Barack Obama will take office Jan. 20 at a time of acute global crises. The world economy is contracting at its fastest rate since World War II. Nations face a deadline in one year to agree on new ways to stem climate change. And with the Mumbai attacks, the threat of terrorism poses new and dangerous challenges to international security.
Countries are becoming more linked than ever by border-jumping troubles popping up like Whack-a-Moles – from the spread of environmental hazards to Internet crimes.
For a US president who campaigned with a call to rally "world citizens," this could be a pivotal moment to welcome more partnerships to meet these challenges – if Mr. Obama's domestic agenda doesn't consume his attention.
Take modern piracy, which has increased off the Horn of Africa with new weapons and big ships. The danger to commerce remains so high that China plans to send two warships to the Gulf of Aden – its first major long-range naval combat mission since the 15th century. It joins a half-dozen countries, led by the US, whose navies will cooperate to chase down Somali pirates.
The salient point is this: As problems become more global, there arise more opportunities for nations to work together, often beyond the difficult channels of the United Nations and other international institutions.
But it is really the steep recession and the stalled flow of financial credit that mark a historic turning point toward nations linking hands for collective action.
The response could be similar to the system set up in 1944 and known as Bretton Woods. That system of international rules and institutions was designed to prevent a repeat of the Great Depression, during which each nation pursued only its own narrow economic interests with little regard for the dynamics of global markets.
As this recession began, the European Union first coordinated with its members for countermeasures, such as stimulus packages. In November, the G20 group of wealthy and developing economies met and promised to avoid raising trade barriers and to improve global regulation of financial institutions.
But more is needed as every nation feels a vulnerability to this truly global crisis. Many look to the Obama administration, even if the crisis began with the US mortgage debacle. The US remains the world's largest economy, and the one with the best record of adapting to new situations. It also has been the most willing to hitch its economy to global systems and to create joint benefits for friendly nations. Rather than look solely inward, Obama must seize this moment when so many nations may be seeking joint action.
Perhaps the second biggest crisis facing Obama is the near-certainty of Iran creating an atomic weapon by 2010. Not only will this trigger a nuclear arms race in the region, but it may spell the end of global pacts that have largely contained the spread of nuclear weapons.
Out of such crises the world must create new ways to work together.
The US need not be the only leader, but as former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said, "We see further into the future."
With a fresh visionary in the White House, she may be right.