The power of Obama

A few days away from inauguration, there is a palpable eagerness to know how US policy will be under Barrack Obama. Most discussion of this is about his vision and strategic preferences. I think we should also look at the basics of US power. Because, call me old-fashioned or what, I believe that however transformational Obama is, he will also be the American President.

 In November 2008, the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) produced a study of the future that led to a lot of excited headlines about the US being on the way down as a world power by 2025. The ugly question emerged, could Obama end up overseeing US decline?

The discussion quickly got over-excited and, like so much in the media, vanished up itself a couple of days later. But the NIC report, Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, analysed an issue of lasting importance and was significantly less heated than some of the headlines it attracted. It concluded, ‘The US will remain the single most powerful country but will be less dominant,’ which is a standard, commonsense view.

Fashion cycles for decline

Ever since it became obvious that the US was not going to win in Vietnam, there have been reports and diagnoses of its decline. About 30 years ago, I remember a Business Week cover with a picture of the Statue of Liberty weeping over US weakness. Some twenty years ago, Paul Kennedy got a lot of media attention for his history of empires – The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers – in which he foresaw a shift in power away from the US. The demise of the USSR in 1991 put that kind of talk into cold storage as the US became the sole superpower.

One interesting thing about Global Trends 2025 is not simply that decline talk is back in circulation but that it’s filtered up to officialdom. The last NIC study of the future, published in 2004 and projecting forward to 2020, looked ahead to unrivalled US power and a world getting safer for democracy. But the political and intellectual winds have shifted in the years since Bush’s re-election and the mood today is much more chastened.

Pinning down power

Trying to get into this a bit more closely, power is a surprisingly slippery concept. Even hard military power is not a simple and straightforward issue. You bomb, destroy, invade and conquer – yes, but victory can be empty, or you may win the war yet lose the peace. Throughout history, exerting power has been extraordinarily tricky. It is not just a matter of having big battalions. And other kinds of power – economic, political, cultural – what is commonly referred to as soft power – are even more elusive.

Nonetheless, the power of states obviously has something to do with military strength and a lot to do with wealth. But it has much to do with belief in power – an acceptance that money and/or arms will ultimately settle the issue. For this, the powerful must have not just the raw potential but the capacity to act, while the rest believe the powerful have it. This lets the big states not simply win the arguments but, far more important, set the agenda. A smaller state that refuses to believe in the game generates a significant amount of power itself. Look at the way Iran has stared down the US.

So power is a shifting amalgam of image, belief and substance, underlying structural strengths and a national readiness to act decisively. This makes it is hard to measure, which makes precision impossible when talking about decline.

US power – up or down?

Where does that leave a discussion of US power and its trajectory over the next couple of decades?

Firstly, in general power moves slowly and unevenly; states and empires in decline can recover for periods. Shifts in the distribution of power sometimes happen dramatically but are often barely visible for decades.

Second, most well argued analyses of world politics today acknowledge something like relative US decline (slipping back but still top) because of

  • the economic rise of China (now the third largest economy in the world), India and other economic centres, including the EU and the energy exporters;
  • the continued economic strength and unrivalled global reach of the US;
  • the inevitability that other actors would eventually enter the world stage to counter-balance US power;
  • the continued strengthening of the multilateral world system, with its web of laws, treaties, norms and relationships, all severely restricting the room for manoeuvre of even the most powerful state.

Thirdly, one of the greatest follies of the Bush administration was the attempt – so dear to the neo-conservative heart – to assert US power in an old-fashioned unilateral way. The enterprise failed because it ignored contemporary world political realities at great human and economic cost – and also at the cost of lost prestige, credibility, goodwill and confidence around the world.

Fourthly, therefore, in a couple of years, diagnoses and predictions of US decline will be unfashionable again. This is not only because Bush’s international policy was extraordinarily incompetent so Obama can hardly do worse. It is also because the incoming President gets an enormous opportunity because of the widespread international welcome for his election. He can turn that into influence (or else he is about one-tenth as adroit as he looks).

Obama’s prospects

So it is highly likely that the US will have an effective voice again. It may have to set aside resort to armed force (except genuinely in extremis) but can still use other levers of power and influence. But this apparent resurgence could in its own way be as misleading as the seemingly surging power of the Bush administration in the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001. For the underlying structural realities – fast economic growth in China, India and elsewhere, the political importance of other actors, and the multilateral world system – will not go away simply because a new US administration performs competently.

And because of the global economic crunch, international policy is about navigating through a sea of unknowns. Who knows what the global crisis will bring next month, let alone next year? In these circumstances, multilateral solutions are the only way forward. Working together has become an absolute necessity.

Paradox and prognosis

So now let’s tease out the paradox of US power in the coming four years. The Obama administration can restore US influence by working within the multilateral world system – such as on the global economy, in trade talks, and in climate treaty negotiations. Though it will not engage in the multilateral system as an equal (because the others are not equal – let’s be realistic), and though it will sometimes act unilaterally, every step through which it engages in the world system will strengthen both the US and the world system. This means, among other things, strengthening constraints upon the one-sided use of power.

Interesting: it is a prognosis that gives cause for optimism.


This is an edited and updated version of a 22 November 2008 post on my previous blog-site.

One thought on “The power of Obama

  1. Pingback: Obama in power « Dan Smith’s blog

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