CISAC's Steve Stedman and Bruce Jones host Hillary Clinton for national security strategy discussion

Clinton logo Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recounts a story to President Barack Obama and Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, outside the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009. Pete Souza/White House

The Obama administration's decision to preview its National Security Strategy at West Point highlighted its coverage of security crises from Afghanistan to North Korea. But back-to-back events at Brookings with Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power today showed that the core of the strategy is a deeper argument about the central challenge confronting America -- the increased impact on our economy and security of a new global reality.

For two decades, the United States could take economic and security supremacy for granted. Three things have changed.

First, the global economic boom. Yes, boom -- remember? Before the crash, there were two decades of uninterrupted growth in the global economy, global trade, and global financial activity. The U.S. profited, but so too did China, India and Brazil, which grew into major economic players; so did several others, like Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey, which have emerged as the new middle powers.

Second, the Iraq war. Love or loath U.S. policy in Iraq, it launched us into sustained expenditure of financial and military resources alongside another draining war in Afghanistan. In the minds of the Vulcans, decisive U.S. victory in Iraq was to assert global order by force of -- well, force. The strategy backfired, and rising states from Ankara to Brasilia found few, if any, costs to opposing U.S. strategy in the Middle East -- and domestic political points to be won. The Obama administration is feeling the consequences in its Iran policy.

Third, the global financial crisis. The bust, when it came, reaffirmed the centrality of the U.S. in the short term. But it also showcased the growing weight of the emerging economies, which now lead the global recovery. Before Lehman Brothers collapsed, other big players may have disliked our Middle East policy, but they banked -- figuratively and literally -- on our stewardship of the global financial system. Since then, doubts have crept in, and a new assertiveness to match.

The net result is rising global influence and solidifying regional power for China, India, and Brazil -- and less room for maneuver for the US.

The administration will be criticized in predictable terms from predictable quarters for acknowledging any of this, even in tacit terms: for 'giving ground' to the emerging powers, for 'ceding' American supremacy, for forgetting to carry a big stick while talking softly. But that dog won't hunt. The Bush administration had begun to adapt to these changed realities towards the end of its tenure, and the Obama administration deserves credit for putting the new global realities front and center in its assessment of U.S. national strategy. The core concepts of revitalizing international order, pressing others to take up their responsibilities and working within, not against, multilateral arrangements are the right ones.

The tougher question is, will it work? Skeptics will point to Chinese heel-dragging and Brazilian gallivanting on Iran to say no. Optimists will point to Chinese cooperation on the financial crisis, and everybody's cooperation on Somali piracy and counter-terrorism, to say yes.

The reality is, we don't know. There's a struggle in Beijing between betting on cooperation with the US, and those who seek sharper competition. A pro-U.S. strategy in India has the high ground for now, but divisions remain. The better angels in Brazil's foreign ministry can't quite hold back Lula's dalliance with global populism -- an October election there may tilt the balance.

But we know this much: if the U.S. doesn't try, no one will succeed. None of the emerging powers can underwrite stability, and none that are serious want the job. The emerging powers may not play ball, and if so, we'll be in a lose-lose global game. But only U.S. strategy can pull us into win-win, and the Administration is right to try. Making this point to the American people won't be popular; but reality is reality, and denial does not a strategy make.