America: Once engaged, now ready to lead

By Robert Kagan
Friday, October 1, 2010

Almost two years into the Obama presidency, there is a discernible shift in the administration's foreign policy.

If Phase One was about repairing America's image around the world by showing a friendlier face to everyone, especially adversaries, Phase Two will be about wielding renewed American influence, even if it means challenging some and disappointing others. If Phase One was about "resetting" relations with great powers, especially Russia and China, Phase Two will be about discovering the limits of reset and taking a harder line when we disagree. If Phase One placed more emphasis on great-power cooperation and the nebulous concept of a "G-20 world," Phase Two will be built around core U.S. alliances with democratic nations. If Phase One was focused on being Not Bush, Phase Two will be about shedding that self-imposed straitjacket and pursuing traditional American interests and principles even if George W. Bush pursued them, too.

This is speculation, of course. But evidence of a shift abounds.

-- Allies are back. Compare Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent speech to the Council on Foreign Relations to the one she gave there last summer. Her 2009 speech sounded like an international relations professor's fantasy: She talked about using "smart power" to solve "collective action problems" in a "multi-partner world." While emphasizing relations with Russia, China, Brazil and other "emerging powers," she brushed past the old democratic allies in one lifeless paragraph. This year, the IR lingo is gone; Russia and China were singled out as much for being "authoritarian states" as for their cooperation. And Clinton devoted 10 paragraphs to extolling better relations with "our closest allies, the nations that share our most fundamental values and interests" in Europe, North America and Asia.

It's not just rhetoric. In East Asia, the administration has shifted from the hazy idea of providing "strategic reassurance" to China to the concrete policy of reassuring allies and partners that the United States will defend them against growing Chinese military pressure. Clinton's tough statements in Hanoi in July against Chinese efforts to dominate the South China Sea were followed by President Obama's meeting last week with Southeast Asian leaders. Relations with India, which suffered in Phase One, are enjoying a boost as Obama prepares to visit New Delhi. Relations with Japan and South Korea have been strengthened. True, Beijing's recent bullying has driven nervous neighbors into American arms. But Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell have played their cards well. The United States is in better shape in East Asia today than it was in the later Bush years.

In Europe, Clinton has gone out of her way to show greater interest in those nations worried about Russian intentions. Both she and the president have denounced the Russian "occupation" of Georgia, and in July she visited Georgia and Poland as part of what might be called a reset of the reset.

-- Democracy is back. A year ago, who would have believed that Obama would devote almost a third of his speech at the United Nations to democracy or use language such as "liberty" and "tyranny"? Apparently, the Bush stink is off the word "democracy." Clinton, too, has elevated democracy to a primary objective. In Krakow in July, she criticized authoritarian states that were "slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit," singling out China, Russia and Egypt. Critics note that the administration's rhetoric so far outpaces its actions, but the same could be said of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. I suspect the new rhetoric will in time be matched by tougher policies.

-- America is back. A year ago, the talk was of the post-American world. Obama seemed to be the post-American president, resigned to doing the best he could with the bad hand he'd been dealt. Today, officials exude more optimism. Clinton talks of "a new American moment" and, in words that might have been called arrogant a few years ago, believes "the world is counting on us" for "global leadership." She has subtly signaled that the hallmark of Phase One -- engagement -- is no longer sufficient. The world is looking to America "not just to engage, but to lead."

Why the shift? Partly it's a tribute to Obama's successful effort to change America's image: It's just easier to think of the United States regaining a leadership role today than it was at the end of Bush's presidency. Partly, it's a response to global realities. Iran has proved resistant to engagement; China has proved to be less the "responsible stakeholder" and more the typical, muscle-flexing rising military power; and even Obama officials sense the "reset" with Russia reached its high point with the START treaty and the last round of Iran sanctions and is headed downhill. And partly it's that the United States is not a nation of "realists," and deep convictions about the superiority of democracy over other forms of government almost always shape its foreign policy.

Under the circumstances, old democratic allies in Asia and Europe look like a better foundation on which to build U.S. policy. Democracy looks like a better answer to many of the world's problems than authoritarianism. And American leadership looks like a better option than a consortium with authoritarian great powers. Get ready for Phase Two.

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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