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The American Century isn't over

America is still uniquely valued around the world – and Barack Obama can build on that.

By Robert Dujarric, Andy Zelleke / January 7, 2009

Tokyo; and Cambridge, Mass.

The idea that the American Century is over may seem well founded. At home, the financial meltdown and imminent deep recession have exposed massive policy, regulatory, and enforcement failures. Overseas, the United States confronts partly self-inflicted dangers in the vast quadrangle bordered by Kurdistan, the Gaza Strip, Somalia, and Pakistan, alongside challenges from rising powers now coming into their own.

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Yet there are reasons for optimism: Barack Obama's presidency could usher in an era of renewed American global leadership.

Even as the US appeared to be digging its own grave by recklessly invading Iraq and grossly mismanaging its own economy, few countries tried to exploit the opportunity to further weaken America. Allied nations in some cases vociferously opposed the Iraq war or refused to help in Afghanistan, but none sought to break its alliance with the US; it has even emerged that while former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröeder was lambasting the Bush administration, his intelligence agents were helping the US military strike Iraqi targets. China chose not to use America's Middle Eastern distractions to challenge the US-led order in Asia. India continued to seek closer ties with America. Even a newly aggressive Russia eschewed direct confrontation with Washington.

These countries – allies, strategic competitors, and potential foes alike – probably acted the way they did because they saw the downside of a world devoid of American power. For the allies, the calculus is simple: America guarantees their security.

For India, America provides a hedge against Chinese power. For China, an America-less Asia would bring to the surface latent but lethal rivalries among Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, and China that could engulf Asia in war.

As for Russia, the demise of America would leave it alone facing a 1.3 billion-strong Chinese nation potentially eager to settle the empty former Chinese lands in the Russian Far East. America is uniquely valued as a market, a source of technology, and a place to educate elites.