Recognizing a changed world

If John McCain had won last year's presidential election, Americans would still have to adjust to a changing world order. Our elected leaders have spent the past several decades telling less-developed nations to be more like us and, by golly, some of them have gotten the message. So the United States no longer stands alone astride the globe.

McCain would likely have executed a different foreign policy — with less emphasis on diplomacy and more on go-it-alone militarism. But he could not have stopped the emergence of China and Brazil as rising powers. He could not have stamped out Islamic extremism through force alone. Nor could McCain have prevented the inexorable tide of globalization, which has decimated the U.S. manufacturing sector and created widespread economic dislocation.

No matter what the United States does, the world is changing, as is our place in it. Barack Obama understands that, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his recognition of a new world order as much as for anything else. His insistence on acknowledging his nation's shortcomings, his landmark speech in an Islamic capitol, his refusal to perpetuate the myth of American exceptionalism — all reflect an understanding of a world in which U.S. power and influence have limits. Indeed, Obama — a black man with a Kenyan father — is a walking, talking symbol of a world no longer dominated by Eurocentric interests.

Needless to say, the prospect of an America that may have to share the world stage has created more than a little anxiety in some quarters. Dick Cheney isn't the only person having trouble with a presidential bully pulpit that does less, well, bullying. Lots of average Americans have the sense that the America they knew — the one that dominated trade and commerce as well as military affairs — is under attack by some unseen conspiracy.

That helps explain the hysteria that erupted from the right in October, when the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was announced: Because Obama does not practice a foreign policy of bluster and swagger, the prize was seen in those circles as rewarding an America of weakness and decline.

Obama's challenge, then, was to give a Nobel acceptance speech that outlined America's role in a changed world without ceding leadership on important issues, including U.S. security. He did that with a clear-eyed and robust reminder that the United States still occupies the central spot on the world stage, with a great capacity to do good in the world — even through force of arms.

"Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans," Obama said.

The president didn't give up his prerogative to act unilaterally in defense of his country. And he didn't shy away from the "hard truth" that nations will sometimes "find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified."

But Obama did emphasize the obligation of the United States to lead by example — to prohibit torture, to abide by the Geneva Conventions, to close the offensive prison at Guantanamo Bay. Our values are more persuasive than our bullets and bombs, so we ought to keep them in good working order.

Still, the critics who believe Obama's Nobel is premature have a point, as he acknowledged. He's no Gandhi or Mandela or King. He has sent men and women to die in a distant war, even as he speaks of his quest for peace.

But Obama has reinstated time-honored American values of respect for the rule of law and for the fair conduct of war. That, at least, restores our moral claim to the leading role — even on a stage where the U.S. is not the only powerful actor.

Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at

Share This Story