America’s new role in the world

“For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”

If you weren’t struck by the significance of those words when President Obama said them in his inaugural address, you should have been at the Minnesota International Center’s annual foreign policy outlook on Tuesday night.

Obama was declaring a major departure from fundamental notions of America’s position in the world — certainly during the presidency of George W. Bush, and perhaps during the past 30 years — said Thomas Hanson, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who delivered the outlook address at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

Note that Obama didn’t say America must change the world. What he said instead, “we must change with it,” is a startlingly humble statement coming from the leader of this mighty world power.

Obama was expressing “the exact opposite of a transformational diplomacy which sees the United States as the perfected model that must go out and change the world,” Hanson said. That “transformational” notion of our role in the world was, of course, the core of Bush’s foreign policy.

In Obama’s campaign speeches and his book “The Audacity of Hope,” he held up instead the model of President Harry Truman’s post-World War II attitudes. Truman surrounded himself with “wise men,” including Dean Acheson and George Marshall. They took bold steps around the world, but they insisted that America’s values and institutions must not be imposed on other nations.

Even so, they led the United States to its pinnacle of world power, where it stood as a respected and feared leader for the last half of the 20th Century.

American dominance waning
But now, that lofty position is in jeopardy. Obama no doubt has read two sobering reports indicating that America no longer can take its prominence for granted, Hanson said.

One report is the National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends 2025” (PDF) in which the nation’s top intelligence experts predicted last fall that America’s world dominance will give way to a “multi-polar system” in which China, India and other nations gain power.

“The unprecedented shift in relative wealth and economic power roughly from West to East now under way will continue,” the report said. “Power will be more dispersed with the newer players bringing new rules of the game while risks will increase that the traditional Western alliances will weaken.”

Further, it said, “Shrinking economic and military capabilities may force the United States into a difficult set of tradeoffs between domestic versus foreign policy priorities.”

Wealth and power following oil
The other report Hanson cited is the International Energy Agency’s recent “World Energy Outlook.” (PDF) It says that oil consuming nations are on track to shift $2 trillion worth of wealth and power to OPEC countries by 2030. Current trends in energy supply and consumption are “patently unsustainable,” it says.

After the energy-price shocks of mid-2008, no American should doubt that this nation is vulnerable in that scenario.

Collapse of an era
More basically, Hanson said, the current economic crisis has caused the collapse of the framework that shaped the global marketplace for at least the last 30 years.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and others have described a “second great era of globalization” as one in which U.S. and European capitalists defined and dominated global markets as they sought cheap labor and other opportunities. Even while China and other nations gained economic prowess, they were forced to operate in a framework that was structured by Western companies and countries.

That era was fading anyway. Now it has collapsed under the weight of the current economic crisis, Hanson said. The crisis has revealed the weakness of the U.S. consumption economy and the bailout of the financial sector is jeopardizing the U.S. dollar’s status as the world’s pre-eminent currency.

The upshot is that Obama now must lead America into a new framework in which “globalization may well continue but it will be in a different guise,” he said.

No gut feelings
For now, Obama is focused on the economic crisis, Hanson said, and he has not fully set out his strategies for foreign policy in that new framework.

But it’s a safe bet he will seek relationships that are based on commitments to international rules rather than try to push democracy and liberty, Hanson said. In other words, Obama is prepared to work with authoritarian regimes as long as they are committed to international cooperation.

Don’t look for Obama to follow “gut-feelings,” the way Bush often operated. Obama’s approach is far more deliberative, based on facts and advice from his own “wise men” panels. For now, at least, a shaken world seems to find that encouraging.

“There is enormous good will out in the world for this new administration and towering expectations,” Hanson said. But he added, “It remains to be seen how this will work out.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/29/2009 - 02:40 pm.

    President Obama could start by closing all 750 of our military bases around the world and by cancelling the Bush plans to build yet more bases through Africa, top to bottom, staffed with mercenaries because our military is so stretched.

    Step Two: Repeal the War on Terror and never invade another country except as requested by the United Nations. For now, stop killing Iraqi, Anghani, and Pakistani civilians who can’t help being in the way when our “pin-point targeted” missiles aim at those we have labeled terrorists.

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