As Barack Obama's first year in office comes to a close, grumbling about his alleged shortcomings has become a favorite pastime among liberals. The reality, however, is that a president's room to move on most policy areas is severely constrained by the realities of congressional politics. The major exception to this is foreign policy. Here political constraints are much looser, and it's a good deal fairer to hold the White House responsible for outcomes. And the results have been fairly impressive. Obama may not have reimagined America's role in the world, but he has slowed the deterioration in American influence that had been underway since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Ironically, the quality that's helping Obama here is the very thing that's tended to annoy liberals when it comes to domestic issues -- a preference for a calm and disciplined approach that avoids substantive or rhetorical overreach.
The basic story of the contemporary United States involves the slightly awkward combination of unmatched power and inevitable relative decline. Our economy can't grow as fast as India's or China's or Brazil's, and there's no equivalent to the EU integration process that could enhance our power and expand our reach. The only real uncertainty about relative decline concerns the extent to which those powers will be joined by other potential regional powerhouses like Nigeria, Iran, South Africa, and Indonesia, if they ever get their acts together in terms of sustained economic growth.
But even though the waning of American hegemony can be clearly seen on the horizon, the fundamental reality is that it's a long way off. China's economy is basically only Japan-sized, and the country faces massive challenges starting with the fact that the majority of the population is still impoverished peasant farmers. India is even worse off. Japan is in demographic decline. Europe isn't an actual country and can't really make foreign-policy decisions.
In other words, our power is slipping away, but only very slowly.
Bush approached this situation with a combination of hubris and hysteria. On the one hand, we acted as if Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and a handful of tiny, like-minded Latin American countries like Bolivia and Nicaragua were some kind of threat to the United States. But while we were so weak as to tremble at the thought of Southern neighbors saying mean things about us, we were also supposedly strong enough to force sweeping political transformation across the Muslim world. The junction of these impulses occurred when we became embroiled in a staggering array of international conflicts -- with al-Qaeda killers, yes, but also Iran, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela, and at times Sudan, insurgent groups in Somalia, "Old Europe," the United Nations, plus plenty of others. The situation got so bad that at one point the Bush administration snubbed the democratically elected government of Spain, a long-standing ally and NATO partner.
All this was undertaken under the hazy banner of an ill-defined "war on terror," awkwardly paired with a determination to pursue great-power politics aimed at ensuring "A Balance of Power that Favors Freedom."
The result of this was a vast and unnecessary acceleration of American decline -- lives and resources wasted on pointless wars, global public opinion alarmed by erratic and immoral behavior, deteriorating relationships with most major countries.
The triumph of the first year of Obama's diplomacy has been pulling us out of the tailspin. Obama has done this by relentlessly focusing American policy on a few core objectives: reducing al-Qaeda's potency, curbing nuclear proliferation, and working in a cooperative rather than hostile manner with other important states. Critics note that relatively little has been achieved in concrete terms. This is, I believe, unfair. For one thing, organizing a mutually agreeable plan to end the American occupation of Iraq is a major achievement. So is changing the trajectory of European involvement in Afghanistan, away from moves to withdraw from the country and toward increased deployments of troops and civilian aid. On climate change, Obama has shifted the terrain such that China rather than the United States is now the spoiler. Confidence in the United States, its people, and especially its leaders is now way up, restoring our valuable edge in "soft power."
Relations with Russia continue to be difficult, but disputes between Washington and Moscow now focus on how exactly to implement bilateral nuclear-weapons reductions rather than on, say, potential military clashes in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Iran continues to engage in undesirable nuclear activities, but Obama's willingness to make reasonable offers is building international support for targeted sanctions against the regime. Al-Qaeda's is now in a state of profound ideological weakness, thanks to its own errors plus a new administration determined to fight it without engaging in the sort of blundering provocations that feed radicalism. America's relations with the planet's billion Muslims is no longer dominated by a narrative about a tiny handful of extremists -- breaking the odd symbiotic cycle between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden in which one leader's words and deeds were the main props in the other's political position.
The results of this have not been miraculous. The world's problems continue to be difficult, and American power continues to have limits. At the same time, the United States has massive advantages on the world stage: the largest economy, the only military capable of true global power projection, the third-largest population, and a combination of geographic isolation and democratic politics that make us the preferred partner for most countries outside our continent. For eight years, a United States that acted frightened by the world only frightened it in return, and those strengths were undermined. In his first year in office, Obama has turned that dynamic around and made a promising start on returning to a global order dominated by cooperation and American leadership.