Changes in the status and power of nations, just like changes in economic conditions, are not always immediately apparent. There is, in the jargon of economics, a recognition lag between the time when an economic shock, such as a sudden boom or bust, occurs and the time when it is recognized by economists, central bankers and the government.
Recognition lag explains why, for example, economists have only recently acknowledged the current economic recession - several months after it began. And recognition lag might well be why officials and pundits are now failing to recognize the detrimental impact of the combination of the Iraq war and the financial crisis on America’s standing in the international system.
Some attribute Washington’s current difficulties in dictating global developments to the Bush administration’s mismanagement of US diplomacy and national security policy. The conventional wisdom is that a more visionary and competent Obama administration will be able to reassert America’s global leadership role - especially in the Middle East.
According to that logic, a charismatic and cosmopolitan President Barack Obama, by re-energizing the United States’ diplomatic influence and emphasizing Washington’s commitment to play the role of an honest broker, will revive the dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process, overcome the many obstacles to a political settlement, and help bring peace to the Holy Land. (Some pundits seem to assume a similar peacemaking model can be implemented in other troubled regions as well, such as South Asia and the Caucasus.) All that is lacking, supposedly, is enlightened leadership and American willpower.
Such assumptions about US omnipotence are woefully out of touch with reality. The mess the Bush administration made in the Middle East, where US military power was overstretched to the maximum, coupled with the dramatic loss of American financial resources, has produced a long-term transformation in the balance of power in the region and worldwide. The confluence of these negative factors has significantly eroded Washington’s diplomatic and political clout. The increasing wariness of the American public regarding new US military interventions, as a consequence of the Iraq war, will reinforce this trend.
This is not the first time there has been a lag between when an international crisis, such as a military conflict or a loss of geostrategic standing, takes place and the time when officials, pundits and the public recognize its effect on the global balance of power. In the aftermath of World War II, which devastated the military and economic power of Britain and France, the two leading imperial powers, officials and journalists continued to refer to those two declining nation-states as Great Powers. It was not until the late 1950s that the diminished status of Great Britain and France was widely recognized and the adjective “great” was finally dropped when the two countries were mentioned.
That the US has already been losing some of its leverage has been demonstrated by Washington’s failure to contain the rising power of Iran and Tehran’s growing influence through surrogates in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. Notwithstanding strong opposition from Washington, Israel decided to open negotiations with Syria, while Hizbullah was once again invited to join the government in Lebanon.
While the US does not now occupy the same kind of drastically weakened geopolitical position that Britain and France did after World War II, we must recognize that it is no longer a global hegemon, as it was during the first decade or so after the end of the Cold War. Even the most visionary and competent US president will be that much more constrained in his ability to “do something” when an international crisis takes place.
In 2000, the United States was at the apex of international power in a unipolar world, and the Israelis and the Palestinians were led by strong and more moderate leaderships than today. Even at that time, Washington could not significantly advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. There is little reason to expect that Obama will be an exception, and an effective Holy Land peacemaker, in 2009. With an overstretched military and an economy in recession, the incoming president, like others in Washington, will be forced to recognize that reality sooner or later.