January 1, 2009


While the United States is still the world leader, other nations, such as China, India and Brazil, need to take on more responsibility for problem solving, too.

As Barack Obama takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, he immediately confronts a host of foreign policy crises the likes of which we have not seen in many decades. He and his new cabinet will need to hit the ground running to contend with the most serious financial crisis in memory, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global challenges of climate change, terrorism and food shortages, to name just a few.

But Obama is not to be without hope as he begins his presidency under crisis conditions. Unique among recent American presidents, he has enormous international capital and credibility due to his historic election, which excited not just Americans but people around the world. This is not to suggest that he will be able to eliminate quickly the anti-Americanism that is rampant in many parts of the world. But he has a rare opportunity to refurbish America’s reputation and standing in places vital to us—the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America.

Obama has another advantage. Despite the economic crisis and the difficulties we have experienced in Iraq, the United States is still the most dominant power in the world and will remain so for years to come. Whether other countries like us or not, they look to Washington in times of crisis to resolve the most difficult international problems. In this respect, Obama’s greatest challenge may well be to decide how to use that power responsibly and how to convince other nations to join us in taking on the great transnational challenges of our time.

Obama surely recognizes that one of the greatest transformations of our era is the rise of other countries to global power—China, India and Brazil most prominently. Their growing political, economic and military influence means America will need to lead differently than it has in the past. Rather than seek to go it alone as we have sometimes done, it now makes more sense for us to call upon these countries to join us in taking on the greatest challenges. That means they will need to accept more responsibility in tackling peacekeeping in Africa and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and in confronting terrorism. In a more general sense, it means they will need to share in paying more of the costs of the United Nations budget and in contributing more of their own resources to resolve the toughest problems before us.

All this change is occurring at a time of great transformation for the American people. Our entire history of international involvement has shown a tension between periods of active engagement in the world and isolation from it. After 9/11 and the subsequent wars, we now have no alternative but to be fully engaged in the world, especially at a time when global forces are the major challenge before us.

The United States actually should do quite well at such a complex time. We have awesome military power, clear political influence worldwide and an embattled but still innovative and flexible economy. In addition, we have the “soft power” of our corporations, our universities and our values, which give us unique influence in many parts of the world.

Most of all, we have the power that comes with farsighted, hopeful and positive American leadership. This may be Obama’s most important asset as he takes power. He is well placed to become an inspiring and unifying global leader at a time when our country and the world need that most.

Nicholas Burns is a professor of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is the former secretary of state for political affairs, the former U.S. permanent representative to NATO and the former ambassador to Greece.