Chief among the problems facing the United States today is this: too many obligations piled high without the wherewithal to meet them. Among those obligations are the varied and sundry commitments implied by the phrase "American global leadership." If ever there were an opportune moment for reassessing the assumptions embedded in that phrase, it's now.
With too few Americans taking notice, history has entered a new era. The "unipolar moment" created by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has passed. To refer to the United States today as the world's "sole superpower" makes about as much sense as General Motors bragging that it's the world's No.1 car company: Nostalgia ill-befits an enterprise beset with competitors breathing down its neck. Similarly, to call Barack Obama the "most powerful man in the world" is akin to curtsying before Elizabeth II as "Queen of Great Britain, Ireland and British Dominions beyond the Seas": Although a nice title, it confers little by way of actual authority.
A new global order is rapidly emerging. In that order, the United States will no doubt remain a very important player. Yet alongside the U.S. will be several others: China preeminently among them, but with Russia, India, Turkey, Japan, South Korea and Brazil also demanding to be reckoned with. (Whether Europe, currently wallowing in disarray, can muster the will and wallet to play in this company qualifies as an unknown.)
Nothing Washington can do will prevent this geopolitical transformation. Politicians may insist that the United States still stands apart — always and forever a "triple-A nation" — but their declarations will have as much effect as King Canute ordering the waves to stop. Indeed, to indulge further in the fiction of American omnipotence — persisting in our penchant for fighting distant wars of dubious purpose, for example — will accelerate the process, with relative decline becoming absolute decline. For Americans, husbanding power rather than squandering it is the order of the day.
That said, there is much that the United States can and ought to do to ensure that this emerging multipolar world ends up being more or less stable, and more or less decent, and therefore more or less congenial to the well-being of the American people. Multipolarity implies complications. A little more than a century ago, mismanagement by the last multipolar order produced a world war, followed by the Depression and then another world war worse than the first. Avoiding a repetition of those serial catastrophes defines the overarching strategic imperative of our age.
In that regard, spending hundreds of billions vainly attempting to pacify Afghanistan is unlikely to help much. Far more useful (if hardly less challenging) might be the following:
• Negotiating "boundaries" — constraints, for example, on the use of force — that will limit great power prerogatives (including our own) in the 21st century.
• Establishing norms governing the competition for increasingly scarce natural resources.
• Reducing armaments and curbing the international arms trade, thereby restricting the availability of the hardware that sustains wars once they begin.
• Focusing increased diplomatic attention on trouble spots that threaten to put great powers on a collision course, among them Taiwan, Kashmir, Korea's 38th parallel and, of course, the Palestinian territories.
Sadly, little evidence exists to suggest that anyone in Washington possesses the creative imagination to take on such tasks. Crisis response — managing ongoing wars and reacting to the twists and turns of the Arab Spring, for example — absorbs the energy and attention of the Obama administration. Meanwhile, shoveling money into the maw of the military-industrial complex seems the top Republican priority. As with fiscal issues, so too with statecraft: Washington has become an intellectual dead zone.
Yet here's the kicker. Were Washington to succeed in midwifing this new order, one result would be to reduce the burdens that the United States has shouldered since 1941 — far past the point of diminishing returns. Although the positive effects might not be felt immediately, the benefits over time could be very large indeed. Lighter burdens (fewer wars and reduced Pentagon spending) could go far toward helping us put our own house in order, the one point that just about everyone, in Washington and across the country, now agrees is essential.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.