The following is the first part of a two-part analysis of America’s retreat from world leadership and the emergence of new world leaders.
Part One: For three generations, the United States has been the political and military leader of the Western democracies. Under Obama, it has abandoned that vocation. Obama’s retreat wasn’t like Napoleon’s from Moscow in 1812, it was worse. It was undertaken voluntarily without external compulsion, and it has exposed not only the United States but the entire democratic world to unprecedented dangers.
Part Two: In 2015, fortunately, we’re witnessing what could scarcely have been imagined only a few years ago. In response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, the rise of Islamic State, and China’s exercise of force in the South China Sea, the leaders of other states are picking up the mantle. They are not waiting anymore for the United States to recover its capacity to lead. Nor is it likely they will ever again passively follow whoever occupies the White House. Henceforth, each new president will have to earn the encomium of “leader of the free world”. And that is a good thing.
The end of the US era
The United States has always struggled with an approach/avoidance conflict in its attitude towards the rest of the world. Since the founding of their state, Americans have been torn between engaging in international politics to advance US interests and resisting “entangling alliances” which could suck the United States into the quarrels of other countries. Starting in the 1940s, however, the US not only became “engaged” but it became the world’s main benefactor, arbiter, and policeman. The other democracies grumbled about US “hegemony”, but they were happy enough to leave it to the Americans to assume the costs, take the risks, and carry the blame when things went wrong — up to the present day. As former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once pointed out, for most of the Cold War the United States accounted for roughly 50 percent of NATO defence spending; two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the US share had risen to 75 percent.
Those times are now ending — at America’s own initiative. In reaction to “Bush’s wars”, the Obama administration has abandoned the US leadership role the democracies have long counted on for their safety and security. Other great powers have known retreat, but what makes the US retreat so ignominious is that it has been undertaken voluntarily, for largely domestic political advantage, and unconcerned about the risks that would be entailed not just for the United States but also for its closest friends and allies. It has also happened at a time when the United States remains unchallenged militarily: at a single stroke, US forces could not only defeat but obliterate any foe. Instead, the United States has chosen gesture foreign policy, a new form of appeasement — preaching pieties, committing absurdly small forces to any fight it joins, and making the preposterous claim that it is “leading from behind”.
The debris Obama has left in his wake is already historic in its dimensions, and more will undoubtedly come to light before his term of office runs out in January 2017. It includes:
- Botching both the peace in Europe and the Arab Spring; the success of either would have transformed world politics.
- Condoning the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran through a “deal” designed to delay not prevent it, with surely catastrophic consequences for international arms control.
- Acceding to the use of chemical weapons by Syria; Obama reneged on the “red line” he warned Assad not to cross, then left the Syrian dictator in place.
- Wringing defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq, by withdrawing the US forces training the Iraqi Army and leaving the country vulnerable to predatory Islamists.
- Worst of all, abetting the collapse of the international legal and institutional architecture so laboriously developed over the last 100 years to maintain the peace. Hitler and Mussolini encountered more “pushback” for their aggression in the 1930s than Putin did for his seizure of Crimea and intimidation of neighboring states.
The cost to US influence in the world has been enormous. Longtitudinal opinion polling by the PEW Research Center provides graphic illustration of how the world’s confidence in Obama “doing the right thing in world affairs” has declined. In 2009, Obama enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings in Europe and Asia; by 2015, they had dropped precipitously almost everywhere including in such important countries as Britain, France, Germany and Japan. In the Middle East, where key states were initially prepared to accord Obama the benefit of the doubt, confidence vanished. In Egypt, confidence in the US president fell from 42% in 2009 to 23% in 2013 (the latest year available). In Jordan, it fell from 31% in 2009 to 14% in 2015.
Obama’s standing with political leaders across the globe is, if anything, even worse. When France was attacked in November, President François Hollande demonstrated his disdain for any help he might receive from Washington by basing his appeal for allied support not on the common defence article of NATO (Art. 5) but on the solidarity clause of the European Union treaty. In 2014, a former Polish foreign minister described the Polish-American alliance as “worthless, even harmful, as it gives Poland a false sense of security. It’s bullshit.” Last year, Israel’s defence minister spoke publicly about the US image of “feebleness”. When Obama invited the heads of state of the Gulf Cooperation Council for a special meeting at Camp David, only two heads of state showed up. The rest, including influential Saudi Arabia and the UAE, sent understudies. As the Wall Street Journal’s deputy editor and Pulitzer Prize winning commentator Brett Stephens noted, it was “a gesture of contempt that can be translated from Arabic into English in two words”.
The fear factor
Several explanations can be ventured for America’s leadership failings. First, Obama was out of his depth from the start, a factional leader who should never have landed in the White House. Second, his arrogance in office has driven out the best advisors he had, leaving only careerists unwilling to confront him. In seven years, Obama has had five chiefs of staff, three national security advisors, four secretaries of defense, six directors of central intelligence, and three directors of homeland security. Third, the mainstream media has protected him from paying a price for foreign policy failures which would otherwise have compelled a change of course to ensure his political survival.
In the final analysis, however, historians are likely to conclude it was fear which best explains US policy since 2009. Obama rode a wave of war fatigue to his first electoral victory, he needed to lay claim to “ending wars” to win re-election, and he had to avoid “new wars” in his second term in order to preserve his “peace legacy”. Given the times, this was never going to be easy. In the event, Obama’s strategy for “ending wars” was to unilaterally withdraw from them at whatever price had to be paid (by others); and avoiding “new wars” required a studied ignorance of realities and disregard for the US and allied interests at stake.
The policy contortions could be painful to watch. During the 2012 presidential election, Obama placed great emphasis on his success in dealing with terrorism. A staple of his stump speech was “Al Qaeda is on the run and Osama bin Laden is dead”. But eight weeks before election day — on fateful September 11 — Islamists launched a military-style assault on the US consulate in Benghazi and killed four US officials including the ambassador to Libya. Unwilling to acknowledge that Al Qaeda was not, in fact, “on the run”, the administration argued that the deaths were the result of a spontaneous demonstration about an offensive video which had spiraled out of control. As it happened, the administration knew better from the very beginning.
Fear of war also seriously compromised the United States’ ability to secure an agreement to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Challenged to explain its often repeated assurances that “all options are on table” including the use of force, the Obama administration frequently charged its critics with “wanting a war” — thereby telegraphing en clair that all options were not on the table. The Iranians took notice and negotiated accordingly.
An especially egregious example of Obama’s timorous approach has been his maneuvering to preserve minimal US involvement in the war against ISIL. In the summer of 2004, ISIL had suddenly advanced far into Iraq and was publicly conducting mass executions including beheadings and crucifixions.
- In August 2014, when he was asked about his strategy to deal with the situation, “the leader of the free world” acknowledged he didn’t have one.
- Faced with an adverse reaction from just about every quarter, in September Obama announced that his strategy would be “to degrade ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat to Iraq, to the region and the US”.
- When “degrade” failed to satisfy, a week later he added that his strategy was also to “ultimately destroy” ISIL — implying there would not be any rush.
- In July 2015, Obama confirmed that his strategy would indeed take time: “This will not be quick”.
- Two months after that, he had reverted to describing US strategy as containment. “We’ve always understood that our goal has to be militarily constraining ISIL’s capabilities, cutting off their supply lines, cutting off their financing.”
- In November, Obama characterized the Paris attacks as a “setback” to his policy but displayed no more sense of commitment or urgency in dealing with ISIL than he had before.
- Then, at the beginning of December, the Pentagon (not the President) announced that some 100 US special forces would be sent to Syria.
The new world disorder
Into the empty spaces left by America’s retreat have marched some of the most dangerous despots and barbarians of recorded history. Putin is driven by irredentist ambitions his Soviet predecessors never had (they already controlled the territory he wants back) and he is unaccountable to any modern-day Politburo. The Islamist movement now has territory and financing and global reach to pursue its worldwide ambitions — and no qualms about employing any methods of destruction it can lay its hands on. Infidels are infinitely expendable.
But US statecraft has hardly changed. As a result, we have arrived at a time when the principles and protocols which have governed world affairs for decades no longer do so, while we continue to hide behind aged forms of diplomacy and defence when it should be obvious both must be updated to suit the times. No wishful “reset” in relations or invitations to join exclusive global clubs are going to deter a former KGB lieutenant-colonel who has assumed supreme power in Russia. Nor can protective measures of even the most elaborate kind ever completely succeed when a handful of jihadists based in one of the poorest countries on earth have shown they could assault the military headquarters of the greatest military power the world has ever known. As Philip Bobbitt pointed out in The Shield of Achilles,
For five centuries it has taken the resources of a state to destroy another state: only states could muster the huge revenues, conscript the vast armies, and equip the divisions required to threaten the survival of other states. This is no longer true, owing to advances in international telecommunications, rapid computation, and weapons of mass destruction.
Fortunately, there appears to have been something of an intellectual awakening to the new security realities — but it is happening in Europe and Asia and the Middle East, not the United States (or Canada).
The feature illustration: J. Rousset — Illustriete Geschichte der Befreiungskriege by Julius von Pflugk-Harttung (it.wikipedia.org)