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Opinion

Barack Obama, and America's place in the world

US domination is giving way to greater balance.

By Helena Cobban / December 15, 2008



Washington

Most Americans have been watching the presidential transition here in Washington very closely. But another, much broader political transition has also been accelerating in recent weeks: the shift from the US-dominated world we have lived in since 1989 to one in which global power has become significantly more diffuse, more networked, and more Asian.

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This broad global shift will shape the agenda and achievements of the Obama presidency from Day 1.

One key event illustrates this change. On Dec. 4, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson went to Beijing to beg China to help stabilize the tanking US economy. In earlier decades, when nations around the world had economic crises, they'd send officials to Washington to ask for help. Now, it's the US that's in trouble. President Bush, to his credit, recognizes that America needs the help of others and has started to work at getting it.

Welcome to the networked world, one in which cash-rich China and Japan each own more than $570 billion of Treasury debt – and the People's Bank of China holds a reported $340 billion stake in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

During the past 60 years, US presidents have used Washington's economic leverage over other countries to force policy changes they judged vital to US interests. Today, the economic relationship between Beijing and Washington is more complex than that. One observer has called it a "balance of financial terror." But the worldwide financial crisis has struck the West harder than China, tipping the balance further toward Beijing.

China's emergence is also notable because it has been won through mostly peaceful means. For 34 years, Beijing has worked to become integrated into the world's political and economic systems rather than try to confront or overthrow them by force. Now, Beijing is a big player in the networked world that I hope will structure relations among nations in coming decades.

Here are some ways these changes might affect Barack Obama's presidency:

1. Far less US unilateralism. For the foreseeable future, no US president will have the latitude President Bush (and President Clinton) enjoyed to take broad unilateral actions on the world stage.

If Obama wants to secure key foreign objectives such as an orderly withdrawal from Iraq, resolution of the problems with Iran, or a durable Palestinian-Israeli peace, he'll need to work in respectful consort with other world powers, not alone.

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