There will be moments, in the years to come, when Barack Obama will feel the weight of the world like no one else. And as this tumultuous first decade of the 21st century winds down—a decade seemingly bracketed by the horror of September 11 and an international financial meltdown—it has to be said: What a weight it is.
America's recession and its deepening problems in joblessness, healthcare, infrastructure, and so on might in the past have invited a period of national introspection, of singular focus on fixing the ailments at home. Obama, however, will not have that option—not in an era in which opportunities, problems, and threats all have been globalized in ways once unthinkable.
Even the most experienced foreign policy veterans marvel at Obama's heavy load. "It's a pretty fearsome number of issues that the new president has to face," says former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.
Beyond the global economic woes and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there's the ongoing fight against terrorists and the specter of new nuclear powers. Add to that climate change and energy vulnerabilities. Anti-Americanism, strained alliances, and new, rising powers. And those are just some of the main points.
Obama will benefit from a few Bush administration achievements. After a hazardous start with China, for example, relations have stabilized with the next country that is likely to gain superpower status. Ties to other key emerging countries—India and Brazil—have also progressed. In a rare turnabout, Libya abandoned its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. And a possible framework for a future Israeli-Palestinian peace has been erected.
Eroded goodwill. But surveyed broadly, the world Obama faces in 2009 looks a good deal more complicated and dangerous than what George Bush encountered in 2001, even taking into account the radical Islamist caldron then building toward an eruption on a brilliant, sunny day that September. The global goodwill that poured forth afterward, as well as the deference often accorded U.S. leadership since World War II, has since eroded. The first years of the 21st century have rattled the certainties of the last one. "Many presidents inherit headaches," says former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. "Barack Obama has inherited the whole emergency room."
The Obama years will play out across a changing geopolitical landscape. By many accounts, America's relative clout has diminished. Emerging or resurgent powers—especially China, Russia, India, and Brazil—are demanding a bigger role in decisions on finance, trade, and security. China may become the world's largest economy as soon as 2027. It will also be growing into a much bigger political and military player.
Russia has fallen into an acutely nationalistic mood. The Russian resentments include NATO's expansion eastward, U.S. and western support for anti-Russian movements in Georgia and Ukraine and Kosovo's independence, and moves to build missile defenses. Russian leaders greeted Obama's victory with a warning to the United States: Proceed with your missile shield planned for Poland and the Czech Republic, and Moscow will install missiles in a Russian enclave next door. Russia's regression toward autocracy and its opposition to key U.S. interests may be the biggest strategic setback since the end of the Cold War.
America will very likely remain the most influential global actor but by a thinning margin. "The United States' relative strength—even in the military realm—will decline and U.S. leverage will become more constrained," predicts the U.S. intelligence community in its "Global Trends 2025" report.
America's soft power—its ability to persuade without coercion or force—has taken a major hit during the Bush years. The early overseas take on Bush as a unilateralist too quick to use force was never overturned, despite a more pragmatic second-term foreign policy. Go-it-alone tendencies on climate change, international justice, arms control, and—above all—Iraq harmed U.S. standing and invigorated anti-Americanism. America's moral authority was further battered by the way Washington waged the war on terrorism, especially reports of abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.