How do you solve a problem like Korea? Or Syria? Or the euro zone? Or climate change?
Don’t look to Washington. The United States will remain the world’s most powerful nation for years to come, but the Obama administration and U.S. lawmakers are now focused on debt, immigration, guns and growth. A war-weary, under-employed American public wants results at home, leaving U.S. officials to look for allies willing to share costs and risks abroad.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to build and sustain alliances in a world where America can’t afford its traditional share of the heavy lifting. No wonder then that the Obama administration’s greatest foreign policy successes haven’t depended on such alliances. Withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t require consensus among the world’s powers. President Barack Obama’s single indisputable foreign policy triumph, the killing of Osama bin Laden, needed buy-in only from the members of Seal Team 6.
Nor should we look to Europe for help. Its leaders are still hard at work duct-taping the euro zone, and cash-strapped governments consider an activist European foreign policy prohibitively expensive. Nor will next-wave powers look to shoulder new burdens. Economic slowdowns in China, India and Brazil remind us that not every emerging market will fully emerge, much less accept the costs and risks that come with a share of global leadership.
In this G-Zero world, where no single government or alliance can lead others toward compromise, solutions to transnational problems range from ad hoc to beyond reach. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opened the U.N.’s Conference on Sustainable Development last June with a warning: This gathering is too big to fail. But for Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, the event was simply too big to attend. None of them has the muscle, individually or together, to force compromise on the policies that fuel climate change — and they know it.