Beneath that surface layer, there is a more concrete policy layer. This is where there is a good deal of continuity with George W. Bush’s “third term,” for the reasons I discussed previously. This is a slower, less immediate track, with a short- to medium-term horizon.
Beneath that, however, is an even deeper, third layer, which I described yesterday as the “genetic code” of Obama’s foreign policy, and functions as the long-term conceptual foundation from which it logically flows. For me, Hillary Clinton’s speech to the CFR is the clearest expression of this vision. It involves both institutional transformation in terms of U.S. diplomacy, but also in terms of the global governance architecture. For me, it boils down to replacing the declinists’ “multi-polar” world (terminology I’ve been guilty of using) with what Clinton dubbed the “multi-partner” world. Thomas P.M. Barnett examined why this is so significant in his recent WPR column.
As I said last night, Obama is essentially trying to reduce American ownership of the many crises plaguing the global commons by getting the “rising rest” to buy in and shoulder their fair share of the responsibility for addresing them. The counterparty to that, of course, is spreading globalized privileges and benefits more fairly as well. This is the 30- to 50-year long-term horizon that Obama has fixed, to complement the communication outreach he has been conducting to the younger generation — i.e., the world’s future leaders. It’s neither an easy task nor a sure thing. But I’m convinced it is the wisest choice before us.
As Barnett pointed out, Obama is trying to shift the criteria by which American power and influence is judged to less of a zero-sum calculation. The question is no longer, Did America get what it wants? but rather, Did the world get what it needs? The irony is that, at the same time that he’s trying to change the metrics, Obama continues to be judged on a host of issues — Russia, Israel, Iran, North Korea — by whether or not he got his way.
Perhaps the most clear reflection of a successful Obama foreign policy will be when we begin to systematically look first to regional powers for leadership on regional crises, with U.S. influence functioning as a backstop and guarantor — not due to American decline or weakness, but do to a healthy, functioning global governance architecture that better distributes responsibilities and privilege.
Something like this may be true. In effect, Clinton and Obama may be attempting to work through intermediaries, allowing local balances of powers to emerge and then acting as offshore balancers to them. In other words, America is adopting a sort of federalism-of-the-globe, a subsidiarity of interests.
I certainly hope that is the case.