Like comets hurtling at one another from opposite ends of outer space, two different phenomena in different parts of the world soared into public awareness last week. Separately, they might not have had cosmic importance. Put together, however, they could prove to be an interesting sign of things to come.
In China, President Barack Obama met his counterpart, Chinese President Hu Jintao. He also met the Chinese premier, Wen Jibao. The former got more attention, but the latter was more interesting: According to Xinhua, the Chinese press agency, Wen told Obama that "China disagrees to the suggestion of a 'Group of Two.' " China is "still a developing country," he said, and "we must always keep sober-minded about it." China is delighted to continue its economic relationship with the United States, but China "pursues the independent foreign policy of peace and will not align with any country or country [blocs]."
Translation: China will not cooperate in placing sanctions on Iran, China will not hinder North Korea's nuclear missile program, and China will not help solve the problems of Afghanistan, the Middle East, or anywhere else. In short, China has decided that it will not become America's full partner in foreign policy.
At approximately the same time, the leaders of Europe were locked into proverbial smoke-filled rooms (nowadays empty of smoke) arguing over who should be granted the new job of "president" of the European Union and who should become Europe's new "high representative," or foreign minister. These talks represented the culmination of a decade's worth of diplomacy, debate, and national referendums, all designed to produce a more united European foreign policy and to give Europe a single phone number that Obama can call when he wants to chat. The result: The president of Europe will be Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, a politician unknown outside his own country. The foreign minister of Europe will be British official Catherine Ashton, a bureaucrat unknown even inside her own country. Candidates of far greater experience and influence—including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt—were rejected, apparently for fear they would have more experience and influence than the powers that be. Germany's Der Spiegel heralded this news with the headline "Europe Chooses Nobodies."
Translation: Europe might have a new phone number, but when Obama calls, the person on the other end of the line will still be unable to act. "Europe" will not be a unified entity capable of coordinating a unified policy in Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, the Middle East, or anywhere else anytime soon. Europe cannot, in short, become America's full partner in foreign policy.
And thus we are left with a curious situation: America no longer wants to be the sole superpower. The American president no longer wants to be the leader of a sole superpower. Nobody else wants America to be the sole superpower, and, in fact, America cannot even afford to be the sole superpower. Yet America has no obvious partner with which to share its superpowerdom, and if America were to cease being a superpower, nothing and no one would take its place.
This might not be the end of the world—there are quite a few trouble spots that could do with a long period of benign neglect—and it might not last forever. Europe, when counted as a single entity, is still the world's largest economy. China, whatever else it might be, is still the world's fastest-growing economy. Sooner or later, the simple need to defend their economic interests might persuade one or both to start taking the outside world more seriously.
This does mean that the Obama administration has a problem, however: Having come to office promising to work with allies, it may soon discover that there are no allies with which to work. Europe is still our best hope, because Europeans share most of our values. But organizing sanctions with a divided Europe—never mind a military operation—will continue to be a major chore. China, meanwhile, is acquiring vast foreign interests, trading in Africa and South America as well as Asia, and maintaining a vast army. But China appears uninterested in joining an international campaign against terrorism, nuclear proliferation, or anything else.
Global military and security thus look set to remain in the hands of the United States, whether the United States wants it or not. Halfway through his presidency, George W. Bush found he had to drop unilateralism in favor of diplomacy. Now one wonders: At some point in his presidency, will Obama find he has to drop diplomacy in favor of unilateralism?