To Obama, the retrenchment of the West was not only inevitable but to be welcomed.
In just the last five or six years the world has been fundamentally transformed. Instead of the old accustomed Western-inspired postwar global order, crafted and ensured by the United States and its European and Japanese partners, there is now mostly chaos, from Ukraine to Syria to the South China Sea. Or, rather, there may be emerging new rules, given that we are still frozen in a Wild West moment, when everyone in the saloon has drawn his six-shooter, paused, and is wondering what happened to the sheriff — and wondering, too, who will be the first to dare start shooting.
The general cause of the unrest is that, fairly or not, the world senses that the United States is tired after its recent interventions, cutting back its defenses, and all but financially insolvent. We might scoff at Neanderthal notions like a loss of deterrence inviting aggression, but Neanderthals do not.
Barack Obama apparently believes that such a retrenchment was both inevitable and to be welcomed. He thought that most U.S. interventions abroad had been either wrong or futile or both; he questioned the world’s status quo and certainly felt, for example, that the widespread persecution of Christians in the Middle East was not nearly as much of a problem as Islamophobia in the West. He came into office believing that Iran, Hamas, and Russia had all been unduly demonized, especially by George W. Bush, and could be reached out to by a sensitive president whose heritage and attitudes might not appear so polarizing.
To Obama, old allies like Britain and Israel either did not need unflinching U.S. support or did not necessarily warrant it. The postwar world that the U.S. had once ensured was no fairer a place than is America at home, and certainly did not justify the vast investment of American time and money — resources that could be far better be spent at home addressing inequality and unfairness. A program of higher taxes, huge budget deficits, and enormous increases in entitlement spending did not have budgetary space for the sort of defense required to keep things calm abroad.
As a result, we now are witnessing a world in transition — a world of regional hegemonies that are filling the vacuum after the abdication of the United States. And we have no idea how it will eventually pan out. Barack Obama, for example, believes the chaos is only superficial. He thinks the reported universal warring is a sort of artifact of global social networking that too easily lets us know, for example, what Putin is doing in a way we could not with just radio and TV. But old-fashioned television lets us know perfectly well that Russia now determines the course of events in the huge area of the former Soviet republics — and from time to time steps into the Middle East to remind the U.S. that it is clueless. Putin just reminded the West that his nuclear arsenal makes it unwise to “mess” with Russia.
Those regions that Putin has already bullied into compliance — Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine — serve as a warning to others of what might be their fate should they resist, and why it is thus wiser to make the necessary adjustments. Should Vladimir Putin suddenly discover persecuted Russian speakers in Estonia, we know the script. He will give speeches about the historical ties of Estonia to Russia; he will list his worries about the supposed maltreatment of Russian speakers; he will warn the world that his Russia is a nuclear, and sometimes unpredictable, power and therefore the world should butt out; and then he will snooze through a “You are on the wrong side of history” or “This behavior has no place in the 21st century” canned sermon from Barack Obama — before sending in paramilitary thugs and, if necessary, Russian troops. Soon the Russian Union could dwarf the European Union, as the former consolidates and the latter threatens to fragment.
Do Facebook and Twitter explain why President Obama, in one of his now-customary sports metaphors, first dismissed the Islamic State as “jayvees,” then later (as we bombed it) confessed that we had no strategy by which to confront it?
China is patiently demonstrating to its neighbors — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand — that it wiser to join the new Chinese co-prosperity sphere than to oppose it. China will be as solicitous over its new subservient associates as it is now unforgiving to those who are uncooperative. And those who join the Chinese team get a determined patron; those who don’t are free to figure out what exactly the next Obama red line, deadline, or step-over line actually means.
In the Middle East, friends are not looking to the U.S. for help, and enemies are not looking at us in fear. If the Islamic State threatens Kurdistan, the Kurds — whom we liberated from Saddam Hussein — will be more likely to be able to get arms from Iran. If Iraq, which we once rebuilt, is falling apart, Iran is there waiting to be the first to help. If we need help with Syrian WMD, Putin is there to offer negotiations.
If enemies like Hezbollah and Hamas have problems, Iran has cash and mercenaries. In contrast, our friends — and there are now few, mostly the Israelis and the Gulf Monarchies — receive philosophical admonishments about their shortcomings and dozens of moral-equivalency, Cairo Speech–like platitudes. Sunnis, Shiites, and Israelis assume that Iran will soon have the bomb, and will use its new possession of nuclear weapons for far more effective political purposes than have even Pakistan and North Korea.
China, Russia, and a not-too-distant Iran all have one thing in common as the new regional thugs: They have at one time or another in recent years had someone in power who has reminded the world in general, and the U.S. in particular, that they have (or soon will have) nuclear weapons and may not be shy about using them. Putin, Chinese generals, and Iranian theocrats are starting to spout off like North Koreans.
Europe has learned that its much-ballyhooed good-cop “soft power” qualified as power only if its ally, America, in conjunction had lots of bad-cop hard power — and was on occasion apt to use it. But, in contrast, two soft powers equate to softy power. NATO is dying on the vine, without American leadership and with the European Union desperately afraid that Putin might bully his way across the border of a NATO member, thereby exposing the interventionist Article V to be mush, and with it NATO itself.
Many of our so-called friends are acting instead like de facto enemies. Our special relationship with Recep Erdogan was always a fraud. Think of Turkey’s friends, and there you can find our enemies; think of its enemies, and you will likely find our friends. If Turkey found itself in a war, we would more likely sympathize with its adversaries. CENTCOM is based in Qatar, but it would be hard to find a more anti-American host. Add up Al Jazeera, support for Hamas, sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, and the stealthy funding of all sorts of Middle Eastern insurgents and terrorists, and you do not find a reliable friend of the United States.
Is Mexico a friend? Deliberately encouraging about a million of its own citizens each ear to break the law and try to enter the U.S. illegally and facilitating the transit across its territory of thousands of Central Americans to swarm and overwhelm the U.S. border seem hardly amicable acts. In truth, Mexico invades a country with far greater numbers and with far more finesse than does Putin’s Russia.
Can the old, pre-Obama postwar order be rebuilt? Of course, but it will require budgetary discipline, a visionary president, experienced national-security advisers, skillful diplomats, and a public that is informed and cares. In other words — not for another two years and five months.