Running an empire is not for sissies.
Since 1945, the U.S., holding the aces, has had to finesse the global role once played by the Europeans, with Washington covering the Latin American flank. Prior to 1945, that tacit alliance managed to maintain worldwide stability for only two decades, in part because pre-digital America could sulk behind two oceans.
After Western civilizations second bloody civil war, the rules changed: Colonialism was rejected, first "officially" in the 1943 Cairo Declaration. President Roosevelt and his Nationalist China ally Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek agreed that Europe's domination would go following the Allied victory. Of course, Churchill, who was also in Cairo, was soon to meet with retribution from British voters, and within less than two decades, the last of the Tory grandees, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, would wrap up what had been an empire on which the sun never set. So much for Churchills vow he had not become the kings first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British imperium.
But Soviet aggression, setting off the Cold War, and U.S. ineptitude never allowed Washington to get ahead of the curve. (After the Cairo summit, future Defense Secretary Dean Rusk, then a young political officer in the South-East Asia Command, contacted Washington for instructions on French Indochina. He never got a response.) Furthermore, it was always Americas idealistic aim to set new international standards for mutual respect and benefit, even while it had not yet cleaned up its own racist backyard.
U.S. officials learned quickly that managing alliances never comes easy, even with hegemonic power. The reason is obvious - too many conflicting demands. Still, the combination of Harry Trumans good old Midwestern common sense, gifted European leadership and American dough-re-mi girded Western Europe to defeat the Soviet challenge. Although we may well look aghast at the tattered state of the alliance today, NATO was perhaps the most successful alliance in history, winning a long, costly struggle - "peacefully."
You wouldnt know that, of course, listening to the self-deprecation and, indeed, abysmal groveling of the Obama administration. That attitude alone would have torpedoed American prestige and strategy, already under threat from Islamic terrorism and an abrupt end to the most prosperous era in world history - gained in no small part through trillions of dollars in past U.S. generosity to its allies and client states.
The Obama administration, though, is intent on "leading from behind," a policy that is too clever by half, as our British cousins would say. Forgotten were the first elements in any alliance - at least temporary loyalty to a common cause and stalwart, if sometimes painful, leadership by example.
First there were the petty insults to the Brits - the return of Churchills bust from the Oval Office, gimcrackery given as gifts for the queen, etc. Instead of securing an Iraq alliance in the heart of the Arab/Muslim world, there was a hallelujahed timetable for withdrawal. There is, apparently, an abandonment of the struggling Kabul regime in the works, long before victory in Afghanistan has been secured. The administration's vociferous equating of Israeli and Palestinian claims doomed any accommodation there, especially after the problematic "Arab Spring" explosion demonstrated the Israeli-Arab tension was only one, and probably not the most important, of the problems facing the Middle East.
All these semi-ruptures came with American media piling on, conducting campaigns of fact and fiction about the steadfastness, or lack thereof, of the country's allies. This tactic ignores - particularly with Third World countries - the obvious: Helping inept, corrupt regimes to modernize is the name of the game. Were that not true, America would not be in these countries in the first place.
Now in the election silly season, the Obama administration's foreign policy proceeds on auto-pilot. Not only are arms sales - required under U.S. law - denied to Taiwan, but "a high official administration source" publicly trashes the opposition candidate in the upcoming January presidential elections. Regarding Pakistan, whose overwhelming problem is dysfunctional government, Washington delivers ultimata via the newspapers' front pages and on NPR. These threats may, in the end, turn out to be bluffs, given Pakistan's critical geographic position and the fear that it will become a nuclear-armed factory for creating jihadists.
Alas! It is all too reminiscent of the unlearned lessons from the demise of the South Vietnam alliance a half-century ago, a demise that cost 58,000 American lives and enormous treasure. Pompous journalists, including some conservatives, are still repeating old cliches. No wonder Washington doesnt seem to have learned a lot about maintaining alliances. Perfidious Albion, indeed!
c Sol Sanders, veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he blogs at http://www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.