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.