For generations reared on the mother’s milk of “American exceptionalism,” each day brings a new affront. China, on the rise, stubbornly refuses to end its currency manipulation, distorting Beijing’s advantage in an international system of our making. Close allies in Europe and Japan slash defense budgets, further burdening Washington with the role of global police officer. In the face of repeated threats and sanctions, Iran still dares to build nuclear weapons and plot terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Syria’s despotic president lingers in power. Israelis and Palestinians blithely ignore presidential exhortations to make concessions for peace. A costly war in Afghanistan drags on toward … what, exactly?
Republicans lay the blame for those international woes on President Obama’s doorstep. They object to his squishy multilateralism, his willingness to engage odious adversaries in diplomacy, and his apologies for past American mistakes. They see insufficient fealty to Israel, indecision in Afghanistan, and a refusal to lead—out front, the way they’re accustomed to seeing—on Libya. They doubt Obama’s conviction that America is a “shining city upon a hill” and a beacon to all free peoples. “As president of the United States, I will devote myself to an American Century, and I will never, ever apologize for America,” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said during a recent foreign-policy speech. In it, he advanced the notion of America’s singularity, its role as a bulwark against tyranny, and its leadership of the free (and, by extension, the entire) world. “America’s strength rises from a strong economy, a strong defense, and the enduring strength of our values,” he said. “Unfortunately, under this president, all three of those elements have been weakened.”
Wait just a minute. Only three years ago, Obama and the Democrats blamed President Bush and his administration for failing to check China and deter Iran. They objected to Bush’s swashbuckling unilateralism, his decision to ignore diplomacy with disagreeable countries, and his with-us-or-against-us triumphalism that alienated even close allies. They questioned his one-sided fealty to Israel and blamed him for a war in Iraq that was dragging toward … what, exactly? They charged that he tarnished the American beacon by endorsing torture and conflating the spread of democracy with regime change at the point of a gun.
Why did two presidents with such different foreign-policy instincts run up against—and, in many cases, get foiled by—the same international challenges? In “George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and the Future of U.S. Global Leadership,” a recent article in International Affairs, James Lindsay wrote that presidents today, no matter their styles, must manage friends and foes who feel increasingly empowered to ignore or contest American dominance. “Americans have this ingrained notion that U.S. leadership and predominance is the natural state of world affairs, with Democrats thus concluding that gentle engagement will automatically cause countries to rally to our banner, and Republicans believing that firmness and consistency will have the same effect,” Lindsay said in an interview. “They are both fundamentally misreading the geostrategic environment.” The post-Cold War period was an era of victory that left the United States standing atop the global order—a superpower with unmatched military, economic, social, and diplomatic might. No wonder expectations are so high.
But things have changed. Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey, and especially China are clawing their way to the top of the international system, “insisting on all the privileges that come with their newly elevated status,” as Lindsay puts it. Revolution is sweeping the Middle East, the world’s energy basket. Revisionist powers (Russia) and perennial outliers (Iran, North Korea) sense opportunity and new room to maneuver. “If a unipolar moment ever really existed, it’s not just passed, it’s gone permanently,” says Richard Haass, the former senior official in the first Bush White House who now runs the Council on Foreign Relations. Partly, that follows from two costly wars, a recession, and political dysfunction that blocks a long-term debt solution or a bipartisan foreign-policy consensus. More than that, though, it flows from globalization. “Power is simply too diffuse now, and the challenges we confront are complex, transnational, and they defy the efforts of any one nation,” Haass says.
Americans can’t advance their interests summarily in this new universe, even if that’s what they’re used to; other nations won’t automatically fall in line. At the arguable height of American power, George H.W. Bush crafted a consensus at the United Nations and a military alliance of Western and Arab nations to liberate Kuwait in 1991; Russians acquiesced to NATO expansion. Little more than a decade later, George W. Bush had no hope for U.N. consensus, and he was lucky to have the support of even those few countries that joined his Iraq war coalition; Moscow invaded Georgia in 2008 rather than stomach the Westernization of Georgia and Ukraine. “We’re the only country that can mobilize collective international action to confront the big global problems like terrorism, proliferation, climate change, and access to energy,” says Brent Scowcroft, who was national-security adviser for George H.W. Bush. “But it will require a change of character in U.S. leadership.… We’ll have to lead more by persuasion than coercion or dominance. That’s an art, and I hope our strategic culture is still capable of it.”
This article appears in the November 19, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.