The relationship among the three principal centers of world power of the past half-century is now at the edge of fundamental change. A great deal has been said about the rise of China and India as Asian power centers rival to, or added to, Japan, but this still is more ambition than reality.

China and India are certainly newly important trading and manufacturing nations, but global great powers do not make their living as subcontractors to foreign industry, or as makers and vendors of goods designed or invented elsewhere. For China and India, this remains the case.

The three existing power centers are still the United States, Europe and Russia. “Europe” means Western Europe, not the 27-member European Union. The new, enlarged EU is actually less important than the pre-enlargement EU. The states included in the most recent enlargements have so far contributed more weakness than strength to the union.

Russia still has a place in the trio because of its very considerable residual nuclear strategic power, and its ambition. Its economic and industrial strength remains more potentiality than reality. But under Dimitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, Russia is determined to hold its place in the front rank of international politics and diplomacy, and should not be underestimated. (I cite the two in order of protocol; we’ll see about real power when Medvedev’s first term is up.)

President Medvedev made Russia’s ambition plain in the interview he gave to eight leading newspapers last week in anticipation of the G8 summit that opens Monday in Japan. He suggested that the time has passed when the United States is in a position to dominate management of the international economy.

The United States, he said, is today “essentially in a depression.” He might have added that the whole world is in an economic crisis because of the deeply irresponsible decisions, if not criminal manipulations, of the American real estate investment market, themselves patent betrayals of leadership. However, nobody in Europe or Asia seems willing to comment on that, apparently assuming this behavior normal.

The emphasis of Medvedev — as someone trained as a lawyer — on the importance of law and an independent judiciary was an interesting novelty, given events in Russia under Putin. The call for equilibrium in relations with the United States will not get much of a response in today’s Washington, but may in Europe.

The European Union is now in a deeply problematical position, having once again been shocked by the democratic Irish public’s rejection of the inherently contradictory program of ever-enlarging expansion and ever-deepening integration laid out by the European Commission and endorsed by the European Council.

One of the most distinguished American professional observers of the European scene, David P. Calleo of the Johns Hopkins Paul Nitze School in Washington, asks in the current issue of the Brussels journal Europe’s World if anything can restore the transatlantic harmony that existed before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He answers in the negative, assuming that no drama with Russia or comparable crisis will arrive that might make Europe again need U.S. military protection.

Otherwise, Europe “may be careful not to alienate America, but it will struggle to build a collaborative relationship with its regional neighbors. Insofar as America’s hegemonic world view seems to stand in the way of such collaboration, the Atlantic seems more likely to count as a barrier than as a bond.”

The big question concerning the United States is whether a new president might alter the national course. So far as one can assess the developing foreign policy views of Barack Obama, the question can’t yet be given a firm answer. Obama is surrounded by advisers who are mostly former officials in past Democratic governments, of the most orthodox cast of thought, so real change seems unlikely.

The more John McCain says about foreign policy, the more this otherwise admirable man reveals ignorance of the subject and, it would seem, his lack of intellectual depth.

This is cause for European and Russian discouragement, not to speak of the discouragement of those Americans for whom Obama’s visible intelligence seemed validation of his promise of change. Calleo writes that one might think the Washington foreign policy community by now would understand that “America’s unipolar policies of the past decade” have weakened rather than strengthened the nation. “But following the demise of the Soviets, America seems to have lost its way.”

Too much power has been captured in Washington for the national system of checks and balances to contain it within a purely national constitutional structure. A correlative balancing power abroad is required. “Constructing such a balanced state system for Europe itself” has been the great postwar European achievement, Calleo says.

But he reaches his own discouraged — and discouraging — conclusion when he writes that it is unlikely that Europe will “find the will, the means and the confidence to rise to the occasion.” “A Europe that wants to be cohesive and strong, and on good terms with its neighbors,” will not fit easily into alliance “with an America actively pursuing global hegemony.”

My own view is that for a union of 27 or more members, any attempt by the EU to offset U.S. power would be impossible. This means that the responsibility would fall upon what Donald Rumsfeld once named a coalition of the willing.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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