President Obama has been in office for one year now. No American president since the Cold War has ever faced such a daunting tangle of foreign policy challenges, not to mention domestic issues like health care and a mounting public dept. Still, after eight years of a foreign policy, based on unilateralism, military supremacy and imperial ambition resulting in a relative decline of American power, he opted for a renewed leadership in a time of shifting geopolitics and economic crisis.
The problems are numerous and complex: two unfinished wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, an unstable Pakistan facing crawling Taliban spread, the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, hostile would-be nuclear-power regimes, climate change, the world economic recession, a rising China and an ever more self-confident Russia. Under these difficult circumstances, the Obama administration should not be blamed for not having achieved it all yet. Does this extensive list of breakthroughs correspond to a larger and fully comprehensive American approach – a new grand strategy ? Are all theses challenges meant to lead to a true renewed American Leadership?
There is such a Grand Strategy, based on the logic of liberal hegemony and security interdependence.
The new administration wants to act as a benign hegemon again. To achieve this, Obama took one step backwards to multilateralism, soft/smart power, and advocating a broader interpretation of national interest and cooperation in order to retain America’s status as an indispensable nation. He moreover articulated a moderate internationalist approach, built on both realist and liberal orientations: on the one hand, the new strategy is realist when acknowledging the limits of US-power an increasingly multipolar world, and liberal on the other hand in its inclination towards multilateralism, engagement and progressive change. As Obama puts it himself: “We can and should lead the world, but we have to apply wisdom and judgment. Part of our capacity to lead is linked to our capacity to show restraint.”
For the new administration, the threats of the 21st century reflect the constantly growing security interdependence. This means that America’s security is from now on intertwined with how other people act, live, burn energy, threaten minorities, enforce treaties and provide public health.
Consequently Obama focused on the damaged Non-Proliferation Treaty, multilateral cooperation, development and human security. Furthermore he wanted the United States to be the one provider of global governance again like Washington did when organizing and managing the Western order right after World War II. America chose to endorse the heavy burden of providing a stable international order by operating mostly within rules and institutions. In return, the world accepted the American leadership. The Bush administration, obviously changed course with its unilateral policy approach and searched for a new imperial global order as opposed Obama, who made a step backwards in his attempt to restore the old form of liberal hegemony.
In today’s world, the United States has to share power to be secure, which means that in this very time of limited power resources, the United States needs to rely on other nations’ support to ensure global security. In order to remain the world’s leading nation, Washington needs to regain authority and respect as a global leader. In a year's time, the Obama Administration has successfully started the process of gaining this leadership back in spite of what critics may say. Of course, the question of whether or not his new engagement strategy – with special regards to Russia and Iran – will work out, is still open. Yet, he has at least another three more years to convince us it will.
Tobias Fella studies international relations at Ludwig-Maximillians University in Munich.
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