Looking back over the turbulent year that is now coming to an end, one is tempted to focus on what US leaders have come to call the Greater Middle East. Such a survey would obviously take us to Iraq, to Israel and Palestine -- and to terrorism.
Lasting peace in the Middle East could lead to greater prosperity and cooperation in the world. But if we take a wider view, the problems of the Middle East appear to be but one aspect of deeper shifts among the powers
of the world. Indeed, tectonic changes became visible this year. We have begun to see the "powers of the future," to borrow the title of former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt's recent bestselling book.
Schmidt is certain of two developments. The US remains the key player, and China's power will continue to grow. He is less certain about the future of Europe, Russia and the Middle East.
To be sure, this year has seen the confirmation of America's hard power -- and its voters' choice of a politics of values rather than of interests. Americans may not want their soldiers and military hardware in dozens, if not hundreds, of places around the world, but they accept a president who offers simple -- often martial -- certainties.
One may also wonder whether this president could lead them in another direction, to traditional Republican isolationism. After all, it is the Democrats who have traditionally taken the US to war. In any case, security guaranteed by military power will continue to be an American concern.
But while America's hard power dominates the world scene, its soft power declined this year. The US lost some of its attractiveness for many, and Americans are unpopular in many parts of the world. The decline in overseas visitors, and notably in the number of foreign students in the US, is the immediate result of stricter visa laws, but it is an important factor in the weakening of the US' global hegemony.
Soft power begins with economic power. America's twin fiscal and trade deficits may prove to be solvable problems, but new ways will have to be tried to resolve them. At a recent conference, US government representatives were unimpressed by European pleas to do something about the deficits -- and the falling dollar that has resulted from them.
"That is not a European problem," the Americans responded. "It is an issue between us and China."
All at once, China is rapidly emerging as a growing economic force. It not only has considerable dollar reserves, but has also become the manufacturing capital of the world. American and European jobs increasingly migrate to China. Early hints at the reaction could be heard in the American presidential election campaign, with the frequent protests against outsourcing and China's pegged exchange rate. But the trend will not be stopped. It is surely only a matter of time -- a short time -- before China makes its political and military weight felt.
This leaves an uncertain future for Russia and those still in the Russian orbit, like Ukraine. This year witnessed a decline in democracy and the rule of law across what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the "former Soviet space." The problem is a challenge especially for Europe.
At first sight, this year was a good year for the EU, with enlargement to 25 members completed in May a notable success. Enlargement was not only a triumph for democracy and the rule of law in the postcommunist countries to the west of Russia, but it is also an indication of the magnetism of the EU, and thus of its soft power.