The new game for the US will involve tough diplomacy and the occasional judicious application of force.
Nobody should wonder that America’s pre-eminence is being contested. After the Soviet collapse the absolute global supremacy of the United States sometimes began to seem normal. In fact, its dominance reached such heights only because Russia was reeling and China was still emerging from the chaos and depredations that had so diminished it in the 20th century. Even today, America remains the only country able to project power right across the globe.
There is nevertheless reason to worry. The reassertion of Russian power spells trouble. It has already led to the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine—both breaches of the very same international law that Mr. Putin says he upholds in Syria. President Obama, takes comfort from Russia’s weak economy and the emigration of some of its best people. But a declining nuclear-armed former superpower can cause a lot of harm.
Relations between China and America are more important—and even harder to manage. For the sake of peace and prosperity, the two must be able to work together. And yet their dealings are inevitably plagued by rivalry and mistrust. Because every transaction risks becoming a test of which one calls the shots, antagonism is never far below the surface.
American foreign policy has not yet adjusted to this contested world. For the past three presidents, policy has chiefly involved the export of American values—although, to the countries on the receiving end, that sometimes felt like an imposition. The idea was that countries would inevitably gravitate towards democracy, markets and human rights. Optimists thought that even China was heading in that direction.
Still worth it
That notion has suffered, first in Iraq and Afghanistan and now the wider Middle East. Liberation has not brought stability. Democracy has not taken root. Mr. Obama has seemed to conclude that America should pull back. In Libya he led from behind; in Syria he has held off. As a result, he has ceded Russia the initiative in the Middle East for the first time since the 1970s.
All those, who still see democracy and markets as the route to peace and prosperity hope that America will be more willing to lead. Mr. Obama’s wish that other countries should share responsibility for the system of international law and human rights will work only if our country sets the agenda and takes the initiative—as it did with Iran’s nuclear program. The new game will involve tough diplomacy and the occasional judicious application of force.
America still has resources other powers lack. Foremost is its web of alliances, including NATO. Whereas Mr. Obama sometimes behaves as if alliances are transactional, they need solid foundations. America’s military power is unmatched, but it is hindered by pork-barrel politics and automatic cuts mandated by Congress. These policies spring from the biggest brake on American leadership: dysfunctional politics in Washington. That is not just a poor advertisement for democracy; it also stymies America’s interest. In the new game it is something that the United States—and the world—can ill afford.