President Barack Obama has won re-election. However, in addition to all of the constraints on him that I discussed last week, he won the election with almost half the people voting against him. His win in the Electoral College was substantial -- and that's the win that really matters -- but the popular vote determines how he governs, and he will govern with one more constraint added to the others. The question is whether this weakens him or provides an opportunity. That is not determined by his policies but by the strategic situation, which, in my view, gives the United States some much-needed breathing room.
The Structure of the International System
At the moment, the international system is built on three pillars: the United States, Europe and China. Europe, if it were united, would be very roughly the same size as the United States in terms of economy, population and potential military power. China is about a third the size of the other two economically, but it has been the growth engine of the world, making it more significant than size would indicate.
The fundamental problem facing the world is that two of these three pillars are facing existential crises, while the third, the United States, is robust only by comparison. Europe is in recession and, faced with a banking and sovereign debt crisis, is trying to reconcile the divergent national interests that were supposed to merge into a united Europe. China, dependent on exports to maintain its economy, is confronting the fact that many of its products are no longer competitive in the international market because of rising costs of labor and land. The result is increasing tension within the ruling Communist Party over the direction it should take.