Count me among those — a dwindling minority, I’m afraid — who think that politics should end at the water’s edge. No one, Republican or Democrat, ought to take pleasure at the spectacle of America’s foreign policies failing and the perception of America as a hobbled giant.
That is, self-evidently, what we’re seeing: Russian boots are on the ground in Ukraine. North Korea is firing missiles. Iran’s negotiators are playing high-stakes poker, while the U.S.-led side doesn’t seem to know a flush from a straight.
In Syria, Iran’s proxies confront al Qaeda forces (forces the administration two years ago congratulated itself for having defeated) while the much-ballyhooed agreement to remove chemical weapons has stalled.
Hard-won gains in Iraq have been squandered. There’s a real possibility that the Taliban will reclaim Afghanistan once American troops depart. Venezuela is in turmoil. China is acting the bully in Asia.
As threats and crises multiply, what is President Obama doing? He’s proposing to reduce the size and strength of America’s military to pre-2001 levels.
Can anyone still regard the United States as a reliable ally? More consequentially, is America still seen as a formidable adversary?
Mr. Obama’s critics call him ambivalent and indecisive. Perhaps, but those are symptoms. The underlying malady is his conception of America’s role in the world.
Late last week, responding to developments in Ukraine, the president said: “The United States will stand with the international community.”
He advised Russia to be part of “the international community’s effort to support the stability and success of a united Ukraine going forward.” He said that would be “in the interest of the international community.”
News flash: The “international community” is a figment of the imagination — right up there with Batman, Wonder Woman, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.
It’s also the key that opens the door to a room filled with fashionable fictions. Among them: that there are “universal” values and principles, that the world’s most powerful political figures are, just like us, “rational actors” who seek peace, favor freedom, tolerance and democracy, and believe that diplomacy based on “confidence-building” and reciprocal compromises leads to “conflict resolution” — an outcome they’d prefer to shedding blood and achieving victory.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has given lip service to such warm and fuzzy ideas. In an op-ed published by The New York Times last September, he appealed for “mutual trust,” endorsed “shared success” and laid out the steps the “international community” should take to keep “hope alive.”
He added: “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”
Is it not now — at long last — clear that Mr. Putin was just spinning us? North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Syria’s Bashar Assad, China’s Xi Jinping, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, Cuba’s Raul Castro and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan also are among those who sometimes talk like Berkeley professors, but in truth practice raw, 19th-century machtpolitik.
In theory, the idea of a “post-American” world — a global order featuring “shared leadership” and even “shared sovereignty” — sounds lovely. In practice, it can only mean global disorder — a Hobbesian state of nature in which the most rapacious and brutal regimes do whatever is necessary to establish their hegemony over whichever regions they covet.
Expansion stops only when one hegemon bumps up against another — and both decide that a balance of power, or a balance of terror — is preferable to fighting it out, at least in the short term.
In his 2009 address to the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Obama famously said, “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation.” Had he said, “No one nation should try to dominate another nation,” he would have sounded preachy and weak.
However, the assertion that no nation “can try” to dominate another is patently false. Combining the two phrases conveyed a rhetorical benefit at the time. In hindsight, however — and with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the front pages — the statement reveals a flawed foundation on which to build foreign policies.
Gaze over the international landscape: Do you see the prospect of a success anywhere? Or is it likely that the Obama administration’s goal at this point is simply to avoid additional visible failures?
That will require prolonging negotiations with Iran’s rulers (granting significant concessions while making believe that the Iranians do, too); attempting to keep the Palestinian-Israel “peace process” alive (though no Palestinian leaders are currently prepared to make peace with the Jewish state); hoping against hope that Mr. Assad, Mr. Maduro and Mr. Kim fall (and that something better comes after them); and “pivoting” toward Asia, insisting that does not mean pivoting away from everywhere else (while still not providing meaningful support for Japan, the Philippines and other Asian allies).
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama continues to signal that he is “war-weary,” that he seeks to “end” wars (not necessarily on favorable terms) and, as noted, proposes to issue pink slips to America’s by-no-means-weary warriors.
In doing so, he is violating one of history’s oldest and firmest rules: The stronger a nation appears, the less likely its strength will be tested. The corollary to this: Weakness is provocative.
No “international community” will respond to Mr. Putin’s aggression or any of the world’s other despot-caused disasters. Still, an alliance of free nations might begin to coalesce if we would acknowledge the fact that the United Nations has become a dictators’ club, and if we would accept the fact that there are responsibilities the United States must shoulder.
If American leaders won’t lead, Mr. Putin, Ayatollah Khamenei and other tyrants are only too eager to rule. Let’s not pretend we don’t know that. Let’s not pretend we don’t know what that will mean over the years ahead.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.