US President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address earlier this month underlined what America needs to do within so as to do more without. Its broken politics, seen in the adversarial nature of partisan relations that produces legislative gridlock, is compounded by the lobbying power of special interests and the influx of big money into politics, which subvert the popular basis of democracy. Mr Obama observed rightly that systemic change was required for better politics; merely changing a congressman or a senator or even a president would not do.
How change should be effected is a question best left to Americans themselves. Only they can seek a new balance, if they so desire, between freedom and authority, liberalism and communitarianism, and growth and equity. These contending values have defined America's evolution, and continue to do so. Its well-wishers abroad would hope that it strikes the right balance for the times so that the world as a whole benefits, because it is only the vitality of domestic America that can allow it to be a greater force of international good. On his part, President Obama will go down in history as the American leader who rescued his country from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. His efforts to restore America's manufacturing base, reform its healthcare system, and reinforce its energy sector repositioned the country as a confident actor in global politics.
So far, so good. However, dismal times call on America to do more. President Obama's truthfulness to his promise to bring American troops home, after a previous administration had inserted them into problematic Middle Eastern wars, endeared him to Americans tired of policing the world. But the world does not grow more benign in the absence of attention. America's balancer role in relations between China and Japan has helped to keep the peace since World World II. Smaller Asian countries, forever wary of the centrifugal pulls on them exercised by continental stalwarts, benefited from America's determination to be an Asian power although it was geographically outside the region.
More than established powers which, for all their rivalry, nevertheless play by inherited rules of war and peace, it is the astonishing rise of non-state actors such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that requires America to remain a global force of stability and security. The terrorist attacks of 2001 in the United States proved that it is no safer than the rest of the contemporary world, so much of which is of its making. A bolder strategy against international terrorism would constitute a fundamental legacy of President Obama's leadership. Much as he focuses attention on domestic issues in the remainder of his last term, he cannot afford to forget that America, for all its exceptionalism, exists in the world.