A “Plastic Juncture” in World Affairs

As President Barack Obama enters his second term, the state of the world is unsettled. The leading powers are beset with economic crises or are in various states of political transition or gridlock. The Middle East is undergoing political upheaval. Tensions are rising in Asia. The world’s institutions — whether the United Nations, the Group of 20 or the European Union — are weakened and dysfunctional. The liberal world order established after World War II is fraying at the edges.

This time of uncertainty and instability is a moment of opportunity for Obama. When the United States entered World War I, the philosopher John Dewey observed that the world was at a “plastic juncture.” Many progressives believed the unsettled world of their day offered the United States a chance to remold the international system into something better. Americans walked away from that challenge and would embrace it only after a second catastrophic breakdown of world order. Today, we are at another plastic juncture and the president has a unique opportunity to strengthen and extend the liberal world order from which Americans and so many others around the world have benefited.

There is not a lot to show for Obama’s first four years. In fairness, the economic crisis that he inherited made steady concentration on foreign policy more challenging. His predecessor badly bungled the two wars Obama inherited in the Greater Middle East, at great cost in lives and treasure and to America’s reputation. Obama began to restore that reputation, raising America’s profile and deepening its engagement in East Asia.

But most of the major challenges are much as Obama found them when he took office — or worse: from the stalled Middle East peace process and turmoil in the Arab world to Iran’s continuing march toward a nuclear weapons capability to China’s increasing assertiveness. The president’s recent preoccupation with re-election has left much of the world wondering, where is the United States?

For all the talk of American decline, Obama is actually well-positioned to assert global leadership. If he can strike the necessary compromise with the U.S. Congress to address America’s fiscal crisis, the United States could well emerge as one of the world’s most successful and dynamic economies. America enjoys unique advantages: a natural gas revolution that promises soon to make it a net exporter of energy, a superior university system, and an open and innovative economy. The United States remains the only world power with global reach, uniquely capable of organizing concerted international action and serving as a source of security and stability to nations facing threatening neighbors.

How then to take advantage of this plastic moment?

In the security realm, Obama’s primary “big bet” must be to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability. The collapse of the nonproliferation regime that would follow Iran’s successful acquisition of nuclear weapons would strike a devastating blow to the international security order. Conversely, if Obama can succeed in achieving meaningful curbs on Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations, he will do much to strengthen nonproliferation as a fundamental pillar of the new liberal global order.

In East Asia, the president’s primary big bet should be on promoting a regional order that encourages China’s new leadership to take a peaceful and productive direction, away from greater reliance on military power in favor of continued economic and political development at home and increasing integration abroad. This will also require deepening America’s Asian alliances and playing a major role in supporting regional cooperation. With India, the world’s largest democracy and the other major rising power in Asia, the next four years will be critical in building a partnership that can serve as another pillar of a new liberal order.

Obama needs to do more to strengthen the liberal economic order. Concluding free-trade agreements with the Asia-Pacific region and Europe would boost U.S. exports and global economic recovery while promoting a broader consensus on the necessary standards to promote free trade and investment. Encouraging the export of American natural gas to key allies and partners in Europe and Asia will help reduce their dependence on Russia and Iran. Leveraging America’s hydrocarbon bonanza to encourage more effective efforts to counter climate change will help promote a greener global order.

Strengthening the liberal political order will require increased efforts to enlist the support of emerging democracies. Nations like Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, Turkey and Mexico have become increasingly influential economically. But they are struggling to find their identity as democratic powers on the international stage. Some are drifting toward a worldview that actually undermines the liberal nature of the global order. At the same time, powerful autocracies like Russia have staked out positions that are antithetical to liberal values — on Syria, for instance. They need to understand that the democratic international community is ready to move on without them.

With revolutions in the Arab world and change afoot in Myanmar, it is time to place the United States again at the vanguard of the global democracy movement. This is not only because democracy is consonant with American values. Across the globe, the United States has strategic, political and economic interests in the spread of stable, liberal democracies. Although democracies in transition can be fractious and unstable, in the end they are more reliable supporters of the liberal world order that Americans seek.

Obama should do more to support the difficult struggle for democracy in the Arab world, including holding the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government to democratic standards and more actively leading the effort to bring about a peaceful democratic outcome in Syria. America’s relationship with Russia should be shaped not only by arms agreements but also by respect for the desires and aspirations of the Russian people. The president should work to strengthen those forces in Russian society that favor economic and political modernization.

Finally, the United States needs a global strategy. It cannot focus on one critical region to the detriment of others. While Obama was right to increase American attention to the vital Asia-Pacific region, there is no safe alternative to continuing to play the key security role in the Middle East and Europe. In the Middle East, many nations look to the United States for protection and assistance. But Europe too deserves continued American attention. Everything the United States wants to accomplish in the world can be better accomplished with the help and cooperation of our European allies.

At the end of World War II, the United States led the way in shaping an international order that, for all its flaws, served the American people, and much of the world, remarkably well. With sustained attention, personal engagement, and a clear vision of a multilateral global order that reflects American liberal values and progressive ideals, President Obama now has the opportunity once again to shape world affairs to the benefit of the United States and mankind.