In a multipolar world, the US needs influential allies

12/30/2009 01:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"It is immensely moving when a mature man -- no matter whether old or young in years -- is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: 'Here I stand; I can do no other.'"

So concluded Max Weber, the German social theorist, in his Politics as a Vocation: is there some of this spirit in the conduct of President Obama on the world stage in his first year in office?

It has become screamingly obvious - and brought into sharp focus at the largely failed Copenhagen Summit - that the American President has less freedom of manoeuvre now than at any time since the 1930s. This is a reality that President Obama seems to have accepted in a pragmatic way. His approach is one more of possibility than unrealistic idealism. Sure, leaders do not touch the outer limits of practicality without their imagination stretching even further but that imagination can also leave reality behind. This century may not be the 'Chinese century', as some suppose, but it most definitely will not be a unipolar American century either.

In fact, unipolarity will come to be seen as a short historical anomaly. Just as the British Empire never, in fact, had things its own way, nor did the United States. What President Obama has accepted is that American power is more constrained than at any time since the Second World War. That is why he has sought to find common ground with Russia. That is why he took the opportunity of the G20 Summit in London this year with due seriousness. That is why he has looked to demonstrate American respect for other nations and partnership at every possible turn.

Here in London, I looked around a packed auditorium of amazed and awed journalists in April's G20 Summit when the President declared:

"What I've tried to communicate the notion that America is a critical actor and leader on the world stage, and that we shouldn't be embarrassed about that, but that we exercise our leadership best when we are listening."

America is a world leader but the world is now an oligopoly rather than a monopoly; President Obama has realized this.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in economic affairs. The United States is no more economically independent than the rest of us. Of course, us British have been here ourselves. Empires are pricey luxuries. As the British blogger and economist, Jonathan Todd, puts it:

"There is, perhaps, no better indicator of the way the world has changed than that today the relationship between the Chinese economy (running a massive trade surplus) and the American (running a massive trade deficit) directly parallels the relationship between the American (running a massive surplus) and the British (running a massive deficit) the 1940s."

It was China again that proved to be obstructive when it came to agreeing any sort of meaningful accord at Copenhagen. It seems clear that China wants to assert its independence and power; and it wants it to be acknowledged. Copenhagen was one of the teething pains of multipolarity. For that, the world will pay an environmental price.

What President Obama seems to have accepted, though, is that he faces a world that is in major respects not to his liking. So he intends to make the most of difficult situations, whether they relate to economics, the environment, energy, terrorism, or national security. What he will find difficult is convincing domestic audiences that this new negotiated American leadership is not weakness.

Nations can shift from predominance to shared leadership. The UK resisted the consequences of its relegation in great power terms following the Second Word War. Our national leadership was never honest - and in some respects still isn't - about the reality. So we still cringe when we look back at the Suez crisis in 1956. We have still failed to accept the reality of full and committed European Union membership half a century after the British establishment had decided it was the only logical course.

The hope has to be that President Obama can find away of reconciling what he has accepted on the international stage with the expectations of his domestic audiences. Negotiated leadership requires patience, resourcefulness, diplomacy, and realism. Its complexity makes it susceptible to simplistic attacks from hawkish sirens. It will be a leap of faith, but intelligent honesty can divert the United States from the type of decades-long angst endured by Britain - which in some ways we still suffer - as a result of a dilution of power.

Most importantly, the United States will need strong allies. The United Kingdom shoud be one of those allies. The 'special relationship' is important insofar as it has a strategic relevance as well as emotional and cultural force. A common cause was identified, for example, through the elevation of G20 governance on economic affairs earlier this year. And the British government is strongly committed to seeing the Afghanistan War through to a successful conclusion.

However, the UK has a general election in 2010 and that may impact US-UK relations. There is little doubt that the opposition Conservative Party led by David Cameron is strongly Atlanticist. However, should they win - and opinion polls suggest they have a chance of doing so - that could herald a shift in British international influence. The Consrvatives are strongly sceptical of the European Union and they have broken away from their European alliance with the parties of President Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany in favour of an alliance with some on the EU's fringe. That, along with a continually negative posture towards the EU, has not gone down well in Paris and Berlin.

Under the Conservatives, the UK will remain a strong ally of the US but one that is less influential in the EU. These are the shifting plates of multipolarity.

President Obama has shown himself to be capable of navigating this complex environment. Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Iraq (still), terrorism, China, Israel, and the environment: challenges abound. Alliances shift. Opportunities appear and retreat. Managing domestic expectations in an uncertain world tests the most able of leaders. Like Max Weber's ideal politician, here President Obama stands; he can do no other. 2010 will test him no less than 2009. He'll need his allies - including the UK. And he'll need them to be as influential as they can be.

Anthony Painter is author of Barack Obama: the movement for change and a columnist for the British blog LabourList.