This speech is not worth reading for its policy proposals, which are more or less standard Democratic boilerplate proposals. Rather, as Scott Paul writes at The Washington Note, this kind of speech helps to reveal the candidate’s worldview.
Compared to Mitt Romney, whose first major foreign policy address I blogged about here, there is the strong suggestion of an actual worldview and the beginnings of an appreciation that the world that Bush’s successors face will be radically different not only from the global environment that Bush faced upon taking office, but also radically different from the pre-Iraq war environment. Obama, it seems, thinks that the changes are simply a function of poor leadership from the US.
But I disagree: while poor US leadership — and an obsession with the Middle East — has exacerbated the changes afoot, what’s happened is the end of the unipolar era. The changes are structural, which means there’s relatively little that the next administration will be able to do to resist them. The post-Bush world will be characterized by soft balancing and “mini”-polarity (regional balances of power), which will create new challenges and opportunities for the next president. And it will require greater skill at wielding American power, with more emphasis on trying to understand how other countries see the world as a way to make them want what we want.
In contrast with Romney, though, at least Obama thought it appropriate to mention Asia, the region to which the world’s center of gravity is shifting. He said:
In Asia, the emergence of an economically vibrant, more politically active China offers new opportunities for prosperity and cooperation, but also poses new challenges for the United States and our partners in the region. It is time for the United States to take a more active role here – to build on our strong bilateral relations and informal arrangements like the Six Party talks. As President, I intend to forge a more effective regional framework in Asia that will promote stability, prosperity and help us confront common transnational threats such as tracking down terrorists and responding to global health problems like avian flu.
There’s not much new or profound there, but at least he acknowledges that the US has an important role to play in the region.
The speech is worth a glance. Based on this address, there might actually be hope for Obama as a leader in the post-Bush, post-unipolar era.