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Obama and future of American power
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By Joseph S. Nye

One of the first challenges that the next US President Barack Obama will face is the effects of the ongoing financial crisis, which has called into question the future of American power.

An article in The Far Eastern Economic Review proclaims that "Wall Street's crack-up presages a global tectonic shift: the beginning of the decline of American power."

Yet the dollar, a symbol of American financial power, has surged rather than declined. As Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard professor and former chief economist of the IMF, notes, "It is ironic, given that we just messed up big-time, that the response of foreigners is to pour more money into us. They're not sure where else to go. They seem to have more confidence in our ability to solve our problems than we do."

It used to be said that when the United States sneezed, the rest of the world caught a cold. More recently, many claimed that with the rise of China and the petro-states, an American slowdown could be decoupled from the rest of the world. But when the US caught the financial flu, others followed. Many foreign leaders quickly switched from schadenfreude to fear - and to the security of US treasury bills.

Crises often refute conventional wisdom, and this one reveals that the underlying strength of the American economy remains impressive. The poor performance of Wall Street and US regulators has cost the US a good deal in terms of the soft power of its economic model's attractiveness, but the blow need not be fatal if, in contrast to Japan in the 1990s, the US manages to absorb the losses and limit the damage.

The World Economic Forum still rates the US economy as the world's most competitive, owing to its labor-market flexibility, higher education, political stability, and openness to innovation.

The larger question concerns the long-term future of American power. A new forecast for 2025 being prepared by the US National Intelligence Council projects that American dominance will be "much diminished", and that the one key area of continued American superiority - military power - will be less significant in the competitive world of the future. This is not so much a question of American decline as "the rise of the rest".

Power always depends on context, and in today's world, it is distributed in a pattern that resembles a complex three-dimensional chess game. On the top chessboard, military power is largely unipolar and likely to remain so for a while. But on the middle chessboard, economic power is already multi-polar, with the US, Europe, Japan and China as the major players, and others gaining in importance.

The bottom chessboard is the realm of transnational relations that cross borders outside of government control. It includes actors as diverse as bankers electronically transferring sums larger than most national budgets, as well as terrorists transferring weapons or hackers disrupting Internet operations. It also includes new challenges like pandemics and climate change. On this bottom board, power is widely dispersed, and it makes no sense to speak of unipolarity, multipolarity, or hegemony.

Even in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the giddy pace of technological change is likely to continue to drive globalization, but the political effects will be different for the world of nation-states and the world of non-state actors. In inter-state politics, the most important factor will be the continuing "return of Asia."

In 1750, Asia had three-fifths of the world population and three-fifths of the world's economic output. By 1900, after the industrial revolution in Europe and America, Asia accounted for just one-fifth of world output. By 2040, Asia will be well on its way back to its historical share.

A century ago, Britain managed the rise of American power without conflict, but the world's failure to manage the rise of German power led to two devastating world wars.

The rise of non-state actors also must be managed. In 2001, a non-state group killed more Americans than the government of Japan killed at Pearl Harbor. A pandemic spread by birds or travelers on jet aircraft could kill more people than perished in World Wars I or II. The problems of the diffusion of power away from states may turn out to be more difficult than shifts in power between states.

The challenge for Barack Obama is that more and more issues and problems are outside the control of even the most powerful state. Although the US does well on the traditional measures of power, those measures increasingly fail to capture much of what defines world politics, which, owing to the information revolution and globalization, is changing in a way that prevents Americans from achieving all their international goals by acting alone.

For example, international financial stability is vital to American prosperity, but the US needs the cooperation of others to ensure it. Global climate change, too, will affect the quality of life, but the US cannot manage the problem alone. And, in a world where borders are becoming increasingly porous to everything from drugs to infectious diseases to terrorism, America must mobilize international coalitions to address shared threats and challenges.

As the world's largest economy, US leadership will remain crucial. The problem of US power in the wake of the financial crisis is not one of decline, but of a realization that even the most powerful country cannot achieve its aims without the help of others. Fortunately, Barack Obama understands that.

The author is a former US assistant secretary of defense and a professor at Harvard

Project Syndicate

(China Daily November 11, 2008)

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