Being the Leader of the Free World matters far less than being a partner in the multi-or-non-polar one.
Assessing President Obama's recent Nuclear Posture Review, Tom Barnett writes:
Does this new doctrine make non-state actors any less likely to attack America with weapons of mass destruction? No. The NPR reiterates America's intense desire to hold accountable anybody who aids non-state actors in their acquisition of WMD, but it basically avoids any clear statement of how it will strategically respond to the successful use of WMD by terrorists against the United States. All that non-state actors can infer is that any non-nuclear WMD attack verifiably launched from an NPT-compliant state would not automatically trigger a U.S. nuclear retaliatory strike. Since al-Qaida and other extremists would probably welcome such a reflexive nuclear retaliation, they might judge this new doctrine a mild disappointment, but hardly a strengthened deterrent.
So we're left with this underwhelming effect: States not currently seeking nuclear weapons are assured that America won't mindlessly "go nuclear" on them if non-nuclear, but still-strategic attacks are launched from their soil. If such states actually harbored a huge and growing fear about this kind of scenario -- a fear so great that it was keeping them from cooperating with the West on stemming nuclear proliferation -- then I would say that Obama had accomplished something real with this change. But as no such dynamic is at work, I instead spot the latest example of Obama's occasional penchant for exquisite rhetoric masquerading as "change you can believe in."
I think what's really in conflict here is the politics of the presidency and the actual levers at the American president's disposal. We've become accustomed to expecting anything and everything from the executive, especially since the September 11 attacks. This, as I have argued, has resulted in a rather frenetic and, at times, reckless foreign policy.
The Iraq War, in many ways, represented the nadir of American unilateralism. It exhausted much of the capital gained by the 9/11 attacks and, to paraphrase Colin Powell, sucked all of the oxygen from the room. This, coupled with an increasingly multi-polar world order, has brought the foreign policy and domestic politics contradiction to to the forefront. Thus, President Obama must talk in grandiose, game-changing proses, while in truth applying a policy of what we might call a sane status quo at best. This creates the bizarre political environment we see today, where being the domestic political opposition is in truth the better place to be because it permits a kind of hyperbolic insincerity that may never be tested in any real policy realm. (Democrats certainly aren't exempt from this behavior; remember partitioning Iraq?)
The United States is still by far the most powerful and influential country in the world, but none of that will matter if Washington fails to ever reconcile actual ability with the unrealistic expectations of the presidency. Being the Leader of the Free World matters far less than being a reliable and honest partner in the multi-or-non-polar one.