Too Powerful for the World

The coming presidential election in the United States will take place in the midst of fundamental world political change. The “August War” in the Caucasus was an unmistakable sign of that. The “New World Order” announced and implemented by George H. W. Bush at the collapse of the Soviet Union reached its turning point on August 8, 2008, with the onset of the Russian-Georgian war. The Bush era came to its end at that point, even before a change of White House occupants.

At the same time, it signaled the end of two decades in which the United States was the world’s only superpower. The often criticized and hated Pax Americana enforced and thus ensured global stability for nearly a generation. But now it appears to be petering out.

The first effects have recently been noticed in the Near- and Middle East. Next, we will witness China’s ascendance and Russia’s re-ascendance as world powers. But it could take decades before China catches up economically with the United States and Russia finds greatness comparable to the Czarist days.

World political imbalance

It is, however, of great symbolic importance that one nation-state, Russia, militarily disciplined another nation-state, Georgia, out of fear that a third nation-state, The United States, intended to encircle it militarily.

American (and European) foreign affairs politicians, first and foremost the two U.S. presidential candidates, can hardly overlook these signals. They challenge the United States and its allies to come up with a different, conceptually new foreign policy.

The world political imbalance felt by America’s partners – allies and enemies alike – makes America’s relationship with the rest of the world very difficult. The unilateral position of power achieved by the United States endows it with superlative power.

The USA has almost exhausted all its possibilities

No imaginable coalition of other countries could force Washington, economically or militarily, to change its behavior. With all its difficulties, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is still greater than the national economies of Germany, Japan and China combined, albeit not as great as that of the European Union. America militarily dominates the seas and outer space. Those facts will define its continued importance in world politics.

On the other hand, Afghanistan and Iraq show that the United States is nearing the limit of available possibilities. Undertaking another war, for example against Iran, would force America to think long and hard. And the American-dominated NATO alliance is now deeply divided; many members will only reluctantly allow themselves to be used for American goals.

Other allies, such as unstable Pakistan, are becoming loose cannons. It has already been described as the American paradox: in the long run, the United States is too powerful for the world. Its economic and military power has introduced imbalance to the global system.

No conceptually new approaches

Although invincible in the long run, Bush’s military adventures have proven that in the short run America will be unable to deploy its might in too many world hot-spots. This gives other, weaker powers the opportunity to make their own interests clear as opposed to what the United States thinks should be their fate.

The discussion between presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama as to a post-Bush “new foreign policy” has brought forth no conceptually new approaches. What policy toward Russia can prevent Moscow and Tehran from inevitably developing closer ties? What counterbalancing role could allies, especially Germany, play?

The candidates offer no ideas for that. Except for minor details, they appear to be in agreement. But their campaign rhetoric shouldn’t be taken at face value. As President, Obama wants to listen more closely to America’s allies and his idea of negotiating with “enemy states” remains fuzzy.

Inconsistent signals from the Obama team

Nonetheless, Obama has retained the idea of direct dialog with Iran. He has been advised, meanwhile, that such contact would have to be long in preparation if they are to serve America’s interests. In that regard, Obama’s choice of Joseph Biden for Vice-President was an excellent move.

With 35 years experience as a Senator and as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden is well-versed and wise to every foreign policy trick. He doesn’t think very much of categorizing recalcitrant regimes “rogue states” and has long advocated for direct negotiations with Syria and Iran.

On the other hand, thoughtless Cold War tones can be heard from some of Obama’s team. Ex-General Wesley Clark, for example, imagines a dialog with Moscow in which “Russia wouldn’t retreat very much.”

Define our own foreign policy goals

Rhetorically, candidate McCain supports a hard-line stance against Moscow as the trademark of his foreign policy, for example excluding Russia from the Group of Eight industrialized states, as “punishment.” On the other hand, he suggests concluding further nuclear disarmament agreements with Russia.

Since both are hardly possible simultaneously, McCain – should he become President – will have to decide whether he wants to be a hawk or a dove.

Confident prognoses about future American foreign policy can’t be gotten from campaign rhetoric. The next President won’t stick to his campaign promises. For America’s allies, Germans and Europeans in general, that means they will have to define their own foreign policy goals and then advocate for them with the United States.

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