Just a decade ago it all looked so different. President Bush—in one of history’s great miscalculations—believed that the world stood on the verge of a new American century. In fact, the opposite was the case. The defeat of the Soviet Union flattered only to deceive and mislead. In a world increasingly defined by the rise of the developing countries, most notably China, the United States was, in fact, in relative decline. It took the global financial crisis to begin to convince the U.S. that it could no longer take its global supremacy for granted. This dawning realisation has come desperately late in the day. Even now most of the country remains in denial. Never has a great power been less prepared or equipped to face its own decline.
Fortunately, in Barack Obama the nation has a president that possesses a rare characteristic for that office, humility. He has made it clear from the outset that the U.S. cannot run the world on its own but only in co-operation with others. In Beijing he welcomed China’s rise as a positive and sought a relationship of partnership with it. But as with the US financial crisis, Obama is making it up as he goes along. Like the rest of the ruling elite, he finds himself ambushed by American decline, a situation that his administration was entirely unprepared for. Those who criticised his performance in Beijing as being too weak are not even at the starting line: they refuse to face up to the reality of a fundamental shift in the balance of power with China.