The next President of the United States — whether it’s Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, or Mitt Romney — is going to have the crap kicked out of him or her by friends and foes around the world.
The problem is that America’s mystique as a superpower was shorn off by Iraq. The US showed its limits — militarily and I would argue economically.
Mystique is ethereal — and comes with decades of collective assessment, and to some degree awe, by other nations that a hyper-power like the United States once “seemed to have no limits.” Mystique can’t be re-established by the success of “the surge” in Iraq or some military conquest or victory. Mystique, and frankly, real global power, comes from decades of being the world’s constructive, deciding vote — from being the Sandra Day O’Connor of judicious engagement in one big problem after another.
Contrary to the views of my friend and Foreign Policy editor-in-chief Moises Naim, I don’t believe America’s place in the world can simply bounce back to where it was before the Bush administration’s turn at the wheel. Major allies and collaborators like Japan, Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and others are already placing different global bets and thinking through scenarios for the future that count on America being an important voice at the table — but not the pivotal nation it has been for decades. And foes are moving their agendas now because they sense that America is not doing well at securing its global objectives.
The real problem in the international system today is that a global equilibrium of interests has been wrecked by America’s invasion of Iraq, its failure to secure a normalization deal with Iran in 2003, its disregard for a status-hungry Russia in the Cold War period, and its inattention to China’s rise globally as America remains distracted by its problems in the Middle East.
Duke University Professor Bruce Jentleson and UC Berkeley’s Steve Weber make the good point that the next President will not only NOT start out where President Bush did in world affairs — but from a position damaged by this administration’s decisions and a place far back from even:
But the next president will not be starting from an international position similar to the one Bush inherited no matter how successful the administration is in undoing the damage of its failed policies. A once internationally weak and democratizing Russia has become an autocratic and provocative petro-state. China’s economy is more than twice the size of what it was in 2000, and its global influence has correspondingly risen. And a new generation of jihadists, no less committed to violence, is eager to continue the anti-America campaign.
The GOP candidates who would build on Bush’s old approach to foreign policy clearly don’t get how the world has changed. But neither do Democrats who stress reversing what Bush has done. No one should feel vindicated by the Bush administration’s reversals, because defining the future of U.S. foreign policy in terms of the past would be as big a mistake for the next president as it was for Bush.
When you are a great power, a lost decade does not simply leave you back where you started. It leaves you far behind. Our presidential candidates had better plan to do more than simply reboot the system and start over, as though the clock had stopped in January 2001.
Re-establishing an equilibrium that is stable is going to be very difficult and may very well involve a spate of conflicts and wars — small and large — that we haven’t seen the outlines of yet.
But because of America’s unique role and legacy over the last century and the lofty rhetoric that always flows from American political leaders who still see America as the center of all things — the world will test the next president to get the sense of when power will be depoyed and when it won’t — and how far America will go and what it will gamble to achieve its goals.
All other key nations will want to know what the realities of American power and rhetoric are.
The next president will be tested by friends and foes alike. Imagine the first meetings of Kennedy and Khrushchev in which the Soviet leader deftly bounced Kennedy around during the beginning of JFK’s tenure. But imagine it ten times, hundred times, a thousand times worse — on a scale and complexity of actors and issues that far exceeds the realities of 1961.
It’s going to be a rough ride for the next president. And it would be a cataclysmic mistake for any president not to anticipate these challenges — and to choose any one of the certain-to-come conflicts ahead as a way to define his or her presidency.
— Steve Clemons