By Tao Wenzhao
When Barack Obama is officially sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, the world he faces will be very different from the one his predecessor George W. Bush did eight years ago. The days when the US sat comfortably relishing the spoils of the Cold War are long gone, as the war in Iraq and the spreading financial crisis have dragged the country into a difficult situation it has not seen for decades.
What does all this mean to the Obama administration when it takes office or to the US for that matter? Taking a cue from a slew of signs, I believe that Obama's government will very likely pursue a strategic retraction, meaning the US will very likely enter a period of strategic adjustment.
The last time the US underwent a strategic retraction was in the early 1970s. The starting signals came in then President Richard Nixon's address to the nation on the war in Vietnam on Nov 3, 1969 and the annual foreign affairs report his administration submitted to Congress in Feb 1970.
Nixon said back then the US would still honor its obligations spelled out in the treaties it had signed with its allies, but it was impossible for the US to defend all "free countries" in the world and those under security threats should rely on themselves more than on any other nation, because the US would not plunge into another protracted conflict like the Vietnam War ever again.
That is the so-called Nixon Doctrine, of which the gist is to pursue a strategic retraction by reducing the defense obligations the US had to fulfill around the world. Between then and the early 1980s the country basically remained in strategic retraction, mostly because the US was sinking deeper in the swamp of Vietnam War with the society bitterly split.
In the early 1980s the Reagan administration put the nation back on the track of strategic expansion as it assumed the US had recovered from its "Vietnam War Syndrome". President Ronald Reagan moved into the White House with the banner of "restoring American power" held high. He lost little time in setting up an all-round rivalry against the Soviet Union with all guns blazing and ultimately exhausted the other superpower to death with his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
After the Cold War ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the US not only maintained the Cold War-era military alliance without a clearly-defined enemy but also pushed forward NATO's eastward expansion while reaping the benefits of the Cold War.
It also made easy gains from its intervention in the first Gulf War and massive air raids against Yugoslavia. After the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on US soil, the Bush administration rode on the surging patriotic fervor of the nation and launched the war on Iraq before wiping out al-Qaida, achieving another "over-expansion of the empire".
The war in Iraq has seriously consumed the US' hard strength, sucking more than $580 billion out of the federal coffer by the end of the 2008 fiscal year; while the nation's soft strength was also heavily damaged, with its international image reduced from bad to worse amid rising anti-Americanism around the world (particularly among the Muslim communities).
Islamic fundamentalists are doing a pretty good job keeping the US military busy in Afghanistan and Pakistan and constantly reminding Washington the war on terror is far from over.
Meanwhile, the US has soured its relations with Russia by expanding NATO eastward and deploying its missile defense system right outside Russia's front door. The cross-Atlantic alliance has been weakened by cracks as a result of the war on Iraq. And the Israel-Palestine peace process has made no progress.