Barack Obama's campaign for president began with his opposition to the war in Iraq. But before last week's terror attacks in India, the subject of foreign policy had disappeared, almost completely overshadowed by the economic crisis. This doesn't mean that international issues will be ignored. No doubt the national-security team Obama is announcing this week will be quick to tackle the many issues in their inbox, and will likely do so with intelligence and competence. There are enough problems to occupy them fully—Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Al Qaeda, Iran, Russia—and they will face unexpected crises like the Mumbai assaults. But we must hope that as president, Obama does more than select a good team, delegate well and react intelligently to the problems that he will confront. He must have his administration build a broader framework through which to view the world and America's relations with it— a grand strategy. At this moment, the United States has a unique opportunity to push forward a vision that aligns its interests and ideals with those of most of the world's major powers. But it is a fleeting opportunity.
Grand strategy sounds like an abstract concept—something academics discuss—and one that bears little relationship to urgent, jarring events on the ground. But in the absence of strategy, any administration will be driven by the news, reacting rather than leading. For a superpower that has global interests and is forced to respond to virtually every problem, it's all too easy for the urgent to drive out the important.
Strategy begins by looking at the world and identifying America's interests, the threats to them and the resources available to be deployed. By relating all these, one can develop a set of foreign policies that will advance America's interests and ideals. When the unexpected happens, one can respond in ways that are aligned with these broader objectives. One uses the urgent to pursue the important. Or, to put it another way: never let a crisis go to waste.
How to think strategically? Dick Cheney provides an example—a negative one. In the wake of the Cold War, Cheney's staff at the Pentagon produced a draft document that was a self-conscious effort at grand strategy. Allegedly written by the then Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the Defense Guidelines unabashedly declared that America sought supremacy and freedom to maneuver across the globe. "Our first objective is to prevent the emergence of a new rival," it said, "and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power." What is most important, the draft noted, is "the sense that the world order is ultimately backed by the U.S." and that "the United States should be postured to act independently when collective action cannot be orchestrated."
The draft proved much too aggressive and unilateral for George Herbert Walker Bush, who ordered that it be toned down. It was a strange document in many ways, a throwback to a world in which "dominating a region" and "controlling resources" were seen as sources of lasting national power. (China has done neither, and yet by developing its economy has become the world's No. 2 power.) But the ideas in the paper provided a powerful organizing ideology for many conservatives, and laid the basis for George W. Bush's post-9/11 foreign policy. Part of the appeal of this strategic framework was that it accurately read the world of the 1990s. While many strategists and politicians were speaking of an emerging multipolar era, the Defense Guidelines recognized that right then, American power was unrivaled.
Any attempt at a grand strategy for today must also begin with an accurate appraisal of the world. For that, the Obama administration should study the National Intelligence Council's newly published forecast, "Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World." "The international system—as constructed following the Second World War—will be almost unrecognizable by 2025," the document says, owing to the rise of emerging nations, a globalizing economy and a dramatic power shift. "In terms of size, speed and directional flow, the transfer of global wealth and economic power now underway—roughly from West to East—is without precedent in modern history." Some have seized on the fact that emerging markets are slumping to argue that the era of Western dominance isn't over yet. But the rise of the non-Western world—which began with Japan in the 1950s, then continued with the Asian tigers in the 1960s, China in the 1980s and India and Brazil in the 1990s—is a broad and deep trend that is likely to endure.
For some countries, the current economic crisis could actually accelerate the process. For the past two decades, for example, China has grown at approximately 9 percent a year and the United States at 3 percent. For the next few years, American growth will likely be 1 percent and China's, by the most conservative estimates, 5 percent. So, China was growing three times as fast as the United States but will now grow five times as fast, which only brings closer the date when the Chinese economy will equal in size that of the United States. Then contrast China's enormous surplus reserves to America's massive debt burden: the picture does not suggest a return to American unipolarity.
The "rise of the rest," as I have termed it, is an economic phenomenon, but it has political, military and cultural consequences. In one month this past summer, India was willing to frontally defy the United States at the Doha trade talks, Russia attacked and occupied parts of Georgia, and China hosted the most spectacular and expensive Olympic Games in history (costing more than $40 billion). Ten years ago, not one of the three would have been powerful or confident enough to act as it did. Even if their growth rates decline, these countries will not return quietly to the back of the bus.
The "Global Trends" report identifies several worrying aspects of the new international order—competition for resources like oil, food, commodities and water; climate change; continued terrorist threats; and demographic shifts. But the most significant point it makes is that these changes are taking place at every level and at great speed in the global system. Nations with differing political and economic systems are flourishing. Subnational groups, with varied and contradictory agendas, are on the rise. Technology is increasing the pace of change. Such ferment is usually a recipe for instability. Sudden shifts can trigger sudden actions—terrorist attacks, secessionist outbreaks, nuclear brinksmanship.
The likelihood of instability might increase because of the economic crisis. Despite some booms and busts—as well as 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—the world has been living through an economic golden age. Global growth has been stronger for the past five years than in any comparable period for almost five decades. Average per capita income has risen faster than in any such period in recorded history. But that era is over. The next five years are likely to be marked by slow growth, perhaps even stagnation and retreat, in certain important areas. What will be the political effects of this slowdown? Historically, economic turmoil has been accompanied by social unrest, nationalism and protectionism. We might avoid these dangers, but it is worth being acutely aware of them.
At the broadest level, the objective of the United States should be to stabilize the current global order and to create mechanisms through which change—the rise of new powers, economic turmoil, the challenge of subnational groups like Al Qaeda—can be accommodated without overturning the international order. Why? The world as it is organized today powerfully serves America's interests and ideals. The greater the openness of the global system, the better the prospects for trade, commerce, contact, pluralism and liberty.
Any strategy that is likely to succeed in today's world will be one that has the active support and participation of many countries. Consider the financial crisis, which several Western governments initially tried to handle on their own. They seemed to forget about globalization—and nothing is more globalized than capital. Belatedly recognizing this, leaders held the G20 meeting in Washington. This was a good first step (though just a first step). Without a coordinated approach, efforts to patch up the system will fail.
The same applies not just to "soft" problems of the future—pandemics, climate change—but to current security challenges as well. The problem of multilateralism in Afghanistan—a place where everyone claims to be united in the struggle—is a sad test case for the future. Thirty-seven nations, operating with the blessing of the United Nations and attacking an organization that has brutally killed civilians in dozens of countries, are still unable to succeed. Why? There are many reasons, but it does not help that few countries involved—from our European allies to Pakistan—are genuinely willing to put aside their narrow parochial interests for a broader common one. Terrorism in South Asia generally requires effective multinational cooperation. Business as usual will produce terrorism that will become usual.
National rivalries, some will say, are in the nature of international politics. But that's no longer good enough. Without better and more sustained cooperation, it is difficult to see how we will solve most of the major problems of the 21st century. The real crisis we face is not one of capitalism or American decline, but of globalization itself. As the problems spill over borders, the demand for common action has gone up. But the institutions and mechanisms to make it happen are in decline. The United Nations, NATO and the European Union are all functioning less effectively than they should be. I hold no brief for any specific institution. The United Nations, especially the Security Council, is flawed and dysfunctional. But we need some institutions for global problem-solving, some mechanisms to coordinate policy. Unless we can find ways to achieve this, we should expect more crises and less success at solving them.
In a world characterized by change, more and more countries—especially great powers like Russia and China and India—will begin to chart their own course. That in turn will produce greater instability. America cannot forever protect every sea lane, broker every deal and fight every terrorist group. Without some mechanisms to solve common problems, the world as we have come to know it, with an open economy and all the social and political benefits of this openness, will flounder and perhaps reverse.
Now, these gloomy forecasts are not inevitable. Worst-case scenarios are developed so that they can be prevented. And there are many good signs in the world today. The most significant rising power—China—does not seem to seek to overturn the established order (as have many newly rising powers in the past) but rather to succeed within it. Considerable cooperation takes place every day at the ground level, among a large number of countries, on issues from nuclear nonproliferation to trade policy.
Sometimes a crisis provides an opportunity. The Washington G20 meeting, for instance, was an interesting portent of a future "post-American" world. Every previous financial crisis had been handled by the IMF, the World Bank or the G7 (or G8). This time, the emerging nations were fully represented. At the same time, the meeting was held in Washington, and George W. Bush presided. The United States retains a unique role in the emerging world order. It remains the single global power. It has enormous convening, agenda-setting and leadership powers, although they must be properly managed and shared with all the world's major players, old and new, in order to be effective.
President-elect Obama has powers of his own, too. I will not exaggerate the importance of a single personality, but Obama has become a global symbol like none I can recall in my lifetime. Were he to go to Tehran, for example, he would probably draw a crowd of millions, far larger than any mullah could dream of. Were his administration to demonstrate in its day-to-day conduct a genuine understanding of other countries' perspectives and an empathy for the aspirations of people around the world, it could change America's reputation in lasting ways.
This is a rare moment in history. A more responsive America, better attuned to the rest of the world, could help create a new set of ideas and institutions—an architecture of peace for the 21st century that would bring stability, prosperity and dignity to the lives of billions of people. Ten years from now, the world will have moved on; the rising powers will have become unwilling to accept an agenda conceived in Washington or London or Brussels. But at this time and for this man, there is a unique opportunity to use American power to reshape the world. This is his moment. He should seize it.