America is back. That's the message the Obama administration is sending to foreign capitals. The new team has moved quickly to repair America's image abroad, promising to suspend torture, close Guantánamo and join the fight against climate change. Once again, the U.S. is ready to "engage, listen and consult," Vice President Joe Biden assured a high-powered security policy conference in Munich earlier this month, to much applause and relief among the assembled global leaders.
One would expect America's position in the world to be much weakened by financial collapse, an unpopular war, and an eight-year withdrawal from international diplomacy under George W. Bush. Yet in Munich, it became palpably clear how much the world still looks to the U.S. to lead. Whether the issue was Afghanistan, the Middle East or re-engaging Russia with a new round of arms control talks, the question that American delegates (including National Security Adviser James Jones and Afghanistan envoy Richard Holbrooke) heard again and again was, "What will Obama do?" When German Chancellor Angela Merkel used the meeting to propose a new concept of "networked security," for better coordination of diplomatic, economic and military efforts in such places as Afghanistan, it was taken for granted that it would be up to the Americans to put it into place. After all, Germany and other European NATO powers have had seven years to hone their security theories in their respective sectors of Afghanistan—but have only poorly coordinated their efforts there. "Europe can be a partner on some economic issues like sanctions on Iran and it's important in shaping world opinion, but it plays no role in strategic leadership," says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform in London. On Afghanistan, as on so many other issues, it will be up to Obama to define the next steps and build a consensus.
A Washington re-engaging with its allies seems to nudge the world back toward an era of American leadership that many thought was long over. It appears that much of the conversation about the imminent dawn of a new, multipolar age depended on extrapolating recent trends—America's go-it-aloneness and disengagement under Bush, or the fast-paced rise of other powers. As the Europeans have shown all too well, few if any of those other powers seem ready to take on a global strategic role. Others suddenly find themselves no longer rising (see this week's cover story on the decline of the petrostates). The signal to Obama from Munich: while the devil will surely be in the diplomatic details, global leadership is still there for the taking.