It's getting tougher for the U.S. to impose its will, but we can still lead the world -- the trick is convincing the world to follow.
Here are a few of the big, global problems that the U.S. has recently tried and failed to resolve:
- North Korea's recent test-launch of a long-range missile, which U.S. diplomacy and threats couldn't deter.
- A new war between the Sudans, breaking a short-lived peace that the U.S. spent years building.
- Syria's continuing massacre of civilians, for which neither American diplomats nor American generals can find an acceptable solution.
- Egypt's tightening military rule, which has gotten so bad that the U.S. spent weeks just to extricate some detained American NGO workers.
- Israel's settlement growth in Palestinian territory, which the U.S. opposes as a barrier to Middle East peace.
- The Yemeni president's refusal to abdicate power, despite a U.S.-brokered pledge that he would step down.
- Afghanistan's unceasing war with itself, to which ten years of American-led war have not brought peace.
- Iran's nuclear development, which looks to be continuing despite U.S. sanctions and recent U.S.-led disarmament talks.
The U.S. isn't powerless. It's significantly alleviated most of these conflicts, and it's taken the international lead on all of them. But the pattern is unmissable. It is a big, complicated world in which the U.S. can only do so much. We're the most powerful country in the world by far, but that doesn't always make us the bosses. This might seem obvious, but American domestic discourse -- not to mention foreign discourses -- often seem to assume a strength of American hegemony that just doesn't exist.
President Obama's major foreign policy addresses, like those of the presidents before him, take American dominance in world affairs as both necessary and absolute. There's nothing wrong with declaring that Iran will not be allowed to build a nuclear weapon or that democracy will come to the Middle East. And there's nothing wrong with the American leader discussing those issues from an American perspective. After all, the U.S. is the strongest and richest country in the world, which also makes it the best positioned to help. But there's a difference between helping and solving, just as there's a difference between offering leadership and having others follow. We seem to assume the latter (as do many non-Americans, for example in Egypt, where it's common to assume "foreign hands" guide Egyptian politics when in fact the U.S. seems to have less influence there every day), imagining American power extends far beyond its actual limits.