The United States has ridden — and tamed — the wild global tiger since the end of World War II. The frantic ride has been dangerous to us, but a boon to humanity. At the same time, America's leadership role has been misrepresented and misunderstood abroad and at home, including by some of our country's own leaders. Accordingly, our current president, Barack Obama, has decided to climb down from the tiger, with the certain consequence that it will run wild again.
The crowning achievement of postwar American policy was the defeat of Soviet communism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, America then aimed at a "new world order." There was to be no place, at least in theory, for renegade dictators like Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic. After Sept. 11, 2001, the United States declared a "war on terrorism" and led an international effort to stop Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and Islamist jihadists.
Despite the occasional mishaps, setbacks and errant strategies, U.S. leadership nonetheless ensured worldwide free commerce, travel and communications. When it could, America promoted free-market economies and democracy in authoritarian states.
Our key allies — the United Kingdom and its former commonwealth, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Israel — were assured of our unwavering support and got rich. Neutrals and enemies alike assumed that it was as unwise to be on the wrong side of America as it was beneficial to be on friendly terms.
The Obama administration apparently has tired of the global order that American power created. The president seems determined that America should become unexceptional, and his five-year-long efforts are now bearing fruit. The result is that no one knows where global violence will break out next, much less who will stop it.
France, not the United States, pushes for a tougher front against radical Iran, Islamism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Its socialist government is to the right of the United States. Germany is the more adult fiscal power, Japan the more realistic about Chinese aggression, Israel and the Gulf states the more accurate in assessing Iranian nuclear ambitions, and Russia the more dependable problem-solver.
The superpower United States chose to be led in Libya by much weaker Britain and France. Syrian President Bashar Assad ignored serial American red lines. In response, Mr. Obama vowed to intervene before vowing not to — and finally outsourced influence to Vladimir Putin. That back step apparently fulfilled the president's pre-election open-mic promise to Russia to be more flexible.
The prestige of the United Nations suffers terribly from the erratic nature of the supposedly pro-U.N. Obama administration. We exceeded the resolutions of the U.N. on Libya; we never even sought them in Syria; and we are now undermining them over Iran.
Turkey, under increasingly Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is closer to the Obama administration than is Israel, America's best friend in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi came to power in Egypt on assurances of American support — before being removed by Egyptian generals for subverting the constitution.
It is not clear to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea or even Australia and New Zealand that they are still firmly under the American defense umbrella. China often seems to remind — and warn — them of just that reality.
There are many reasons why America jumped off the tiger. After five years of near-record budget deficits, we are struggling with the highest level of national debt as a percentage of gross domestic product than at any time during the immediate postwar period. That dismal fact is known to both allies and enemies who expect the U.S. military to limp homeward.
Abroad, too many states do not trust the word of an American president. Mr. Obama has misled over Benghazi, flipped and flopped over Syria and Egypt, and deceived the American people on Obamacare. When the American secretary of state has to assure the world that its proposed military action "will be unbelievably small" while the president is forced to explain that our military doesn't "do pinpricks," we appear hardly credible or formidable.
Mr. Obama himself seems unable to fathom the fallout from the National Security Agency's tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone, or from allowing Mr. Putin to adjudicate the Syrian mess. It is unclear whether Mr. Obama has even appreciated the traditional U.S. role of world leadership. Or perhaps he feels America lacks either the moral assurance or material resources to continue to ride the global tiger.
Mr. Obama rightly senses that Americans certainly seem tired after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are reaching oil and gas independence from the Middle East and don't see it as central to our security. After the Arab Spring, and the rise and fall of dictators, Islamists and generals, things still stay mostly the same and beyond remedy by more American blood and treasure.
America does not seem to have any strong preferences for our old allies, free markets or democracies. If Mr. Obama wanted to change America's role in the world, he instead has changed the world itself.
Riding the tiger's back was always risky, but not as much as jumping off and allowing it to run wild. The world now wants someone to get back on — but is unsure about who, when, how and at what cost.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.