Is the Obama Administration, consumed with the domestic economic crisis, health care reform, and an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan, doomed to preside over a steady slide in American power--to the benefit of autocratic regimes like Russia and China?
It is increasingly common to hear that the American century is over -- and Russia and China are on the rise. The influential neo-conservative Robert Kagan has trumpeted the "return of history," by which he means the return of power politics driven by competing ideologies: today, autocracy vs. democracy. In a similar vein, Fareed Zakaria recently declared the arrival of "the post-American world," and Parag Khanna the rise of the "Second World."
All these claims are based on some unassailable facts. The world order is certainly changing. The so-called "BRICs" -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- are growing wealthy, and with wealth comes power. The same was true a century ago, when the U.S. was world's largest economy but still a political pygmy. With its wealth converted to power, by 1945 the U.S. dominated the globe.
But despite recent pessimism over the limits of American power, there is actually considerable reason for optimism. For example, arguably the most striking feature of the Russian invasion of Georgia one year ago is how limited Russian power really is. The aftermath of that war tells us much about what power actually means in the early 21st century.
To understand this, it is important to compare two wars, which Russia itself likes to compare. In 1999 the U.S. and NATO waged war against Russia's traditional allies, the Serbs, in the former Yugoslav province of Kosovo.
In Kosovo NATO faced an unfolding humanitarian crisis. It sought, but failed to receive, authorization by the United Nations to intervene. Russia, which wields a veto on the UN Security Council, protected the Serbs. Faced with evidence of ethnic cleansing on the doorstep of Europe, however, NATO, led by the US, moved forward anyway. The intervention was ultimately blessed by the UN. Some 9 years later Kosovo declared independence. While Russia complained bitterly, today more than 60 states recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state.
Fast forward to Georgia one year ago. While the two wars differ in profound ways, the similarities are telling. As in Kosovo, Russia's invasion was neither self-defense nor authorized by the UN. As with Kosovo, the war involved a disputed province. And as with Kosovo, a traditional great power attempted to usher a new state in the international system.
The political outcome, however, could not be more different.
While Russia has recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, for over a year only Nicaragua agreed. Then this week another state stepped up to grant recognition: Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. (Perhaps coincidently, Chavez is currently in negotiations with Russia for weapons and energy deals). This motley pair of supporters from Latin America hardly stands as an endorsement of the international community. The UN has never blessed Russia's intervention or the status of the allegedly new states. Indeed, distrust of Russian motives was so strong it was even felt economically: in the wake of the invasion last year Russia's stock market plummeted and the ruble faltered.
In short, the difference in these two wars is not so much in their use of conventional "hard power," but rather in something more elusive, but perhaps more important: "soft power" and legitimacy. Hard power is the power to coerce. Soft power is the power to attract and to persuade.
In Georgia, Russia easily won militarily but is still struggling to consolidate its gains politically. Russia clearly can make facts on the ground. But it has yet to persuade the world that its actions were legitimate. Russia lacks soft power, has few good relationships with other nations, and generally failed to play by the rules of the system.
The US, by contrast, has many allies, considerable soft power, and, despite the hangover from the Bush Administration's rhetoric and penchant for unilateralism, is more likely to work within the system than to challenge it. And while it may soon be a post-American world, the basic structures of global governance -- and of the global economy -- are still American in flavor.
Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, it may well be true that "history has returned." America does not stand unchallenged, and to many around the world autocratic states offer an attractive and stable alternative model. They even appeal to pundits like the New York Times' Tom Friedman, who recently compared Chinese autocracy to American democracy--favorably.
But there is less to the newly- resurgent Russia, or a still-growing China, than meets the eye. In the 21st century it is no longer enough to wield great military force, as the U.S. itself has learned on recent occasions. Nor is economic wealth alone enough. To truly succeed in today's world, one must persuade others of the legitimacy of one's actions, as President Obama recognizes. No amount of hard power will achieve that.