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A ‘reinvigorated’ President at a UN lunch this week.Brendan McDermid/Reuters

The world that rushed to New York this week can be forgiven for missing the relic of an earlier age of American supremacy. Across the river from the United Nations, in a corner of Flushing Meadows once known as the Valley of Ashes, the iconic steel unisphere of the 1964 World's Fair still whispers a mention of the American century in full swing.

Then, as now, America's innovation, culture and design dazzled the world. People from all corners came to New York to see models of space ships, computer circuits, Disney films and a remarkable new invention, the video phone. For much of the world, the United States was the beacon.

The world was a little less bedazzling to Americans, scarred as they were by Cuba, reluctant about Cyprus and divided over Vietnam. But then, perhaps as now, their ambivalence toward global leadership would not endure.

Fifty years after the U.S. strutted its accomplishments and ambition at the fair, a retrenched, some say retreating, hegemon has awoken from a summer of geopolitical chaos to find the world still not willing to be left alone.

The U.S.-led air campaign launched this week over Syria and Iraq may just be the beginning of American re-engagement, perhaps not a return to Pax Americana but the reassertion of a superpower that even its adversaries quietly seem to welcome.

If this continues, the declinists who had written off Barack Obama as a foreign-policy failure, an innocent abroad and divider at home, may see the final quarter of his presidency in a new light.

Humbled by the red-line fiasco in Syria, the loss of Russia, the chill of China and the moral opprobrium of the climate crowd, President Obama again looks determined to lead, and to do so in a new style, to be more promiscuous in his alliances and less rigid in his principles. It may be his last chance, and allies and enemies alike should take note: When a second-term president sets out to clean up messes abroad by any means, the consequences can be far-reaching.

While throngs of diplomats and activists descended on New York last weekend for a round robin of internationalism – a climate summit, poverty summit, special United Nations Security Council meeting and, ultimately, the UN General Assembly – I headed to the far suburbs, past the remains of the Carousel of Progress, to the legacy of an earlier gilded age of American influence.

Less than an hour from the UN, in the rolling meadows of Jay Gatsby's fictional excess, the 400-acre, forested estate of industrialist Payne Whitney – now owned by his family's foundation – has become a locus of U.S. influence. For much of the year, Greentree is reserved for the Security Council, for retreats, private meetings between warring factions and American coaxing, in the billiards room or through a maze of meandering trails.

The estate also serves as a centre for debate, as it was for 40 of us – diplomats, academics and business leaders from a dozen countries gathered by the British-based Ditchley Foundation to discuss America's role in the world.

America's retreat was the central question. Had the superpower become a super-bystander? Or had the President just lost interest, energy and credibility to do more than moralize?

There is little dispute that the Obama administration, at the three-quarter mark, has been a foreign-policy disappointment. Since its initial months, when it held the commanding heights of history, and a Nobel Peace Prize, Obamaism has been in steady decline. The financial crisis, ensuing economic slowdown and uncelebrated withdrawal from Iraq drove many Americans inward. Those not fatigued by wars and military adventures had tired of the caterwauling of allies on everything from greenhouse gases to Gaza. Congress was even more inward-looking, consumed by health care and immigration reforms, and an explosion of domestic campaign financing that has contorted, if not corrupted, American politics.

Even the President's principles, enunciated in his historic Cairo speech, A New Beginning, in June, 2009, could not withstand the weight of events and neglect.

His administration had hoped to rebuild alliances, from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the Group of 20, so that America no longer would need to act alone or even as a coalition leader. He preferred to see it as leading from within. A reshaping of the military – fewer boots, more drones – would add to a lighter touch. His rebalance to Asia was more ambitious, a hope that through a shift of military resources to the Pacific and a further opening of trade, America could fulfill its pivot.

Mr. Obama was undermined by his misreading of several countries – Libya, Syria, Iraq, Russia, Afghanistan – along with a fractured and hostile Congress and successive secretaries of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry, who were (and remain) presidential aspirants, as interested in their own success as they were in his. From Kabul to Keystone, his foreign policy seemed both flimsy and fleeting.

Yet, as we settled into Greentree, a seemingly different Mr. Obama had emerged from a tumultuous summer to try once again to bestride a troubled world. His adversaries and critics may not protest too much.

China, while still either awkward or hostile to any UN resolution authorizing force, is content to allow the U.S. to deploy its military against the Islamic State, even more so if it has a cast of supporting Arab players. Beijing's interest is clear: Chinese separatists have joined the Islamic State, and yet it does not have the support of its own people, or neighbours, to begin sending forces into conflict abroad.

(Beijing also seems to acknowledge privately the need for U.S. military forces in its own backyard, including hundreds of marines stationed in Darwin, Australia, to keep an eye on the Strait of Malacca.)

More surprising may be Washington's slow, quiet success with Tehran, where a more forgiving American view of Iran's nuclear program has led to Iranian co-operation, diplomats say, in the U.S.-led anti-terror efforts in Iraq and Syria. Skeptics abound, fearing Washington has been duped, but for now, U.S.-Iranian relations are at one of their better points since the 1979 revolution.

The U.S. role in Ukraine may be the most telling shift of all. When the European powers did less than expected to confront Russian aggression, it was a reinvigorated Mr. Obama who challenged Vladimir Putin, who shamed his NATO allies into greater defence spending commitments and assured his Baltic allies that America had their backs. Less visible have been what one Russian described as "track two" conversations between American and Russian advisers on how to pull Eastern Europe back from the brink. The lessons of Cold War diplomacy may not have been lost.

All of this may have happened because Mr. Obama, in some measure, abandoned his own doctrine. He came to office wanting a foreign policy invested in stronger institutions, enduring alliances and a loyalty to liberal values. All three principles have been eroded.

The G20 has faded from view, lost to a cacophony of interests. The UN has become, almost in defiance of the laws of physics, even less relevant, a muffled voice on security, climate, global health, just about everything it was created for. Even the International Monetary Fund, a key to the defence of the global financial system in 2008, has fallen prey to a power struggle between emerging markets (which account for more and more of the world's monetary system) and the U.S. Congress (which still holds an effective veto).

Mr. Obama has drawn instead on what he calls "progressive pragmatism," which his aides claim is his nature, relying on an informal network of networks, ad hoc groups of nations taking on the challenges of the day. Some of them champion liberal values. Some are partners of convenience. Exhibit A: the coalition of willing Arab states in this week's air strikes. Exhibit B: the network of health agencies and charities operating with U.S. support in ebola-stricken West Africa.

The re-engagement may evoke Bill Clinton more than Ronald Reagan. It may serve the last two years of the Obama White House just fine. But will it satisfy a President who, despite his desire to be pragmatic, often thinks more in decades than in weeks? Or the Republicans heading into 2016, if things go wrong? Or those Americans who share a discontent with the world's course?

On the grander issues of his age – climate change, cyber-security, the financial imbalance between America and Asia – Mr. Obama will need ad hoc networks like never before. The 2008 financial crisis was mitigated by a small group of central bankers, commercial bankers, regulators and finance ministers, supported but not directed by the United States. A president who is not renowned for building private-sector trust, or the loyalty of other nations, may be challenged to do that again. He also needs what America has lacked of late – for its allies to do more. Canada's approach to carbon emissions is the sort of passive resistance the U.S. has encountered from India on trade, Mexico on immigration and Turkey on Syria. Under Mr. Obama, everyone has loved to complain about Washington, but few have been willing to shoulder their share of the costs.

Skeptics believe this is no longer possible – the world has too many strong voices, too many competing interests, too much of what physicists call entropy, the thermodynamic condition that degenerates order into chaos.

The pragmatists believe we have seen this state before, in 1964, and should see hope in the Valley of Ashes, an old dumpsite that was a symbol of American waste in The Great Gatsby before gaining fame as the site of two world fairs and now the U.S. Open tennis tournament. While the site echoes a hopeful, even golden, moment, it is easy to forget that it came in the wake of decline. The U.S. had lost China, lost Cuba, lost half of Vietnam, lost its containment of the Soviet Union. The developing world, through the Non-Aligned Movement, was erupting with post-colonial ideas and ambitions. Then, but much more now, it was an age of "messylateralism," when strange bedfellows were needed to keep the world from chaos.

The pragmatic Mr. Obama may yet return to the view of Lord Palmerston, the prime minister who prevented entropy in the British empire, even while the continent was endlessly skirmishing and America was on the verge of devouring itself in Civil War. Nations, he famously said, have no permanent allies or enemies – only permanent interests.

John Stackhouse, a former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, is a senior fellow at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and the C.D. Howe Institute, and a director of the Ditchley Canada Foundation.

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