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Obama and the Rise of the Rest

NEW YORK – American elections usually produce a brief euphoria; the public sense of renewal, of future possibilities, acts as a shot of adrenaline. This year, however, the palpable relief and celebration will be tempered by the widely shared sense that all is not well in America.

The economic data are almost uniformly bleak and will not improve soon, and, while national security issues appear less pressing because of the financial crisis, they have hardly disappeared, given the tenuous situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the unresolved problems in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Moreover, the power of America’s presidency, and of the United States, has undergone dramatic shifts in recent years, making our era unlike earlier periods when the world was in flux and a new American president faced deep challenges.

Until recently, it was possible to speak of “the rise of the rest” without forecasting a decrease in American power. Now, with the US military at its limit in Iraq and Afghanistan and the US fiscal position weakening, America is confronted with stark choices. That is an unfamiliar position for a new US president. Even in the dark years after Vietnam in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, there was a sense that America could still make its economic choices without much reference to the wider world. That was the privilege of having the largest, most dynamic economy – and one that acted as a world creditor. No more.

There is no small irony in the fact that on November 15, America’s lame duck president, the unilateralist George W. Bush, is hosting a multilateral conference to discuss reshaping the global economic system. It also speaks to America’s relative position that even the less-than-organized ministers of the European Union acted more quickly to create a floor for the financial crisis than did the US president and congress. And it speaks volumes to the changing world that, as panic recedes and the wreckage is revealed, Asia in general and China in particular are emerging as clear winners.