakthroughs and successes. The question to ask is: Has the Obama team articulated a grand strategy that is responsive to these looming global problems? In a world where the threats and challenges are so diffuse and deeply entrenched, the United States needs a grand strategy of global order-building that puts in place frameworks for sustained partnership and collective action on many fronts. The good news is that the Obama Administration seems to be animated by precisely this vision. It appears to have learned the right lessons from the misadventures of the recent past. It is not leading a weary America backward into a retreat from global leadership and engagement. Instead, it is articulating a moderate internationalist grand strategy built on both liberal and realist sensibilities. It is liberal in its orientation toward engagement, multilateralism and progressive change. It is realist in its orientation toward great power restraint and accommodation. Reflecting this synthesis, candidate Obama remarked to a reporter in 2007: “We can and should lead the world, but we have to apply wisdom and judgment. Part of our capacity to lead is linked to our capacity to show restraint.” As President, Obama has moved American foreign policy back into the postwar mainstream, emphasizing alliances, partnerships, multilateralism, great power forbearance and democratic community.
There are two ways in which the Obama grand strategy is putting the United States on a more solid footing to tackle 21st-century international security challenges. First, Obama himself has clearly and repeatedly articulated a coherent vision of these challenges. The specific threats are many—terrorist networks, WMD proliferation, global warming, health pandemics, financial upheavals and so forth. But what these threats have in common is that they all reflect a worldwide rise in “security interdependence.” America’s security is increasingly linked to how other people live and act—in more places and more ways. This understanding of America’s national security predicament is recognized by Obama and is at the center of every one of his major foreign policy statements. We cannot be secure alone; we can only be secure together. Security interdependence was dramatically revealed to the world during the Cold War with the advent of nuclear weapons. The United States could not secure itself. It would only be secure if the leaders in the Kremlin understood the logic of deterrence and acted accordingly. Today, security interdependence has been dramatically intensified. What people do and how they live matter in ways that were irrelevant in earlier eras. How people burn energy, provide public health, treat minorities and establish rules and enforce treaties matter more today—and will matter even more tomorrow. This has created a growing demand for security cooperation—deep, intrusive, institutionalized, multifaceted. The Obama Administration’s focus on reviving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its vision of radical reductions in nuclear weapons, together with its emphasis on development, human security and multilateral cooperation, are promising markers in the reorientation of American foreign policy to an age of escalating security interdependence.
Second, and more generally, the Obama Administration has begun to redefine and reposition the United States as the central hub of the international system. And this, too, is creating a more congenial environment for the United States to pursue its interests. Americans often forget—and the Bush Administration largely ignored—the fact that the United States has for half a century been the provider of global governance. The United States was not just the patron of an open, rule-oriented order after World War II. It became the hegemonic organizer and manager of Western (and later global) order. The American political system—and its alliances, technology, currency and markets—became fused to the wider international order. The United States played the leading role in the provisioning of rule and stability. In effect, the world contracted out to the United States for global governance. The United States provided “services” to the world, and it operated more or less within mutually acceptable rules and institutions. In return, other states tied themselves to the United States and accepted Washington’s leadership.
In the view of many friends and allies around the world, the Bush Administration—under the banner of unipolarity and a post-9/11 revisionist agenda—attempted to break out of the old hegemonic arrangements. Its unilateralist tendencies, “war on terror” grand strategy and invasion of Iraq had the effect of triggering a “constitutional crisis” in world politics. The United States appeared to be relinquishing its role as the linchpin of global order, threatening to substitute a more heavy-handed—even imperial—form of that order. The election of Obama brought this failed experiment to an end. In effect, the Obama Administration has re-affirmed the old terms of the postwar “constitutional settlement” between the United States and the rest of the world. And much of the world has uttered a collective sigh of relief.
Looking into this brave new world, the United States will find itself needing to share power and rely in part on others to ensure its security. It will not be able to depend on unipolar capacities or air-tight borders. To operate in this coming world the United States will need—more than anything else—authority and respect as a global leader. It has lost both in recent years. In committing itself to a grand strategy of moderate realist internationalism and liberal order building, the Obama Administration is beginning the process of gaining it back.