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.
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.
2. New ways of ordering the international economy. Bush made a good start by shifting from the Western-dominated "G-7" to the "G-20" that brings in China, India, Brazil, Russia, and other rising powers. China's leaders have said that Americans need to enact significant reforms and belt-tightening to save the US economy.
Meantime, Asian nations have been discussing a regional alternative to the Washington-based International Monetary Fund. Decisionmaking power on economic issues has migrated eastward.
3. New possibilities for stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan. Until now, the US project in Afghanistan has been a Western-dominated (NATO) one, pursued through mainly military means. But Afghanistan's lengthy crisis of governance has no military solution – and certainly not one pursued by Western armies.
Meanwhile, China has bought itself a chunky stake in the Afghan economy and enjoys historically good relations with Pakistan. China, Russia, and other powers can all be enrolled in a new, UN-led project to help stabilize Afghanistan and its region.
4. New ways of looking at human rights. Most people in the world view economic and social rights as just as important as civil and political rights. But the US government has never joined the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. As we ask China to increase its respect for civil and political rights, we should do our part to strengthen social and economic rights.
5. A shift away from military force. Recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Lebanon have shown that military force cannot solve international problems. Most global security challenges cry out for policing-based solutions that enjoy strong local support, rather than more military force.
Other, less optimistic scenarios are also possible for the years ahead. But Obama has vowed to find new, better ways to engage with the rest of the world. The world will give him a very sympathetic hearing. Now he will need to use his considerable smarts to understand and work with the dynamics of the networked world.