It was easy to believe, over the past four years, that the United States had all but vanished from the world. For the first time in generations, we witnessed a sequence of world-changing developments, in Asia, Africa, Europe and especially the Middle East, over which Washington had little influence and no control.
This was far from the ambition of Barack Obama, whose presidency began with bold speeches in Berlin and Cairo promising a new American role in the world.
It was not to be. The Arab revolutions, the European fiscal crisis, the emergence of the Chinese superpower, the Iranian "green" movement and the African economic renaissance were all events that Washington did not provoke and had little or no ability to shape or influence.
Some saw this as a welcome development: The U.S. was no longer the world's cop, and many regions seemed liberated from the omnipresent forces of American money and politics.
Others saw it as menacing: Political scientist Ian Bremmer recently characterized ours as "the G-Zero world," in which there's no longer any major power or grouping of powers such as the G8, able to limit or regulate the Hobbesian chaos he believes to be characteristic of a superpower-free universe.
Whatever the case, it isn't likely to last. Mr. Obama, like most second-term presidents, intends to devote himself more to international affairs. But he's hardly a world-shaping strategic genius. As his White House colleagues have observed, the Obama administration's negotiations with China and Russia (the "pivot" and the "reset") were weakly conducted, ill-timed and counterproductive. He failed to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison or make sense of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
During Mr. Obama's first term, the three major instruments of U.S. influence simply stopped working.
The first was the practice of hosing down countries with military aid in hopes they'd stay loyal to Washington. Egypt has been given an average of $2-billion every year since 1979. Pakistan has been granted $20-billion during the past 10 years. And U.S. aid to Israel's military has averaged about $3-billion a year for the past 15 years.
This instrument failed Mr. Obama. The aid to Egypt, which had helped keep two dictators in power, did not endear its newly empowered citizens to the United States. The aid to Pakistan supported a corrupt administration that impoverished the country and harboured forces that are violently anti-American. And Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel, despite all the money, has been hostile to U.S.-led peace efforts, rejecting any gesture that could have brought stability to the region.
The second instrument – economic persuasion – lost its force when countries such as China became important investors and trading partners for many poor countries. Suddenly, the American carrot of "favoured nation" trade status and promises of investment was not so exclusive or powerful.
And the third – forcefully imposed regime change – was discredited in the embers of the Iraq war and the failure to produce a credible government in Afghanistan. While Mr. Obama used this tool in a much more indirect and effective way in Libya (and was right to keep the U.S. role in the background), it was a case of assisting an existing popular uprising with little control over its outcome.
What, then, does an American leader have left to use? Mr. Obama has two things. First, his success and persistence. His Democrats will be ruling for at least four, and possibly eight, more years. So we might see a positive influence, say, in the Jan. 22 Israeli election, where Mr. Netanyahu's bellicose anti-Obama stand might cost him and help usher in a more peace-minded coalition.
And second, here's a leader who, using growth-based policies, has ended the recession in his country much earlier than those that resorted to austerity. He has negotiated an important public health program through his legislature. And he has forged a new electoral base from an emerging generation of voters, something that dozens of less fortunate leaders are struggling to do.
The old America of force may have vanished from the scene. But people around the world would like to have a piece of this new America, the one that seems to be solving its problems. If Mr. Obama can sell it, the world is ready to buy.