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A World Neglected

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America's Standing in the World

About the Author

Sherle R. Schwenninger
Sherle R. Schwenninger is director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and a senior fellow at...

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Instead of addressing the real problems, Obama and Romney are focusing on deficit reduction. 

The crisis was caused by weak governance, excessive speculation and lax regulation. Austerity will only make the disease worse.

The one area of major disagreement between the two candidates is over their differing assessments of America's standing in the world and of US alliance relations. There is no doubt that the Bush Administration has badly damaged America's relations with our traditional friends and allies in Europe and Asia. But there is a question as to whether either candidate has a plan that will repair this damage. Restoring American respect is the central positive foreign policy message of the Kerry campaign. Kerry does offer America's allies a more multilateral approach, what his foreign policy team calls "multilateralism if we can, unilateralism if we must." But while Kerry's conditional multilateralism will certainly improve the atmospherics of US-alliance relations, it is only part of the answer.

To begin with, there is little practical difference between Bush's conditional unilateralism and Kerry's conditional multilateralism in cases of major policy disagreement with traditional allies. Indeed, the importance of the distinction between unilateral and multilateral is often overstated, since all countries pursue their interests both unilaterally and multilaterally. The more important question is whether the United States is willing to be bound by international law and treaty and whether it is willing to live by the rules of an interdependent world, which means reconciling our interests with those of other countries upon which we depend.

As important, the causes of our loss of respect and influence go much deeper than our unilateral tendencies. Both campaigns tend to see the world as unipolar, and on a global plane the United States may still be the world's only superpower. Viewed, however, at the level of our key relationships with Europe, Russia, China and Japan, in each case we need these countries as much as or more than they need us--whether it be for money and troops for Iraq and Afghanistan, diplomatic support on Iran and North Korea, or capital to pay for our military budget and our consumption and investment needs. Meanwhile, the economic foundation of our position in the world grows weaker each year, as our international debt continues to climb and with it our dependence on foreign capital. Indeed, this changing balance of power has transformed America's alliance relations in ways not fully appreciated by either campaign. Just a decade ago, the great majority of Europeans wanted to keep the United States involved in Europe; now they want to keep us at a distance in order to insulate themselves from the instability and hatred that Washington's policies are creating in the nearby Arab world. American relations with Asia have similarly been transformed, with much of Asia trying to avoid getting drawn into Washington's "war on terrorism" and trying to prevent the United States from acting precipitately against North Korea.

The countries of Europe and Asia still want to cooperate with us, as they have in tracking down and arresting Al Qaeda terrorists and in providing money and forces in Afghanistan, but they will do so only if it also serves their interests and is consistent with their notions of world order. When it is not, we should expect to encounter resistance if not outright opposition, as we have on Iraq. The days of "what Washington wants, Washington gets" are over. The question is whether either the Bush or the Kerry foreign policy team can reshape American diplomacy accordingly.

The Forgotten World: The Marginalization of American Foreign Policy

After reading the policy statements of the Bush and Kerry campaigns, one would think that the American homeland was under daily terrorist attack, that Iran and North Korea were readying nuclear arsenals for war, and that the future of the world depended upon America succeeding in Iraq. One searches in vain for any analysis of China's rising power or of the economic success of India or of the fate of democracy in our own neighborhood. Occasionally, one hears a reference to genocide in Darfur, to the AIDS pandemic or to the problem of global warming, but these concerns barely figure into our current worldview. The two candidates do not seem to be aware that our obsession with terrorism and rogue states has marginalized us. They continue to see the United States as the center of the universe; in fact, we have been on the periphery of nearly all of the most important geopolitical and geoeconomic developments of the past half-decade: the successful enlargement of the European Union and the launch of the euro; the beginning of what might be an Indian economic miracle; the emergence of China as a responsible regional power; and the re-establishment of the Russian state, notwithstanding its problems in Chechnya, to name just a few.

Even more worrying, the two candidates show no understanding of why in this new world the United States is losing, and others are gaining, influence. In East Asia, China's influence has risen almost as rapidly as Washington's has fallen, because it has better understood the need for diplomacy and negotiation when dealing with North Korea, and because it has spoken to the region's aspirations with its emphasis on more trade and economic development. In Latin America, government officials are no longer lining up at Washington's door, in part because they now doubt Washington's economic wisdom, given the disastrous record of its brand of neoliberalism, and in part because the European Union has emerged as a more attractive economic and political partner. So little attention have we paid to their concerns, whether on trade or the counterproductiveness of our policy toward Cuba, that populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has become a more frequent visitor to most Latin American capitals than George W. Bush.

The political leadership of this country, as exemplified by the campaign positions of Bush and Kerry, has become so obsessed with our own security fears and so convinced of our own virtue that it has very little to offer in the way of positive socioeconomic development initiatives. To most of the people of Latin America, Africa and Asia, the United States has largely become irrelevant to their hopes for a better future--except as a potential market for some of their goods or as a source of outsourced jobs.

These developments are not all bad. Indeed, many of them are welcome because together they show that the foundations of a healthy multipolar world are beginning to emerge and that other countries are beginning to assume greater responsibility for peace and prosperity in their own regions. But this is not a world that either George Bush or John Kerry seems prepared to discuss. And that is perhaps the saddest testament of all to the emptiness of the current foreign policy debate.

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