President Obama faces a dilemma in foreign policy. On the one hand, he will inherit a legacy he cannot ignore: an economic crisis, two wars, a struggle against terrorism, and a set of problems in the Middle East among others. If he fails to fight these fires successfully, they will consume his political capital. On the other hand, if all he does is fight fires, he inherits Bush's priorities. Beyond dealing with urgent trouble spots, a key priority for Barack Obama will be to set his own tone that helps to educate the public at home and abroad. The "Bush Doctrine" of preventive war and coercive democratization, coupled with a unilateralist style, was based on a flawed analysis of power in today's world. The paradox of American power is that the strongest country since the days of Rome cannot achieve its objectives acting alone.
Obama's election itself has done a great deal to restore American soft power, but he will need to follow up with policies that combine hard and soft power into a smart strategy of the sort that won the Cold War. Democracy promotion is best accomplished by soft attraction rather than hard coercion, and it takes time and patience. Here he should lead by example and remember the historical wisdom of being Reagan's "shining city on a hill." Closing Guantanamo, while it raises tough questions about the future of some detainees, will give such a signal. As for democracy promotion, it is in our cultural genes. The United States should always encourage the gradual evolution of democracy but in a manner that accepts the reality of diversity. Right now, Bush's calls for democracy are heard as an imperial imposition of American institutions. We need less Wilsonian rhetoric about making the world safe for democracy, unless combined with John F. Kennedy's calls to "make the world safe for diversity."
Obama should go beyond the false dualism of liberal vs. realist. American leadership remains crucial. A "liberal realist" policy should look to the long term evolution of world order and realize the responsibility of the largest country in the international system to produce global public or common goods as Britain did in the 19th century. As the largest country of the 21st century, the United States should similarly promote an open international economy and commons (seas, space, internet), mediate international disputes before they escalate, and develop international rules and institutions. Early signaling that the U.S. will take the lead in dealing with global climate change will be an important start.
The United States can become a smart power by once again investing in global public goods - providing things people and governments in all quarters of the world want but cannot attain in the absence of leadership by the largest country. That means support for international institutions, aligning our country with international development, promoting public health, increasing interactions of our civil society with others, maintaining an open international economy, and dealing seriously with climate change. President Obama cannot afford to fumble any of the hot potatoes he inherits from Bush, but showing that America is back in the business of exporting hope rather than fear must be a top priority.
Joseph S. Nye is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard. His latest book is The Powers to Lead.