Some time ago, long before he had stolen the lead from Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama sought the counsel of one of Washington’s wisest thinkers on foreign policy.
Mr Obama’s question was not about the campaign. He wanted to know instead what were the three or four foreign policy issues on which he should concentrate during his first year in the White House. Beyond that, how should he organise the inter-agency machinery to ensure that these priorities were transmitted right through his administration?
Some would detect a hint of hubris here. Even if Mr Obama, as seems most likely, wins the Democratic nomination, there is still a general election to be fought against John McCain in November. A kinder interpretation would be that he is a careful politician who thinks ahead.
Either way, the question cut to the core of the foreign policy dilemma facing the next occupant of the White House. It is impossible to overestimate the weight of expectation in the rest of the world about the direction of US foreign policy after George W. Bush’s departure. But the big risk faced by the new president will be of being overwhelmed by the avalanche of problems demanding instant decision.
The US has discovered in Iraq that it is an insufficient power. The unipolar moment has passed. Yet for all that many elsewhere delighted in the humbling of the hyperpuissance , Washington is still widely seen as the indispensable power.
In capitals across every continent governments wait in sometimes eager, sometimes fretful anticipation of the choice to be made by America’s voters. How, these governments quietly protest, can they set their own foreign policy course until they know what will happen in the US election? So allies are waiting, enemies stalling.
Entire forests are being cut down in the cause of learned, and not-so-learned, treatises on the direction that America will take next January. No one really knows. We need only think back to Mr Bush’s promise in 2000 to retreat from the world to see how events can cast aside intentions.
Is Mr McCain really as hawkish as he sounds? Does his multilateral approach to climate change cancel out the tasteless evocation of the Beachboys that he would "bomb, bomb, bomb . . . bomb bomb Iran"? As for Mr Obama, does he really believe he could get the troops out of Iraq within 15 months? And what does the promise that America will rediscover its nice side again actually mean?
A few weeks ago I listened in as some of the best and the brightest from both sides of the Atlantic debated these issues at a 50th anniversary conference hosted by the Ditchley Foundation. These experts, scholars and practitioners gathered for a weekend in the Oxfordshire countryside to chart their preferred direction for US foreign policy.
One thing that struck me from these conversations was just how many of the mountain of policy briefs in the White House in-tray will be marked urgent. Iraq, whether it is extrication or staying, speaks for itself; so, too, does a response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions; likewise Afghanistan and negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Then, of course, there is the war on terrorism. Whatever his successor thinks about that infelicitous phrase, the next president will have to decide whether the conflict with al-Qaeda remains the over-arching preoccupation of America’s foreign policy. Still on the urgent list, what signals should be sent to China about its role as an emerging superpower – partner or rival? Then there is Russia: will the White House be content with the cold peace or will it seek a thaw?
All this, of course, before the big decisions on, say, the terms on which the US would join a successor pact to the Kyoto protocol, the fate of global trade talks, what stance it will take in the coming review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the condition of the transatlantic alliance.
Simply to enumerate the list – and I have not touched on North Korea’s nuclear programme or even mentioned Latin America or Africa – is to invite the incoming president to wrestle with blancmange. That explains why many experts argue that, whatever is said in the campaign, US foreign policy will be defined more by continuity than change.
Whether it is Mr Obama or Mr McCain, or at a pinch Mrs Clinton, the argument runs, the president will not escape Mr Bush’s legacy. The administration will be overwhelmed from day one. Here, I think, lies the insight in Mr Obama’s question. The first challenge will be to separate the important and the urgent. Part of the answer can be found, as Mr Obama suggested, in picking a handful of issues that will enjoy the early attention of the administration.
That will not be enough. More significant than these choices will be the prism through which the president sees them. The key decision will not be so much what stance the US takes on this or that issue, but rather what is the organising principle that shapes America’s response to all of them.
The challenge will be to tackle both the urgent and the important within a framework that recognises, and anticipates, the shifts in power in the global system. The US may remain the world’s pre-eminent, and invincible, power, but the starting point for Mr Bush’s successor must be that it is neither omnipotent nor invulnerable.
That in turn means that all the individual policy decisions need to be informed by a clear idea of the global order that will best safeguard American leadership and interests. What sort of system emerges will depend in significant part on the direction America takes in the next eight years.
Does the US envisage a new era of great power competition in which it hedges and balances against the rise of China and other new powers? Is the answer a concert of democracies to act as a breakwater against authoritarian capitalism? Or should Washington seek to extend and refashion the liberal rules-based international architecture it designed more than half-a-century ago?
As an admirer of the postwar system, I hope Mr Bush’s successor opts for that last choice. There is no contest here between idealism and realism or between multilateralism and national interest. The genius of Roosevelt, Truman, Acheson and the rest was to merge them.
What matters now is that the next president has a compass with which to navigate the shifting global landscape. Mr Obama is right to ask what he should put at the top of the pile. The prior question is: what sort of world does America want?