This weekend, George W. Bush Sr, Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev attended a celebration in Berlin: the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall. That event was expected to open an era of global leadership for the United States, the only remaining global power in the world.
While the first ten years saw multiple initiatives that assembled the world under the U.S. banner, the first decade of this millennium has exposed the limits and vulnerability of the leadership of the United States in the face of the world.
The first vulnerability appeared on September 11, 2001, that exposed serious home security problems. Soon after, Louisiana showed the gross lack of infrastructure and mismanagement. The main victim of these and other events is competence. The world expected the United States to be its own best manager. Those events and others evidenced fragmentation and incompetence of the U.S. agencies, both at federal and local levels, and their inability to professionally address catastrophic scenarios.
The wars of Afghanistan and Iraq exposed a double weakness: despite all the various lobbies that pushed the federal government to spend zillions in military equipment, the U.S. Army was totally unequipped to face occupation in foreign countries and terrorism. It used unacceptable moral practices by breaking its commitment to the Geneva Convention that the US had repeatedly used against other nations. The limit of its military supremacy was exposed to the world, as well as its loss of moral standards and legal integrity.
The financial crisis exposed the weakness of its financial markets. Long convinced that it had "the best regulatory system in the world, the envy of other nations", it proved incapable to use the ample evidence of overleveraged markets in a way that would have avoided this financial crisis. Wall Street lost its global leadership by abusing it and spreading greed rather than value of its leadership.
These consequences of these three major crises have been handled by the Obama administration in ways that, in my view, converge at sketching a new image of its leadership. The United States are not responsible for the rest of the world. There are two reasons for that: the first one is the fact that it is self appointed, to the detriment of its reputation (not everybody likes the US leadership). The second is more pragmatic, and simple: the United States cannot afford to exercise that leadership around the world. Our budget deficit is at a record high, mostly because of the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The world needs to evolve towards a multilateral leadership: the United States and Brazil for the Americas, the European Union and Russia for Europe, Japan, China and India for Asia. They represent a completely different G7 where not everybody is an ally. This is good for the United States: it will allow it to focus on addressing its domestic needs: security, health care, education and infrastructure. It will also force regional leaders to take their responsibilities rather than finance the US public debt arising from our interventions around the world.
This multilateral leadership is somewhat already in motion since Barack Obama was elected President. Its attitude at the G 20, pressure on Israel on settlements, call for a non-nuclear world, initiatives vis-à-vis Palestine, Pakistan and Iran, represent a shift from unilateral supremacy.
The United States will remain for a long time the strongest and most powerful of those regional leaders, economically, financially and militarily. It is repairing, one by one, its own breaches of moral standards and asking more accountability from other nations. Its financial reforms are already in motion, and will influence global markets.
This evolution will be good for the United States and for the world. The U.S. influence will be more acceptable, affordable and respected. "Help yourself and we will help you" should be the message to the rest of the world. It is a revolution.