You’ve seen the political ads by now claiming President Barack Obama is on a global apology tour, that he is weakening the United States abroad, and that Republican candidate X will “restore America’s standing …” This rhetoric makes for great campaign fodder, but if only it were true.
To be sure, the world is changing, as is America’s place in it. You can argue that America's global role is indeed diminishing, but is Obama to blame? No, rather he has the poor luck to be in charge as an inevitable rebalancing of the global system occurs.
The U.S. held an enviable position at the end of World War II. The greatest industrial machines across the globe – Germany, Japan, Great Britain – all lay in ruins, except for the United States. It was natural, then, that the U.S. would go on to grab an outsized share of the global economy. We were simply the only place capable of making complex things in large numbers as the wartime economy known as the “arsenal of democracy” made the transition to peacetime. This fueled the post-war boom that lasted through the 1950’s and into the 1960’s – and long enough for generations of Americans to accept prosperity as the natural order of things even as the economy slowed in the 1980s, and economic challengers like Japan, and later China, rose.
Politically, a similar scenario unfolded. The echoes of World War II were just fading when we became embroiled in the Cold War; the U.S. formed one pole in this decades-long struggle with the Soviet Union on the other. For the next half-century, nations were either in our camp or theirs, except for the clever few countries that tried to play one superpower off against the other. Then, in 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev abruptly pulled the plug on the Soviet Union. The war was over, the story went, and we won. It was now a unipolar world, and some even cast the U.S. as the new Roman Empire set to rule the world in an era of Pax Americana.
But as we learned in high school physics, nature abhors a vacuum, so other countries stepped in to fill the void left by the Soviet Union. Rather than one superpower, we now have a tier of quasi-superpowers: China, a resurgent Russia, and the European Union (when the Europeans can actually act like a Union), along with a group of regional powers – Turkey, Iran, Brazil, India – aspiring to make it big in what has rapidly become a multipolar world.
Human history has never been static; it was wrong to assume that global economics or politics would be either. America’s “decline” is less than a case of our falling behind and more a case of the rest of the world catching up in an overdue rebalancing of global power. It is a rebalancing that would be occurring even if President John McCain or President Ralph Nader were sitting in the Oval Office. So rather than illusory promises of restoring an American hyperpower that never really existed (Did our awesome power prevent 9/11? Or bend Iraq or Afghanistan to our will?), the presidential candidates would better serve us, and the country, in explaining how they will operate in this dynamic new multipolar world.
Weigh in: What do you think? Are we living in a multipolar world, or would America still reign as the sole superpower if not for Obama's foreign policy?
Photo Credit: Beverly & Pack