As he assumes leadership of this freaked-out world, the success of our new president's foreign policy — and presidency — will depend on the thinking he does inside the box.
By Thomas P.M. Barnett
Esquire, March 2009, pp. 53-54.
For roughly the past quarter century, America has run the world using the following two levers: its massive consumption rate and its willingness to deploy military forces around the planet. Together these two drivers facilitated the rise of many new great powers by enabling their export-fueled growth and obviating any need for them to engage in distracting military buildups or overseas interventions.
That U. S. grand strategy has essentially run its course, having proven both amazingly successful (the death of great-power war in East Asia) and extremely exhausting (our crippling debt overhang).
As President Obama renegotiates America's role in this world that we created, four potential flash-cum-bang points stand out for the year ahead.
Flash Point No. 1
First, and most obviously, is the second global economic summit in April to deal with the world's ongoing financial crisis. With the EU and Japan accompanying us into recession and our economy unlikely to turn any corner until early 2010, China's Keynesian role as globalization's "spend to save" stimulant is of critical importance, meaning that China today plays the same role vis-à-vis America that we played to imperial Great Britain at the end of World War II: The imperial power needs a bailout, and the rising power has the cash. As a rule, the price for such cooperation is steep — to wit, America got to call most of the shots in the resulting Bretton Woods financial order.
So what does China want? It wants to graduate from the kiddie table that is the expanded G20 crew of emerging economies and gain a seat at the more exclusive G8, where actual heads of state meet. If Obama is serious about his "team of rivals" philosophy, he'd do well to acquiesce, even to the point of permanently expanding the G8 to include the adjunct dozen.
But here's the tough compromise that may hold up this much-needed expansion: The EU seems determined to get some sort of global securities-and-exchange commission to regulate intermarket financial flows in the future — in effect, viewing the current global crash as Washington once did Wall Street's 1929 collapse. As far as emerging markets are concerned, that's going to feel suspiciously constraining; having just achieved some wealth, the rising East and South now face the West's desire to regulate crucial investment flows so as to smooth out an inevitable global business cycle. Which is like wanting to go all the way on the first date — that trust simply does not yet exist in the system.
Obama's balancing act here is difficult. No one wants to derail the emergence of a global middle class, the bulk of which will be found overwhelmingly in emerging markets in coming years, but globalization's periodic panics have clearly grown more frequent and more volatile. Obama must ask China to grow up very fast and assume a lot more leadership (read: exposure to monetary risk), meaning his "fair trade" agenda must inevitably yield to Beijing's definition — and, by extension, New Delhi's and Brasília's — of a fair deal for its still-impoverished masses.
Flash Point No. 2
Flash point No. 2 will be the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, which took on more urgency after Pakistani militants tried to trigger a diversionary war with India by launching the frighteningly effective mini-invasion of downtown Mumbai.
Washington's national-security community is wrapping up a comprehensive strategy review, much like it did on Iraq a couple of years ago, and this time the logic of regionalizing the solution damn well better prevail. If the Obama administration displays an inkling of Bush-Cheney's Great Gamesmanship, then say goodbye to the "good war," because the Hindu Kush is where bankrupt empires go for slaughter.
If Obama is smart enough to socialize the problem beyond NATO (because it's truly beyond NATO in every sense of the word), then we're into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's roster of member states and observers. You know that old bit about crazy in your bedroom versus crazy on my front lawn? Well, this is their front lawn.
Besides India's hard-earned seat at the table, China must be included in some high-viz capacity (Britain's PM Gordon Brown recently floated the notion of Chinese peacekeepers joining the fray) and so must nuclear bad-boy Iran (more on that below). Hell, we should also rehabilitate the Russians, if Obama is clever enough to exploit the situation to defuse recent tensions over Moscow's August smackdown of Georgia.
Remember: This insolvent Leviathan needs some immediate credit-default swaps (what we called "burden sharing" in the Before Time) in both the financial and security realms, so don't be surprised to see both great-power dances (the mega-stimulus package and the new military strategy) either succeed or fail in concert. The era of "separate lanes" is over in American grand strategy.
Flash Points No. 3 and 4
The next two potential flash points are equally intertwined: No. 3, the presidential election in Iran, and No. 4, the question of Obama's follow-through on Bush's August deal to deploy missile-defense facilities in Eastern Europe — ostensibly to protect NATO from Iranian missiles. (Feeling out of the loop on ancient Polish-Persian hatred? You're not alone.)
If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad manages to win reelection (and yes, Israel's Gaza adventure strengthens his hand), it'll signal that the Supreme Leader isn't looking for any "Nixon goes to China" overtures to rescue its moribund economy with Western investments and technology. Such a dead end would complicate any future U. S. cooperation with India and China on either global finance or Afghani-Pakistan, because both states need long-term access to Iran's energy as their own domestic demand grows. It would also make it near impossible for Obama to finesse the missile-shield issue (i.e., indefinitely delayed until "further testing"), thus further antagonizing Moscow when Putin's already in a pissy mood and looking to test our young leader.
If Ahmadinejad is toppled by either the moderate former president Mohammad Khatami or the technocratic Tehran mayor, Mohammad Qalibaf, then Iran is definitely back in play, giving Obama plenty more wiggle room elsewhere, but only if he and Hillary Clinton can keep a lid on Israel's hard-line factions, which seem intent on taking out Iran's nuclear facilities preemptively. (Such strikes won't succeed, but they would trigger Iran's hard-line retrenchment, no matter which candidate prevails.) To that end, when the Obama camp coolly floats the notion of extending America's nuclear umbrella over Israel and — implicitly — any friendly neighboring Arab state that desires it, the former junior senator from Illinois is breaking out the big-boy voice of the world's sole military superpower.
That's the cluster of strategic issues that either facilitates or foils Obama's first year as leader of the freaked-out world. Everything else waits on this unscrambled Rubik's Cube, unless Kim Jong Il decides that he's so lonely that he wants to pop off another nuke to get back on Washington's radar.
And in the end, everything depends on how many new frenemies Obama is willing to add to his great-power Facebook. If our new president decides that America is still stuck with the same old friends we've always had, then he will quickly find himself as boxed in as George W. Bush was at the end of his second term and as impotent as Jimmy Carter was at the end of his only term.
The worst thing Obama can do coming out of the gate is attempt to demonize any of these rising powers with doofus labels (e.g., axis of evil/diesel, league of autocracies) or to simultaneously "contain" all their regional ambitions. Trust me, if they're not a significant part of the solution, they'll invariably constitute the insoluble heart of the problem.
Thomas P. M. Barnett is a contributing editor and best-selling author whose new book, Great Powers: America and the World After Bush (G. P. Putnam's Sons), is being published this month.