It should be no surprise that the presidential campaigns have barely touched on foreign policy. One reason is that no candidate of either party has a solution to the nation's most pressing foreign problem, the war in Iraq (perhaps because there are no good solutions).
A larger reason, however, may be that no ambitious politician is willing to mention the discomfiting reality about America's place in the world -- that we are weaker today than we were a decade or two ago, and that we need a new foreign policy that acknowledges and builds on that fact.
President Bush's follies have accelerated the decline of U.S. influence, but he can't be blamed for its onset. It started, ironically, at the moment of our late-century triumph, when the Soviet Union imploded and the Cold War victory was ours. Some proclaimed that the United States was now "the sole superpower." But, in fact, the end of the Cold War left the very concept of a "superpower" in tatters.
Our leverage over half the world during the previous half-century had stemmed not just from American muscle but from the existence of a common enemy. Allies often acceded to U.S. interests, even to the detriment of their own national interests, because the looming Russian bear posed a greater menace still. But when the bear died, the alliance's threads loosened. Many of these nations would sometimes continue to follow our lead, but they also felt free to go their own way without so much concern about Washington's preferences.
As a result, wielding power in the post-Cold War world became a harder game. Alliances could no longer be taken for granted; they had to be crafted and nourished. American leadership might still be valued and necessary, but now it would have to be earned.
When Bush came to power, he and his top aides understood none of this. (In fairness, few did.) They believed, and acted, as if American power were not only undimmed but supreme and unchallengeable -- as if a president's grimace would still make tyrants tremble and the dispatch of light armies could remake the world.
So, for much of the last seven years, U.S. leaders stomped around the globe with wide-elbowed indifference to the consequences of their actions. Allies were alienated, enemies enraged and those in between -- especially those rich in key resources -- cut their own deals and created their own networks outside U.S. control.
Nations, including those whose leaders aren't so disposed to anti-Americanism, have learned, through experience or observation, that defying Washington carries no penalty. Germany joins France in opposing resolutions on Iraq in the U.N. Security Council -- and nothing happens to Germany. The Turkish parliament votes against letting U.S. troops invade Iraq from the north -- and nothing happens to Turkey. Bush warns Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak not to trample on human rights; the trampling continues -- and not only does nothing happen to Egypt, but on his recent trip to the Middle East, Bush commends Mubarak for his commitment to democracy.
Meanwhile, the dollar is plunging. American debt is in the hands of Chinese central bankers. And the U.S. military, though by far the world's strongest, is stretched beyond its means in Iraq and Afghanistan -- conflicts that, in Cold War days, would have been labeled "small wars."
The next president can begin to rebuild U.S. influence, but he or she cannot do it alone. The task requires rebuilding alliances, and that is a harder task than before.
In the presidential debates, the Republican candidates have hardly mentioned allies at all. Most of them act as if they don't care what the rest of the world thinks about us. (In this respect, they're ignoring lessons that Bush himself has, too late, begun to learn.) All the Democratic candidates have called for improving relations with allies and engaging in more diplomacy. This is welcome. But whether out of political calculation or naivete, they understate the difficulties.
A Democratic president will almost certainly open direct talks with Iran. There are many reasons why this is a good idea. But there is often an unspoken assumption that talking, by itself, will clear the air and solve problems. In many situations, though, the vital interests of two countries are simply irreconcilable -- and neither has the power to make the other give in.
If the next president wants Iran, say, to give up enriching uranium, what enticements is he or she willing to offer in return? What lesser interests is he or she willing to compromise or sacrifice in exchange for fulfilling that larger interest? It may turn out that the most generous package that any American president could reasonably offer won't be generous enough for the Iranians to forgo their work on the nuclear project.