Is the United States a Superpower Without a Partner?

Like Atlas, the U.S. must now either take the world upon its shoulders alone or drop the ball. I say let's drop the ball on most issues.

Anne Applebaum, who writes for Slate and The Washington Post, has just published an excellent column where she persuasively argues that “no one wants America to be the sole global superpower, but no one wants to share the load.”

She uses Obama’s recent trip to China and Europe’s election of a new president and foreign minister as her primary evidence that no one really wants to engage the major foreign policy issues the Obama administration cares about. In China’s case, Applebaum writes that Chinese officials claim they are still a “developing country” that needs time before partnering on foreign policy issues with the U.S such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and North Korea and Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions.

Europe’s case is a little more puzzling from a psychological and practical standpoint. As far as I know it didn’t really make big news, but they finally ratified the Lisbon Treaty several weeks ago. This important treaty swiftly permitted countries in the European Union to elect a president and foreign minister to more effectively represent Europe’s unified interests on a global stage. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was under some consideration for the job, but it seems that the other countries felt he would overshadow their presence. Here’s Applebaum’s full explanation:

the leaders of Europe were locked into proverbial smoke-filled rooms (nowadays empty of smoke) arguing over who should be granted the new job of “president” of the European Union and who should become Europe’s new “high representative,” or foreign minister. These talks represented the culmination of a decade’s worth of diplomacy, debate, and national referendums, all designed to produce a more united European foreign policy and to give Europe a single phone number that Obama can call when he wants to chat. The result: The president of Europe will be Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, a politician unknown outside his own country. The foreign minister of Europe will be British official Catherine Ashton, a bureaucrat unknown even inside her own country. Candidates of far greater experience and influence—including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt—were rejected, apparently for fear they would have more experience and influence than the powers that be. Germany’s Der Spiegel heralded this news with the headline “Europe Chooses Nobodies.”

Translation: Europe might have a new phone number, but when Obama calls, the person on the other end of the line will still be unable to act. “Europe” will not be a unified entity capable of coordinating a unified policy in Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, the Middle East, or anywhere else anytime soon. Europe cannot, in short, become America’s full partner in foreign policy.

I agree with Applebaum that it was a stupid decision on Europe’s part to not choose a politician with more star power. As shallow as that sounds, I actually think it’s an important element to effective leadership.

Applebaum wrote her most recent column so clearly that it doesn’t make sense for me to try to paraphrase her concluding thoughts. So here’s whate she wrote:

And thus we are left with a curious situation: America no longer wants to be the sole superpower. The American president no longer wants to be the leader of a sole superpower. Nobody else wants America to be the sole superpower, and, in fact, America cannot even afford to be the sole superpower. Yet America has no obvious partner with which to share its superpowerdom, and if America were to cease being a superpower, nothing and no one would take its place…

This does mean that the Obama administration has a problem, however: Having come to office promising to work with allies, it may soon discover that there are no allies with which to work. Europe is still our best hope, because Europeans share most of our values. But organizing sanctions with a divided Europe—never mind a military operation—will continue to be a major chore. China, meanwhile, is acquiring vast foreign interests, trading in Africa and South America as well as Asia, and maintaining a vast army. But China appears uninterested in joining an international campaign against terrorism, nuclear proliferation, or anything else.

Global military and security thus look set to remain in the hands of the United States, whether the United States wants it or not. Halfway through his presidency, George W. Bush found he had to drop unilateralism in favor of diplomacy. Now one wonders: At some point in his presidency, will Obama find he has to drop diplomacy in favor of unilateralism?

I think Applebaum’s conclusion is right on– the choice falls squarely on the United States as to making any global actions. The question I think is whether or not we should.

I’m starting to think that with the exception of taking a much, much needed leadership role on global climate change, the U.S. and the Obama administration would be far better off taking a backseat on foreign policy for the time being.

People are tired of the U.S. and its ideas about what is best for the world, especially as we struggle to change the infrastructure of our own country. What to do about health care in the U.S. is not entirely clear to me, but the political realities suggest that whatever action the U.S. government takes to improve the system is going to be fairly minor. The Obama administration has also played softball with the banking industry, and they are truly the robber barons of modern day.

In other words, President Obama has really taken the backseat on most major domestic issues since becoming president, and I am starting to agree with Ariana Huffington when she recently wondered what candidate Obama would think of President of Obama. The audacity of hope has instead become “the timidity of governing” she argued. If only Obama would realize this and instead focus on the old saying of “let’s solve problems at home first, before policing the world.”

That being said, I do think the U.S. can engage the rest of the world in new ways that aren’t necessarily all related to military strength and economic might. Focusing on education, clean energy, and the environment can all be positive ways to engage the rest of the world while not being so demanding and forceful. Who knows, it might even help the U.S. to get the Olympics again (I say this partially joking as I think Brazil was an excellent choice for the Olympics).

What do you think? Are the days of world superpowers over for now?

Image courtesy of lightmatter on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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