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Like or dislike it, the United States remains a key actor in the contemporary era.
It has the biggest economy in the world, possesses more military capabilities than the next leading 10 countries combined, and is the pre-eminent player in the production of popular culture.
At the same time, the idea of exceptionalism is deeply rooted in the culture of US political life.
This assumes the US is not only different from other nations but that it provides an exemplary political model for the rest of the world.
If the past 12 years demonstrate anything, it is that the role of leadership in this extraordinary country matters greatly. After September 11, 2001, the George W.
Bush administration declared a war on terror, launched bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spent more than $US4 trillion ($NZ4.84 trillion) on bolstering US national security.
Such massive expenditure was financed almost entirely through borrowing and this, in turn, helped create conditions that led in 2008-09 to the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression of the late 1920s.
In contrast to the Bush era, the Obama leadership reasserted the link between the domestic economy and American global leadership.
Almost immediately, the Obama Administration managed to get a $US789 billion stimulus Bill passed.
The bleeding of jobs was stopped.
Since October 2009, US unemployment has fallen from a peak of 10% to its current level of 7.8% and modest economic growth has been restored during the past three years.
At the same time, Mr Obama ended the US combat role in Iraq, masterminded the elimination of America's No1 enemy, Osama bin Laden, began the process of disengaging from the war in Afghanistan, and supported popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria without deploying US troops.
There is a lot at stake in the 2012 presidential election. Fundamentally, the contest between Barack Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, is a clash of visions and policies for the US in the years ahead.
Mitt Romney believes the United States "is the hope of the earth" and that his brand of strong leadership is essential if it is to remain so. He argues that the country is going in the wrong direction under the Obama Administration.
Mr Romney has pledged to cut taxes by $US5 trillion and to reduce the role of the federal Government in the economy.
Among other things, he has pledged to overhaul the 2010 Wall St regulations and scrap "Obama care" which extended health insurance to more than 40 million citizens previously denied cover.
According to Mr Romney, these measures will reinvigorate the country's free enterprise system, create 12 million new jobs, and eliminate the $US16 trillion deficit.
In foreign relations, Mr Romney believes it is vital that the US use its power "to shape history" - not to lead from behind - and has promised to spend an additional $US2 trillion on the Pentagon over the next decade to ensure this.
Accusing President Obama of being an apologist for the US, Mr Romney had championed a foreign policy that takes a tough line towards Russia, China and Iran, distances Washington from its European allies, and bolsters the alliance with Israel.
In contrast, while Mr Obama maintains that "America continues to be the greatest nation on earth", he rejects the idea the US alone can meet the challenges of the 21st century, and argues that the country must look to multilateral co-operation to exert leadership and effectively protect US interests in a globalising world.
Mr Obama argues that the US has made real progress during the past four years in extricating itself from the disastrous economic and security legacy of the George W. Bush era.
And the Obama camp loudly complains that Mr Romney's economic plan lacks specifics on how it can be paid for and runs the risk of exploding the US deficit, rekindling global market uncertainly, and creating conditions comparable to the financial meltdown of 2008.
In Mr Obama's vision, the competitiveness of the US economy will only improve if there is greater government investment in the country's education, infrastructure and clean energy sectors.
That means the country will continue to run a deficit and probably have to tolerate higher taxes for the wealthy to pay for this, but it is argued those investments are the key to a sustainable 21st-century economy.
As for foreign policy, Mr Obama has pledged to maintain the strongest military in the world but believes after a decade of war, the US must nation-build at home and lead by force of example rather than the example of force.
For the Obama team, history does not need to be "shaped" because it already offers a clear and positive verdict for United States values and interests.
In an interconnected world, it is the ideas of democracy, not dictatorship and political fundamentalism, which have mass support.
Thus, the Obama-Romney election will help decide whether the US becomes a more or less inclusive society, and also the degree to which it presents a constructive face to the world.
Whatever the outcome, the results will be difficult to ignore.
• Robert G. Patman is professor of international relations in the department of politics at the University of Otago.