Barack Obama and the new place of American power

A new spirit of humility is clearly evident, but will the Obama administration agree to expand the 'Big Five' on the UN Security Council?

History is the story of nations and empires that rise and fall.

Some think that the United States – stressed by economic problems at home and strained by two current wars abroad – has come to the end of its dominant role in global affairs.

The post-American era is not yet here. The US remains the strongest military power on earth. Its economy is still by far the largest.

But it now must operate in, and cooperate with, a multipolar world of nations that are rising around it in stature and influence.

As President Obama put it at the G-20 summit in London earlier this month (once upon a time it used to be the G-7), no more Churchill and Roosevelt stuff, sitting in a back room together and deciding the future of the world. "That's not the world we live in," said the president. So the world today must be less influenced by American fiat, and more by American persuasion.

The US needs Russia, a Russia intent on resurgence after the loss of Soviet satellites, to help curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. The US needs China, a China increasingly robust economically and conscious of its new global influence, to restrain North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The US turns to the European Union to bolster antiterrorist forces in Afghanistan. The US urges India, fast becoming an economic superpower, to calm the fears of its old enemy Pakistan about another Indo-Pakistan war, so that Pakistan's military can concentrate on the Taliban and Al Qaeda within its borders. The US needs the help of nations such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to smooth relations with Syria and negotiate with Hamas and Hezbollah.

Mr. Obama looks to a predominantly Muslim country such as Turkey to improve America's relations with nonterrorist Islam, perhaps even to facilitate peace between Israel and the Palestinians. "The United States is not, and never will be, at war with Islam," he told Turkish dignitaries.

Throughout his first international foray since becoming president, Obama spread the words his interlocutors wanted to hear. He had come "to listen," as well as proffer ideas. America appreciates that "Europe is now rebuilt and a powerhouse. Japan is rebuilt [and] is a powerhouse. China, India, these are all countries on the move. And that's good," Obama noted.

Of his meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev: "What we're seeing today is the beginning of new progress in US-Russian relations." Mr. Medvedev's leadership "was critical in allowing that progress to take place."

We shall have to see whether all the charm and sweet talk in play on this first Obama overseas diplomatic venture will be translated into tangible cooperation. Obama made it clear that at least in public, American diplomacy under his direction is to be characterized by more modesty and humility to friends and allies.

While the G-20 is undoubtedly made up of some heavy hitters, back in New York, on the banks of the East River, the United Nations gives voice to all the world's nations.

An interesting test for the Obama administration will be whether its diplomatic congeniality should extend to expanding the permanent, veto-wielding "Big Five" on the UN Security Council, who basically call the important shots at the UN. They are: the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China, which have held their closely preserved positions since the UN's inception in 1945.

Newly influential nations such as Germany, India, Japan, and Brazil, whose cooperation the Obama administration now seeks, have argued that while the Big Five may have been representative of the world as it was then, they are not representative of the world today. Therefore the permanent membership should be expanded to include these nations of new heft and importance.

It is an argument of unquestionable reasonableness. Behind the scenes over the years, deep, dark politics have thwarted such change. Will the newly recognized interconnectedness of the world extend to the international body that is supposed to represent it?

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's print weekly edition.

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