The point of the American system, at least in theory, is that too many factors play into key societal decisions to make it easy for individuals and institutions invested with great power to exercise that power lightly. That is more true than ever for the United States today.
In pure military terms, the United States can do whatever it wants to whomever it wants, and precious few other countries can do a thing about it. As Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate, of course, overwhelming military power only gets you so far, unless you are willing to indiscriminately kill civilians and then govern the country you’ve destroyed. And even then, the risks of blowback and failure are large.
But in terms of firing missiles or deploying commandos or using drones or any number of military measures, the president can literally say go and it is done. Yes, he needs the consensus of his team, but the power is there. And once the missiles are flying, there is no turning back.
That type of power is almost impossible to manage well. The temptation to use it is great. We know that because we use it frequently. China, also powerful in its way, does not. Russia, still well-armed, does not. France did dispatch troops to Mali recently, but even with its nuclear arsenal and not inconsiderable military, force is not a primary option. Those domestic systems are not ones most of us would trade for, yet it bears remembering that they are much less tempted to use force to resolve intractable international issues, including dire human rights abuses.
There is one more reason to celebrate the waning of the imperial presidency. For too long, the United States has been locked into a role as the sole guardian of global order. Many Americans want to retain that, but in truth, we play that role selectively and erratically. Obama himself noted the contradictions in an interview with The New Republic and asked how any president could weigh the relative merits of intervening in Syria versus intervening in Congo. The very expectation that the United States must do something throughout the world feeds the domestic expansion of presidential powers. But while those powers grow, the ability and willingness of Americans to act as the global policeman and enforcer is erratic at best. That makes for the worst of possible worlds: an overweening domestic executive and an ineffectual global cop.
The shifts afoot are partly structural. Without a clear and present danger, it’s natural that the pendulum begins to move away from the executive branch and toward other centers of influence. But Obama in recent months has been quietly accelerating the shift rather than fighting it. That may prove to be one of his greatest legacies, even though the diminution of presidential power is not the kind of thing that makes for compelling historical narrative. It is, however, exactly the sort of thing that makes for a compelling democracy, and I’d rather live in that than read books years hence about how the imperial presidency drove the country in precisely the wrong direction.
This article originally appeared on Reuters.com, a partner site.