When Barack Obama enters the Oval Office as commander in chief for the first time in January, it's not hard to imagine him walking to the globe beside the window, giving it a good spin and running in his mind through the list of global burdens he has inherited from his predecessor. What he will see is unlike anything any American statesman has ever had to confront. Two simultaneous land wars; a rapidly arming Iran; an atomic, post-Musharraf Pakistan; a resurgent, energy-rich Russia; a China that holds 10% of U.S. currency; a $10-trillion public debt; the worst recession since World War II; and a weak dollar.
Reflecting on this list, it may occur to Obama that he faces the most densely packed and danger-fraught international agenda of any American president since Harry S. Truman -- but the weakest hand of any president since Warren G. Harding. To use the prevailing economic terminology, he will inherit a leveraged superpower.
Many have noted the perils of America's wars and recession and have dilated gravely on the courage and creativity they will require of the new president. But few have called attention to the deeper structural significance these challenges collectively hold. For of the many "firsts" that Obama will register in the history books, the most important but most frequently overlooked is that he will be the first American president to have to come to grips with the full-blown psychological reality of global multipolarity.
This is neither the geopolitical straitjacket of bipolarity, with its furrowed map and hair-trigger standoffs, nor is it the permissive strategic environment of unipolarity, with its cooperative center and untamed periphery. Multipolarity has never existed on a global scale. The closest parallel we have to it is late 19th century Europe, with its narrow power differentials and multiple actors jostling for influence in the finely tuned regional balance of power.
The 21st century wasn't supposed to look this way. Only 18 years have passed since Charles Krauthammer proclaimed the advent of the "unipolar moment." The leitmotif of this new era was supposed to be incontestable American strength. Krauthammer acknowledged that new powers might arise at some point, but that, he said, was decades away.
Now, however, the multipolar moment has arrived ahead of schedule. Signs of its advent are everywhere. China continues its peaceful half- century march to superpower status, amassing an economy that will be larger than America's in a decade and a globe-girdling array of Third World client states. Russia, long thought a geopolitical washout, has used a combination of natural-gas wealth and diplomatic braggadocio to expel U.S. influence from Central Asia and reinsert itself into the ranks of the great powers. India, now a member of the nuclear club, is quietly dethroning the U.S. high-tech industry and carving out a geopolitical sphere of influence in South Asia.
Although the U.S. will still be the strongest power in this new system, it will not enjoy the sway it did in the early 1990s.
Talking this way in Washington will earn you the pejorative label of "declinist." Thus, arch-neoconservative Robert Kagan used a recent Washington Post column to warn the new administration against constructing a realist foreign policy template premised on an acceptance of attenuating American strength. By equating American primacy with "optimism" and "limits on our power" with defeatism, Kagan sent an unmistakable political message to the new Democratic president: Persist with the orthodoxy of unipolarity or risk the epithet "declinist" in the Republican Party's 2012 comeback narrative. "The danger of today's declinism," Kagan wrote, "is not that it is true but that the next president will act as if it is."
But the real danger is precisely the opposite -- that America is in a state of relative decline but that the new administration will act as if it is not. The latest forecast from the National Intelligence Council, the strategic forecasting unit of the U.S. intelligence community, depicts, by 2025, a world in which U.S. preeminence is deeply eroded and in which Washington maintains a decisive edge only in military hardware.
This is the world that Obama must equip the nation to navigate. It is imperative that he initiate a fundamental break from the post-Cold War U.S. strategic playbook. He must find a way to be flexible without being perfidious, to be a realist without being cynical, to match American policy ends with American power means. He must not persist, like his immediate predecessor, with a unipolar mind-set and a bipolar tool kit in a multipolar world.
What is an eager but overburdened young president to do? Conventional wisdom holds that the United States is not suited to playing power politics: Realpolitik, it is said, is not in our political DNA. And indeed, we are not a cynical people. But Obama need not reach far to find a shrewd new way to cope with an imposing new world. Embedded in our own domestic political system are the tools he will need. Three concepts, each deeply rooted in American democracy, may prove useful. Think of them as the ABCs of American statecraft for a multipolar world:
A: Allies are the political "base." As Obama knows, successful candidates take care to maintain their links to the party faithful. Lose them, and a politician deals from a position of weakness. In a multipolar world, allies provide the crucial "votes" that America needs to succeed against rivals. The first rule of American politics should be the first rule of American geopolitics: "Tend to your base."
B: Bargains are the coin of the realm. Every American politician understands the importance of trade-offs: Help a rival senator pass a bill, and he'll help you build that new highway back home. It's the same in foreign policy. "Ice NATO expansion," Moscow may tell the new president, "and we'll help you with Iran." As they do in the Senate, these offers force us to weigh values and interests. And as in the Senate, America must beware of cutting deals at the expense of our most precious resource -- our base.
C: Checked power is safe power. The concept of a balance of power is the taproot of American political thought. Congress, courts and the president contain and curtail one another in an elaborate dance that sifts power, protecting the republic. Understanding this separation of powers will equip Obama well for multipolarity. He need not dominate the new system or head off peers, only keep their power in manageable bounds.
The notion that democracies in general, and America in particular, are at a disadvantage in the rough-and-tumble world of geopolitics must be jettisoned. The skills we need are all well known to President-elect Obama. Incorporating these most American of concepts into our foreign policy may offer the new president some surprising advantages for coping with an unfamiliar new world.
America, it turns out, can handle the end of the unipolar moment.
A. Wess Mitchell is co-founder and director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis.