There is no way to know how a new occupant will handle the Oval Office, until it tests him.
But this much is certain: A world more dangerous and complex than the one President Clinton bequeaths will test the next president. The next administration will encounter a world in transition, an interregnum between eras. Where the Cold War ended in the collapse of a single superpower, competition between many great powers will mark the new era.
Today, U.S. foreign policy is in disarray because there has been little need for precise strategy and tactics. But at its deepest level, U.S. foreign policy is in disarray because of an underlying duality in the country's character. The problem lies in a very simple observation: This is a country with two names. There is America, a geographic entity. And there is the United States, a legal and constitutional entity.
America is a country like any other with geography, peoples and an economy that springs from both. America has its power, its fears and its greed. But the United States is the expression of the Constitution, the moral project of the American Revolution. When a president, or a soldier, takes an oath he does not swear to protect America. He swears to defend the Constitution. This vision has always inferred there are nations with other values, morally defective by comparison.
In foreign policy, America's moral mission has clashed with the national interests of the United States. The clearest example can be found during World War II when the idea of alliance with Stalin a homicidal dictator of historic proportions was clearly counter to America's moral mission. But it was in the national interest of the United States to defeat Hitler's Germany.
In recent years, the pursuit of human rights abroad has become the imperative of U.S. foreign policy. From Somalia to Kosovo, the moral project of America has directed foreign policy. During periods in which the United States enjoys overwhelming power, it can pursue moral ends without risk. In extreme times, as during World War II, it is necessary to abandon moral scruples and ally, as Churchill said, with the devil if need be. The in-between times make life difficult for a president. And the next one is unlikely to have the luxury of always choosing the moral imperative.
Why? Because we are at the end of the post-Cold War world in which the overwhelming U.S. power and the willingness of other great powers to subordinate their activities to Washington's demands characterized that world. For Europeans, this was as much habit as interest. For others, like Russia and China, this was a matter of economics. Russia pinned its hopes on Western aid. China built economic development around the twin pillars of Western investment and access to Western markets.
That world is changing. Today, the Putin government continues to hope for Western assistance but strongly suspects little will be forthcoming. With the carrot of economic assistance disappearing, Russia is moving to recover its sphere of political influence and increasingly has reasons to challenge the United States. In China, Beijing's desire to accommodate Washington must take second place to the need to create domestic political conditions necessary to maintain stability and sustain development.
European and Japanese habits are changing too. The easy equation of alliance with the United States leading to security and prosperity no longer applies. For the Europeans, alliance with the United States means military adventure in the Balkans. It also means a Euro pressured by the dollar. For Japan, the relationship with the United States no longer equals prosperity.
The new president, as a result, will face twin challenges. The first is the need to act with greater caution; imprudence can only accelerate the divergence between the great powers. The second is to re-examine human rights in foreign policy. Russia, China and the Islamic world have very different understandings of the nature of just regimes.
The man who sits in the Oval Office will not have the luxury Clinton enjoyed.
George Friedman is the chairman of Stratfor.com, an Internet provider of global intelligence based in Austin, Texas.