President Barack Obama's itinerary this month -- first to Asia, then to Europe -- will follow a path that recalls the setting of the sun. For some people, that image is a metaphor for American power, itself seen as waning. The theme of American decline is a familiar one, of course. It resurfaces more or less with every election, and with every poll that asks whether the country is "headed in the right direction."
However, the evocation of direction suggests a more apt image for Obama's journey: the two-headed eagle. It was once a common feature of imperial heraldry -- for the Russians, Turks and Habsburgs, for example -- that signified the dual power of church and state. But the image of the eagle with one head facing left, the other right, was also a symbol of geopolitics. It said, "Our power extends both to the East and to the West. We are of not one or the other, but of both."
Unfortunately, the two-headed eagle could also symbolize a certain amount of schizophrenia. The Russian empire, for example, was accused of facing in the wrong direction -- paying too much attention to Asia and its rivalry with Japan at the turn of the last century, when it should have focused more constructively on its interests in Europe.