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“Everyone was afraid that Iraq meant that whenever we thought it was a good idea to bring democracy to a country by force we would do it,” said James Lewis, a Washington-based national security expert, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Through diplomatic efforts by the Obama administration, he said that “that level of fear has been tamped down. The global perception of the U.S. is better.”

Lewis agreed that Iran may be the one place where the U.S. is no better off than it was four years ago, but he said things are stagnant, not worse. But he blamed the lack of progress on the Iranians and their refusal to engage.

Still, tensions with China continue over its growing military, its cyberactivities and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. A trip to China this week by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton highlighted ongoing friction between Washington and Beijing.

But Clinton and other U.S. officials say that despite the routine disagreements, they can now discuss the issues more freely and frankly with the Chinese, unlike in recent years, when communications were difficult and rare.

“We have strengthened our alliances around the world to protect against future threats, locked down nuclear materials and improved our homeland defenses,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council. “The U.S. is absolutely safer now than four years ago.”