The high hopes surrounding incoming US president Barack Obama are mostly a good thing, as they remind us that much of the anti-US sentiment that is so apparent around the world is not and need not be permanent.
But this anticipation is also a problem for Obama, as it will be difficult — and in some instances impossible — for him to meet expectations. There will be no Palestinian state this spring; nor will there be a global climate change pact or a new trade accord or an end to poverty or genocide or disease anytime soon.
The reasons go beyond the reality that big accomplishments require time and effort. The incoming president faces extraordinary constraints — constraints that will make it essential for other countries to do more if stability and prosperity are to be the norm rather than the exception.
The most obvious limitation stems from the state of the US economy. Two million jobs disappeared in the last four months alone. The housing market continues to deteriorate. The US’ GDP is contracting at an almost unprecedented rate.
As a result, Obama will have no choice but to devote the lion’s share of his time and attention to reviving the economy. More than anything else, his success in this domain will determine the perception of his administration. Even he acknowledges that this will require him to delay fulfilling several other campaign promises.
A second constraint stems from all the crises that will greet the new president. Israelis and Palestinians are fighting a low-level war. The situation in Iraq is improving but is by no means assured. Obama may have to choose between attacking Iran’s nuclear installations and living with an Iran that has the capacity to build a nuclear weapon in a matter of weeks. Afghanistan’s government is losing ground in its struggle against a revived Taliban. Pakistan, which possesses dozens of nuclear weapons and is host to the world’s most dangerous terrorists, could become a failed state, as could nuclear-armed North Korea. Many of these challenges are less problems to be solved than conditions to be managed.
A third constraint stems from trends in the international system. The era of US unipolarity is over. Obama will inherit a world in which power in all of its forms — military, economic, diplomatic and cultural — is more widely distributed than ever before. This means that he will have to deal with a large number of threats, vulnerabilities, and independent actors who may resist bending to the US’ will.
All of this will make it more difficult for the US to get things done in the world — and for Obama to have any chance of meeting the expectations being set for him — without the active assistance of others. And since Obama will want to meet some of those expectations, other countries had better be prepared for US requests — and pressure — that they act with the US rather than act against it or sit on their hands.
China will come under pressure to revalue its currency (now being held at artificially low levels) so that Chinese exports are more expensive and imports from others (including the US) cheaper. And China and other developing countries will be expected to do their share to reduce carbon emissions and slow the pace of global climate change.
European countries should be prepared for US calls to do more to meet the increasing security challenge in Afghanistan. At stake is the relevance of NATO in a world in which the principal security challenges facing Europe are to be found outside the NATO treaty area.