President Barack Obama has won re-election. However, in addition to all of the constraints on him that I discussed last week, he won the election with almost half the people voting against him. His win in the Electoral College was substantial -- and that's the win that really matters -- but the popular vote determines how he governs, and he will govern with one more constraint added to the others. The question is whether this weakens him or provides an opportunity. That is not determined by his policies but by the strategic situation, which, in my view, gives the United States some much-needed breathing room.
The Structure of the International System
At the moment, the international system is built on three pillars: the United States, Europe and China. Europe, if it were united, would be very roughly the same size as the United States in terms of economy, population and potential military power. China is about a third the size of the other two economically, but it has been the growth engine of the world, making it more significant than size would indicate.
The fundamental problem facing the world is that two of these three pillars are facing existential crises, while the third, the United States, is robust only by comparison. Europe is in recession and, faced with a banking and sovereign debt crisis, is trying to reconcile the divergent national interests that were supposed to merge into a united Europe. China, dependent on exports to maintain its economy, is confronting the fact that many of its products are no longer competitive in the international market because of rising costs of labor and land. The result is increasing tension within the ruling Communist Party over the direction it should take.
The United States has a modestly growing economy and, rhetoric aside, does not face existential political problems. Where the European Union's survival is in serious question and the ability of China to resume its rate of growth is in doubt, the United States does not face a political crisis on the same order as the other two. The fiscal cliff is certainly there, but given American political culture, all crises signify the apocalypse. It is much easier to imagine a solution to the United States' immediate political problems than it is to imagine how Europe or China would solve their challenges.
We have written extensively on why we think the European and Chinese crises are insoluble, and I won't repeat that here. What I am saying is not that Europe or China will disappear into a black hole but that each will change its behavior substantially. Europe will not become a united entity but will return to the pursuit of the interests of individual nations, though still in a wealthy continent. China will continue to be a major economic power, but its term as the leading growth engine in the world will end, causing institutional crises. Again, these powers will not fall off the map, but they will radically change their behaviors and expectations.
Since power is relative, this leaves the United States with no significant challenger for international primacy, not because the United States is particularly successful but because others are even less so. The United States has a decision to make right now. As the leading power, should it attempt to preserve the political order that has existed for the past 20 years or allow it to pass into history? Perhaps a better question to ask is whether the United States has the power to preserve a united Europe and a high-growth China, and if so, is the current configuration of the world worth preserving from the U.S. point of view?
The United States has done nothing to stabilize either Europe or China. Even given U.S. resources, it is not clear that there is anything it could do. Europe's financial requirements outstrip its political ability to act in a united manner. Europe does not need U.S. leadership and the United States does not need to shoulder the European burden. The only solution for the European crisis is that a third party underwrites debtors' economic needs and thereby preserves creditors' interests. Even given the possible impact on the United States, adopting Europe is neither possible nor desirable.
The same is true with China. China has twisted its economy into an irrational form out of a desire to avoid unemployment. The Chinese Communist Party is afraid of instability, which would certainly follow unemployment. The irrationality of the Chinese economy, a combination of inefficient businesses kept operating by loans that are unlikely to be paid and exports that are barely profitable, is not an economic phenomenon but a political one. The United States would not underwrite China's excesses even if it could. Nor will Beijing withdraw money from U.S. government bonds because it has nowhere else to put it -- Europe is becoming less reliable, and it cannot invest it in China. That is China's core problem -- its economy can't absorb more money, and that is a profoundly unhealthy situation.
When we consider the core architecture of the international system, it becomes readily apparent that the United States can do nothing to preserve it. The strategy of allowing nature to take its course is not so much an option chosen as it is a reality imposed. What will evolve from this will evolve on its own. Europe will return to the order that existed prior to World War II: sovereign nation states pursuing their own interests, collaborating and competing. China will remain an inward-looking country, trying to preserve its institutions in a new epoch. The United States will observe.
Iran's Regional Influence
A similar situation has emerged with Iran. From 2003 onward, when the United States destroyed the balance of power between Iraq and Iran, Iran has been an ascendant power. With the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Iran became the most influential foreign power there. But Iran has overreached and is itself in crisis.
The overreach took place in Syria. As the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad came under attack, the Iranians threw their resources and prestige behind the effort to save it. That effort has failed in the sense that while al Assad retains a great deal of power in Syria, it is as a warlord, not the government. He no longer governs but uses his forces to compete with other forces. Syria has started to look like Lebanon, with a weak and sometimes invisible government and armed, competing factions.
Iran simply didn't have the resources to stabilize the al Assad regime. For the United States, an Iranian success in Syria would have created a sphere of influence stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. The Iranian failure, undoubtedly aided by U.S. and others' covert assistance to al Assad's enemies, ended this threat. Had the sphere of influence materialized, it would have brought pressure to the northern border of Saudi Arabia. The United States, whose primary interest was the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf as part of the global economic system, would have faced the decision of intervening to protect the Saudis, something the United States did not want to do, or accepting Iran as the dominant regional power.
The United States might have had to negotiate a radical reversal of policy as it did with China in the 1970s. Indeed, I suspect that attempts to reach out to Iran were made. But Iran committed the gravest of mistakes. It failed to recognize how shallow its power was and how vulnerable it was to countermeasures. The collapse of its position in Syria has opened the door to pressure in Iraq. Add to this that the financial sanctions on Iran finally had some impact, sending the economy into a tailspin, and we have seen a historic reversal since the summer; Iran has gone from a regional power with a nuclear program to a country with declining influence, domestic economic problems and a nuclear program. Given that it is more threatening to have one or two operational nuclear weapons openly deployed than to have a perpetual threat of a nuclear weapon, Iran is not in a powerful position.
Russia and Energy
Russia, of course, remains a robust power, but like the others it suffers from an underlying disease. In Georgia, Russia saw the election of a prime minister deeply opposed to the presidency of Mikhail Saakashvili, whom the Russians see as an enemy. Russian influence, particularly via its intelligence service, is not trivial. But Russia has a deep problem. Its national power rests on a single, massive base: energy exports. These have been of enormous value financially and in terms of influencing the politics of its neighbors. Indeed, Russia's interest in Georgia had as much to do with pipelines as with governments; Georgia is Azerbaijan's route for energy exports to Europe.
But it is not clear how long Russia's energy power will last. It is built on the absence of significant energy in the rest of Europe. However, new technologies have made it likely that Europe will find energy resources that don't depend on Russia or third-party pipelines. If that happens, Russia's political and financial positions will weaken dramatically. Russia has a weakening hand, and it can't control the thing that weakens it: new technologies.
The U.S. energy situation also will improve dramatically under most scenarios, and it can be expected to be able to supply most of its energy needs from Western Hemispheric sources within a few years. A decline in dependence on energy resources drawn from the Eastern Hemisphere reduces the need of the United States to intervene there and particularly reduces the need to concern itself with the Persian Gulf. That will be a sea change in how the global system works.
I will examine each of these issues in detail in the coming weeks, but the United States, not necessarily through any action of its own, is in fact facing a world with two characteristics: All competing powers have problems more severe than the United States, and shifts in energy technology -- and energy has been the essence of geopolitics since the industrial revolution -- favor the United States dramatically. A world with declining threats and decreasing dependence gives the United States breathing room. This isn't to say that the threat of Islamist terrorism has disappeared -- and I doubt that that threat will dissipate -- but it will remain a permanent danger, able to harm many but not able to pose an existential threat to the United States.
It is the breathing space that is most important. The United States needs to regroup. It needs to put the "war on terror" into perspective and rethink domestic security. It needs to rethink its strategy for dealing with the world from its unique position and align its economy and military capabilities with a new definition of its interests, and it needs to heal its own economy.
The logic of what it must do -- selective engagement where the national interest is involved, with the least use of military force possible -- is obvious. How this emerges and is defined depends on the environment. Dispassionate thought was not possible between 9/11 and today, nor would it be possible if we saw the pillars of the international system increasing their unity and power. But that is not what is happening. What is happening is a general decline in power, greater than the decline of the United States. And that provides room. This will frame Obama's foreign policy choices.