The silver lining

As Barack Obama prepares to take the oath of office, the conventional wisdom is that he faces the greatest challenge of any president since Franklin Roosevelt. It’s easy to see why: the U.S. economy is in the most serious slump since the 1930s, and he had been handed a losing war in Iraq and a ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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589376_090120_Obama_Silver_Lining_1.20_resized2.jpg

As Barack Obama prepares to take the oath of office, the conventional wisdom is that he faces the greatest challenge of any president since Franklin Roosevelt. It's easy to see why: the U.S. economy is in the most serious slump since the 1930s, and he had been handed a losing war in Iraq and a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. America's global image has fallen to unprecedented lows, and he won't have a lot of discretionary resources to throw at big global problems.

Yet not all is doom-and-gloom, and our current difficulties also present real opportunities if Obama is wise enough to seize them. What's the silver lining here?

As Barack Obama prepares to take the oath of office, the conventional wisdom is that he faces the greatest challenge of any president since Franklin Roosevelt. It’s easy to see why: the U.S. economy is in the most serious slump since the 1930s, and he had been handed a losing war in Iraq and a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. America’s global image has fallen to unprecedented lows, and he won’t have a lot of discretionary resources to throw at big global problems.

Yet not all is doom-and-gloom, and our current difficulties also present real opportunities if Obama is wise enough to seize them. What’s the silver lining here?

First, the Bush administration’s disastrous legacy is an obvious asset for Obama, because virtually any change from Bush’s approach — whether in style or in substance — is likely to win kudos overseas. This benefit won’t last if Obama’s policies turn out to be more of the same, but for the moment it gives the new team a lot of running room.

Second, Obama is becoming President at a moment of relative peace and stability world-wide. This claim may seem surprising when we think of the past six years in Iraq and Afghanistan or the bad news from Darfur, Gaza, Pakistan, and elsewhere, but the reality is that overall level of global violence has declined sharply since the end of the Cold War. Even more importantly, the risk of major-power conflict is probably lower now than at any time in the past century. According to the Human Security Project at Simon Fraser University, the number of armed conflicts dropped dramatically from 1993 to 2006, and the average lethality of both state-based and non-state based conflicts (measured as number of fatalities per year) has also decreased steadily in recent decades. Although certain regions (e.g., Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa) have seen upticks in violence, the overall global trend is encouraging. The conflicts that are still underway are tragic and will require attention, but most of them do not pose a threat to vital U.S. interests.

Third, the economic problems that have hammered the United States have also affected our major rivals. It is not as if the U.S. economy is in free-fall while potential challengers are soaring. The current downturn also poses problems for China, has put a serious crimp in Moscow’s ambitions, and compounded Iran’s already-difficult economic situation. We would obviously be better off with a thriving economy, but the current recession is not a short-term threat to America’s core national security interests.

Fourth, Obama is taking office with high levels of support from a population that for the moment seems to have realistic expectations. The American people know we are in trouble and that it will take some time to fix the situation, a message that Obama has reinforced skillfully. The Democrats have solid control of the House and Senate, but their failure to win a veto-proof majority will force them to reach out to a few GOP members in order to advance their program. This reality will temper the far-left wing of the Democratic Party and make it harder for the far-right in the GOP to blame everything on Pelosi, Reid, and the new President.

Taken together, these various factors mean that President Obama has a great deal of latitude in the conduct of foreign policy. As I’ve written previously, our current circumstances will require the United States to set clearer priorities and stop trying to do everything. The good news is that the American people are likely to support this shift. Many foreign countries will welcome less heavy-handed U.S. leadership, while others will start working harder to keep us happy if we play hard-to-get more often.

Above all, the biggest mistake Obama could make would be to follow too closely in his predecessor’s footsteps, or to pay too much attention to the people whose advice helped derail his predecessor. They might be excellent dinner companions, but their policy recommendations have been tried and the results are in.

There are still serious dangers out there, of course, and the conduct of U.S. foreign policy is not going to be easy. Here’s one of my lingering worries: in the past, prolonged economic depressions have been fertile breeding grounds for hyper-nationalism, fascism, anti-Semitism, and other social and political pathologies. If similar movements were to re-emerge today, the comparatively low level of global violence that exists now — especially among the major powers — would be jeopardized. It follows that getting the U.S. and world economy back on track is a key national security priority, as important as any specific diplomatic initiative.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty 

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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