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Pivotal Power

January 27, 2010
What Obama won’t brag about in the State of the Union

U.S. President Barack Obama. Photo: WhiteHouse on Flickr

He probably won’t focus on it much in his State of the Union address, but President Obama is revolutionizing the core paradigm of American foreign policy. If he succeeds, our children and grandchildren will be set to thrive in the more multipolar era to come.

Think back a few years to the Bush Administration when the central strategic pillar of national security strategy was to maintain American primacy. To remain safe, the reasoning went, America had to continue to stay more powerful than all other countries by the existing, huge margin.

This strategy had a number of conceptual flaws. It suggested to the many rising powers, China, India, Brazil, Russia and others, that the United States would stand to benefit by their failure. That is largely false, and thus a needlessly antagonistic message that amplified existing distrust.

Moreover, the source of the most lethal and immediate threats to Americans was and is not strong countries but terrorists, viruses and global warming. Americans need the help of those same pivotal powers, and they need ours, to tackle those threats.

Reduce nuclear proliferation without Russia? Slow climate change without China? Good luck with that.

In the end, the primacy strategy failed to deliver. It tempted our leaders into a reckless war. It did not prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. It did nothing to slow China’s influence, as was its implicit goal. And it helped wreck our relationship with Russia.

A fixation on primacy paradoxically undermined the influence and authority America did have in much of the world. But the Bush strategy was not exceptional, only exceptionally badly executed. For all previous administrations since WWII, American primacy has either been a goal, an assumption or both.

America is still the world’s only superpower, but from day one, President Obama rejected a single-minded quest for primacy as the organizing principle of our foreign policy. He signaled this in his inaugural address when he said “Our power alone cannot protect us.”

Later, in a speech in Moscow, he was more explicit about his great power strategy: “[G]iven our interdependence, any world order that tries to elevate one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game – progress must be shared.”

The Administration knows that the central challenge now is getting these other pivotal powers to solve problems, play by the rules, support international institutions and share the costs of providing for the global common good.

It’s still early days, but they’ve had some success so far with their approach, which I call strategic collaboration. China has agreed to limit its carbon intensity, though it must do more. And for the first time last year, China not only voted for tough U.N. sanctions against North Korea; it also enforced them.

Despite how neuralgic the issue is there, Russia decided to allow the United States to transport supplies through its territory into Afghanistan. The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, co-chaired by the United States and Russia, is up and running again. These nations and others agreed during the darkest days of the financial crisis to coordinate their macroeconomic moves.

Finally, Beijing and Moscow did recently join in a harsh rebuke that the International Atomic Energy Agency issued against Iran.

Of course, China and Russia, not to mention India and Brazil and others, need to do more to help solve global challenges. We will continue to have differences with these pivotal powers, some very heated, particularly in the areas of human rights and democracy.

But there is no quid pro quo. Washington can cooperate with Beijing and Moscow to contain swine flu or climate change and still press them, as President Obama has, for political reform.

Not everyone is happy with this shift in America’s foreign policy. Conservative commentators claim Obama officials are naïve to think that great powers will cooperate, and they accuse the Obama Administration of adjusting to the relative decline in American power rather than trying to stop it.

While the Administration is rightly updating our foreign policy to this new age of security interdependence, it is certainly true that American power is vital. America needs to retain significant influence in the international system to protect American interests and the liberal nature of the system.

Moreover, while it seems unlikely, China or some other big power could become an aggressive hegemon one day, and America must be prepared.

But it’s not enough to say America should continue to be strong. It takes controversial investments; convincing politicians to prioritize long-term success over short-term gain is never easy.

And that is where Obama’s domestic agenda comes in. What health care reform, investments in basic science, green technologies, banking regulation and renewing public education are all about is retooling America so it can thrive in the global economy. Every great power needs a great economy.

America will continue to be an indispensable nation, in many cases, the indispensable nation. Not because of its unassailable power, but because of its ideas, values, and leadership.

Nina Hachigian is the co-author of The Next American Century: How the US Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Pres. Obama is spending like there’s NO TOMORROW ! *OUR NATIONAL DEBT IS INAPPROPRIATE


Once upon a time there was a Russian named Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Was he a gangster? Some say no, some say yes, and some say, “Sometimes.” Was he a democratic visionary? “Yes!” chants America’s press; others are not so sure. But all agree that by 2003 he was Russia’s richest person, the 16th richest man in the world according to Wikipedia, owner of that great and powerful Russian enterprise Yukos Oil Co. Then came Oct. 25, 2003 – a day sad for some, joyful for others, but a historical turning point for all: Vladimir Putin, president (now prime minister) of Russia, whose soul George W. Bush claims not only to have seen but to have approved, ordered the arrest of Khodorkovsky.

The West was shocked, shocked, do you hear?! Arrest the 16th richest man in the world?! That could never happen in a free country! The charges must be false! Well, we’ll likely never know whether the charges were false, half-false, or one-sixteenth false. We’ll likely never know whether the trial was even one-sixteenth fair. But off to jail went Khodorkovsky, and in jail Khodorkovsky remains. The Western press, as with one voice, declaimed that Putin is but a czar in blue jeans (true, he often wears blue jeans); as for Khodorkovsky, they say he was framed for his love of free markets, truth, democracy, and, you know, that stuff.

Oh, there was one article, just one, to my knowledge, that clued us in as to why a czar in blue jeans might, just might, want to deal harshly with Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The article appeared on p.1 of The New York Times on Nov. 5, 2003, though its columnists never refer to it. It tells an interesting tale. Khodorkovsky “spent heavily in Washington to court the Capitol’s inner circle”; he even met with U.S. “Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to discuss America’s oil policy.” The Carlyle Group, an investment bank, had “a close business relationship” with Khodor­kov­sky; in fact, former President George H.W. Bush was on retainer to Carlyle when he spoke at a dinner in Moscow attended by Khodorkovsky a month before the arrest, though Carlyle claims “his visit had nothing to do with oil deals.” Months before his arrest, Khodorkovsky was a guest of former Sen. Bill Bradley at an Idaho gabfest attended by the likes of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates (The New York Times, Nov. 10, 2003, p.1). The Nov. 5 article noted that Bradley advised the Open Russia Foundation, which was bankrolled by Khodorkovsky, and guess who is on its board? Henry Kissinger. Also, Khodorkovsky donated $500,000 to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “a think tank that is home to some of the most often quoted analysts of Russian affairs.” “People close to him said that [Khodorkovsky’s goal was the] refashioning of operations and perceptions of Yukos Oil in preparation for a merger with a Western company,” identified the following year as Exxon Mobil Corp. (The New York Times, June 20, 2004, p.BU1). Khodorkovsky even installed an American as Yukos Oil’s chief executive officer and another as its chief financial officer. (They fled Russia later, reported The New York Times online, Nov. 25, 2004.)

Why do I go on and on about Khodorkovsky?

First, a disclaimer: I fully realize that in Putin’s Russia, a journalist like myself would, at best, be out of a job; at worst, I’d be a ripening corpse in a Moscow alley. But it’s also true that if I were a Russian, I would not appreciate – in fact, I’d be downright aggravated by – Mikhail Khodorkovsky selling Russia’s best chance of solvency and sovereignty, its largest oil company, to ExxonMobil. It seems many Russians felt the same. A month after Khodorkovsky’s arrest, the popularity rating of Vladimir Putin shot from 73% to 82% (The New York Times online, Nov. 19, 2003).

With the arrest of Khodorkovsky, Putin served notice on Russia’s capitalists, saying, in effect: “Make all the millions you can, so long as Russia’s resources stay Russian.” They took heed, and in just five years Russia has gone from a crippled to a powerful nation. By hook or by crook, for good or for ill, Putin did not allow what America’s Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush not only allowed but abetted under the banner of “globalization”: the massive reallocation overseas of America’s resources and industry for the profit of the very few.

Secure in the knowledge that Russian capitalists had gotten the message and imitating the Chinese model of what might be called “national capitalism,” Russia under Putin swiftly became what it had not been since the fall of the Soviet Union: a major player. Putin’s opening salvo, not two months after Khodorkovsky’s arrest, was aimed straight at the U.S., as seen in this article from The New York Times online, Dec. 23, 2003: “For Oil Contracts, Russia Will Waive Most of Iraq’s $8 Billion Debt.” Said Iraq’s “American-backed” Governing Council, “we will be open to all Russian companies.”

We’ve since seen a steady stream of such headlines. “China and Japan Jockey for Share of Russian Gas” (The New York Times, Nov. 3, 2004, p.W1). “Russia Bars Foreign Bidders From Big Mineral Auctions … only companies with at least 51 percent Russian ownership [are] allowed to bid” (The New York Times online, Feb. 11, 2005). “Russia Denies War Games With China Are a Signal to Taiwan” (The New York Times, March 19, 2005, p.5). “Russia surpassed the United States in 2005 as the leader in weapons deals with the developing world, and its new agreements included selling $700 million in surface-to-air missiles to Iran” (The New York Times, Oct. 29, 2006, p.12). “Russia … agreed to ship nuclear fuel to Iran to power a reactor it has been helping to build” (The Week, Oct. 6, 2006, p.9). “New India Accords With Russia Include More Nuclear Power Plants”; India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “Russia remains indispensable to India’s strategic interests” (The New York Times, Jan. 26, 2007, p.10). “Russian President Vladimir Putin voiced support for the formation of a natural-gas cartel. The idea was first raised by Iran. Russia, Iran and Qatar are the top gas exporters, together controlling nearly two-thirds of the world’s natural gas reserves” (The Week, Feb. 23, 2007, p.9). Putin “brokered an agreement … with [Turkmenistan and Kaz­akh­stan] to build a new gas pipeline to Russia, delivering a major setback to continuing American efforts to send Central Asian gas exports directly to Europe” (The New York Times, May 13, 2007, p.14). Added The Econ­omist, May 19, 2007, p.12: “A troubling new pipeline deal is a symbol of the West’s inability to cope with Russia.” Putin “has embarked on a $200 billion rearmament program” (The Week, Dec. 21, 2007, p.11). “Pipeline Cem­ents Russia’s Hold on Europe’s Gas Supply” (The New York Times, Jan. 19, p.5). “[W]ith the largest per capita currency reserves in the world while paying down nearly all sovereign debt … Russia stands out as potentially least susceptible to an American recession” (The New York Times online, Jan. 25).

On Aug. 7, Georgia recklessly attacked its breakaway province, South Ossetia; in response, Russia attacked Georgia. I’ve not space to pick through the misinformation spouting from all sides, but some facts are incontestable: Justified or not, Russia attacked a country often described as “a staunch U.S. ally,” home to a U.S.-backed oil pipeline – but America’s resources are so depleted, its military so overextended, its economic stature so diminished, that the U.S. could respond only with words. “American and European leaders were demanding, begging and pleading with Russia as the new superpower” (The New York Times, Aug. 12, p.1). France, Germany, and Italy refused to take sides (The Guardian online, Aug. 16). “We must not threaten [Russia],” said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, “because it will not work. Because everyone knows we are not going to war” (The New York Times, Aug. 20, p.10). On Aug. 18 the Associated Press (online) reported inconclusive crisis meetings between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the European Union. The report’s conclusion told the whole story and marks a sea change in geopolitics: “Russia is the EU’s largest energy supplier besides being a Superpower.”

America’s force and prestige proved too weak to protect an American ally. Needing Russian energy more than American commerce, Europe would not fall in with American policy. So you tell me: Is the United States still a superpower in anyone’s eyes but our own?


The United States is not the only superpower anymore because Russia is a Superpower again, not a former any longer. Since NATO has grown has been a direct threat to Russia, which they have regain themselves once again as the US government has officially annouced Russia is a superpower again. The facts are below, clealy stated.

A Superpower Is Reborn
The New York Times: August 24, 2008

Czech press survey
Russia showed by the Georgian war that it can be a superpower, while the European Union showed during the war that it is not able to be a superpower
September 1, 2008

Is Russia Warming Up For A New Cold War?
Oct 20, 2008 by Brian Mciver


The United States is not the only superpower anymore because Russia is a Superpower again, not a former any longer. Since NATO has grown has been a direct threat to Russia, which they have regain themselves once again as the US government has officially annouced Russia is a superpower again.



Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of “The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise.” She has worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House and been a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She specializes in U.S.-China relations and great power relationships, multilateral institutions and U.S. foreign policy.

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