President Obama has consistently allied with the bridge-builders. Though it was largely overlooked, he offered a manifesto for those of this persuasion in his United Nations speech last month. "There is a pervasive unease in our world—a sense that the very forces that have brought us together have created new dangers and made it difficult for any single nation to insulate itself from global forces," Obama declared. "We can reaffirm our collective responsibility to confront global problems, or be swamped by more ... outbreaks of instability."
Obama's responses to the past year's cascading global threats reflect that analysis. He has taken some unilateral steps against each emerging danger—but has bet mostly on recruiting other nations to jointly confront the underlying causes that spawn them.
His reaction to the surge in unaccompanied Central American minors entering the country earlier this year exemplified his approach. He tried to discourage children from crossing the border by adding domestic resources to capture, detain, and return them more quickly. But he rejected the most vehement calls to stiffen border security and reduce legal protections for the unaccompanied minors. Instead, he relied primarily on obtaining cooperation from the Central American countries the children were leaving—and Mexico, through which they were traveling. Though it's too early to claim success, the flow has clearly slowed, partly due to unprecedented Mexican engagement. "Mexico has really stepped up to manage this in a way that was almost unimaginable two years ago," says Simon Rosenberg, founder of NDN, a Democratic group that closely follows border issues.
Though far too slow in developing, Obama's response to ISIS displayed similar preferences. He ordered American airstrikes in Iraq and Syria—but only after demanding changes in the Iraqi government and commitments from other Arab nations aimed at defusing the alienation among Sunni Muslims that nourishes the group.
On Ebola, Obama has repeated the pattern. Last February, the administration launched a Global Health Security Agenda to strengthen developing nations' public-health capacity. "You can't protect America just within America," Dr. Thomas Frieden, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director, told me last spring. "Just like terrorism, you have to fight disease where it emerges."
Obama has followed this compass through the deepening Ebola crisis. He has tightened screening at U.S. airports but rejected the growing calls, primarily from Republicans, to ban passengers from the most affected countries. He has dispatched American troops and CDC personnel to reinforce the health infrastructure crumbling in nations ravaged by the disease—but he has also candidly complained that other nations must do more.
The bridge-building approach has two major weaknesses. One is that it rarely moves rapidly. On unaccompanied minors, ISIS, and Ebola alike, critics can legitimately question whether Obama (and other world leaders) acted quickly enough. That partly reflects deficiencies in the president's management style, but also the reality that building coalitions takes time.