Opinion: Lessons from the Election on U.S. Power

So the seemingly endless U.S. presidential campaign is finally ending. If it started with a high level of excitement, it soon began to feel like Mao's Long March, a grueling journey where only the true believers could maintain their enthusiasm. Now, there will be more than just relief that the journey is over: there will be a new burst of excitement. This happens whenever a new president takes office, but it'll be doubly the case here. The weariness with eight years of the Bush administration and fears about the global economy guarantees that, at least for a while, the new team will inspire new hope at home and abroad, almost a dizzying sense of new possibilities.

But it's precisely at this moment that it's worth stepping back and coolly examining the lessons of these elections—and then considering what they may mean for the United States' role in the world. This presidential campaign demonstrated the enduring strength and vitality of the American electoral process, along with some of its weaknesses that tend to discourage bold leadership. All of which has implications for how the United States will project its power and influence in the years ahead. The whole world will be watching the performance of the new administration, looking carefully for signals to whether it understands that the rules of the global game have been changing as well.

Understandably, what electrified much of the world was that a black candidate—or, more accurately, a mixed race young politician with an exotic-sounding name—could make a serious bid for the White House. Yes, that does demonstrate how much and how quickly American society has changed in its attitudes about race. It was also fascinating to see how many Europeans felt virtuous by supporting Barack Obama, convinced that this demonstrated how they are equally liberal on racial issues. "Everyone is for Obama here," a French intellectual told me in Paris recently. When I asked if a black politician could win in France, however, he unhesitatingly responded: "No, conditions are different here."

But this election highlights something else that few people have noticed: the contrast between the American and European electoral systems, which made both Barack Obama's and John McCain's candidacies possible. There's no doubt that the American system of primaries and caucuses is horrendously complicated. Because of the staggering sums needed to wage these long campaigns, it also invites financial abuses. But this time, in particular, the virtues of this tortuous process were more evident than ever.

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If the United States had the Polish, German or almost any other European country's political system, neither Obama nor McCain would have been their party's standard-bearer. In parliamentary democracies, the party elites usually determine who will lead them into electoral battle long before any elections are scheduled. During this particular American contest, the favorite of the Democratic Party elite was Hillary Clinton. The choice of the Republican Party's establishment was far less evident, but it certainly wasn't McCain. He was always considered too independent and unpredictable. But the long road of primaries and caucuses allowed the parties' rank-and-file to defy the elites and propel these two men to the top.

In other words, American-style democracy worked, producing upsets in both parties. There was nothing pre-cooked about this year's contest. That said, the resulting campaign of these genuinely interesting candidates proved to be largely disappointing. Their debates involved little more than formulaic repetitions of party positions, and neither candidate ventured many original ideas or let slip any truly revealing personal emotions. They were much less engaging than the debates between Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal in the French presidential contest, which felt less scripted and more personal.

The bland American debates were no accident. This was a campaign conducted in the YouTube age, where any verbal slip, any casual statement that suggests beliefs that are deemed controversial or any inadvertently compromising behavior is replayed endlessly on television and on the Web. As a result, the safest bet for a candidate is to keep repeating the same carefully vetted messages in rally after rally, day after day. That's why what should have been an exciting election from start to finish often felt ritualistic and devoid of truly challenging ideas.

But to succeed, the new American president will need to challenge both the world and his own people with new ideas and new approaches. That will mean breaking out of the bland campaign mode, which won't be easy after nearly two years of it. And he won't have much time to switch gears. Too many problems and too many unresolved issues are on the agenda to give him the luxury of time to examine each one carefully and then spend weeks or months weighing his options. Events will force his hand and lead to early snap judgments on whether he's up to the job.

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First of all, there are bound to be tests in the international arena. "Our rivals across the globe suspect we are played out—short of energy, long on debt, and hogging the world's resources," writes Victor Davis Hanson in the Hoover Digest, a publication of the Hoover Institution. "They think the future is theirs, the past ours. They will surely challenge the next president, however nice, to prove them wrong." That may reflect a right-wing perspective, but it sounds like a pretty realistic one.

Those challenges are likely to be economic as much as political. It's hard to overstate the impact of the economic crisis during the final stretch of the campaign, and the new president will have to demonstrate resolve and skill in tackling this issue as soon as he takes office. If the United States is going to disprove those who see it as a superpower in decline, it must put its economic house in order. Its military, political and even cultural clout, along with its traditional role as a land of opportunity that attracts the best and the brightest from all around the globe, depends on getting this task right.

That means facing some harsh truths and then changing course. Even before the current economic crisis really hit, President George W. Bush complained that Wall Street got drunk. True enough, but the politicians also acted drunk when it came to spending. The Republicans abandoned all sense that someone had to pay for the massive expenditures on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with the existing social programs. The Democrats pushed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—the government-sponsored agencies that were created to enable more home ownership—to assume responsibility for more and more high-risk mortgages. The result was that both agencies had to be rescued by the government to prevent their collapse, and confidence in financial institutions began to crumble.

Coupled with the looming social-security crunch to happen when the baby-boomer generation moves into their retirement years, this means that the new administration has to deliver on a strategy for the United States to rein in the culture of buy-now-pay-much-later. Without such a strategy, America's influence in the world will decline. But the new president has to recognize that a more disciplined approach will entail unpopular measures, including some new taxes and less reckless spending. On the campaign trail, both candidates suggested that the United States can almost painlessly work itself out of its current problems. The new president has to abandon such rhetoric and begin leveling with his people.

He needs to make an equally forceful and honest case for new energy initiatives. It's welcome news that oil prices have dropped dramatically: this offers relief to consumers and may help contain inflationary pressures. But there's the danger of allowing the urgency of the quest for alternative sources of energy to wane. Americans have to begin to match actions with words about pursuing more energy-efficient lifestyles, while investing heavily in the new technologies that will gradually decrease their dependence on foreign oil. Many of those changes and investments will encounter political resistance, but the new president can't afford to backpedal on them. America's standing in the world will depend as much on maintaining a healthy economy with truly modern energy strategies as it will on keeping up its military strength.

The nexus between energy and foreign policy is particularly visible in the West's dealings with Russia. As oil prices soared, so did Russian assertiveness on the world scene—and anger over perceived offenses such as the possibility of further NATO expansion and the missile-shield deal with Poland and the Czech Republic. Then there was the conflict with Georgia. Of course plenty of factors were at work here, but the fact that Russia felt emboldened by its new wealth was certainly one of them.

Declining oil prices, coupled with a much more dramatic drop in Russia's stock market than anywhere in the West, brought home the point that this new wealth is built on a shaky foundation. Too much of this wealth has been squandered by the super rich, instead of using it to rebuild the country's infrastructure and a more diversified economy, less dependent on commodity prices. If bold new moves by the new American government begin to change the long-term energy outlook, Russia will need to rethink its priorities at home and abroad. At that point, the benefits of cooperation rather than confrontation should become much more apparent to both sides.

Russia's relations with its neighbors and the West feature constant replays of the tired arguments about NATO expansion and the war in Georgia, full of mutual recriminations. The challenge for a new U.S. administration is to break out of this no-win situation, and look for ways to engage Russia with the U.S. and its allies to produce win-win situations. This doesn't mean turning a blind eye to Washington's differences over such issues as the Kremlin's reversion to authoritarian politics at home or attempts to intimidate its neighbors, but it does mean looking for common ground where it is in both our interests to do so.

The most promising area for a dramatic new breakthrough could involve the biggest legacy of the cold war: both sides' huge arsenals of nuclear weapons. Four American elder statesmen—former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former secretary of state William Perry and former senator Sam Nunn—have been advocating a nuclear "zero option"—the abolition of all nuclear weapons. Once seen as a purely utopian vision, this has stimulated a growing debate about massive cutbacks, which was the focus of a major EastWest Institute conference at the United Nations on Oct. 24. "Such initiatives deserve greater

support," U.N. Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon told the gathering. He also urged all nations to seek an international convention on nuclear weapons backed by a strong verification system or to pursue separate agreements.

The United States and Russia, whose arsenals are still crammed with the most nuclear weapons, must lead the way. And in the current situation, the new American president is the only person who could give this initiative the impetus it truly needs. This is unlikely to lead to the "zero option," but a growing number of experts are convinced it could produce a radical reduction in the size of both countries' nuclear arsenals without eliminating their ability to defend themselves. Russia has continued to brandish its nuclear might as a means of clinging to the remnants of its superpower status; it is also acutely conscious of the limitations of its conventional forces—despite their muscle-flexing in Georgia. But a concerted effort by the United States and others to engage Russia on this issue could lead to the win-win situation that both sides need.

Of course, the higher the expectations for a new U.S. administration, the more likely that disillusionment will quickly follow. No president can be all things to all people, and the world isn't really sure what it wants from the United States. When American presidents have looked indecisive, they were blasted even by their allies. "I have nothing against the U.S. president's right to leadership, but one must know in which way it is going," German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt complained about Jimmy Carter. When they are seen as too single-minded in their convictions—think of the early days of Ronald Reagan, or most of the tenure of President George W. Bush—they are condemned for American arrogance.

The new American president will operate in a different world—one in which the United States remains the most powerful force, but isn't singularly dominant. It's a world where other countries are emerging as major regional powers, most notably China and India. And the European Union, for all its visible shortcomings, is an increasingly important player. At the same time, the U.S. must continue to lead the fight against global terrorism, seek common solutions to economic problems, and find new ways to defuse political tensions.

It will be a delicate balancing act: the new president must both acknowledge the new realities of increasingly assertive allies and competing nations, while continuing to offer the leadership that only the United States can provide. For the untested new occupant of the White House, it's hard to imagine a more difficult assignment.

Opinion: Lessons from the Election on U.S. Power | U.S.