American Declinism

by Michael Auslin
Journalists and academics portray Obama’s fecklessness as cleverness.

It is hard to tell whether the front-page Sunday Washington Post story by Karen DeYoung and Dan Balz on Obama’s response to a world in crisis is an exercise in damning with faint praise or putting lipstick on a pig. Titled “Obama Sets His Own Pace in a World Whirling with Crises,” the piece unsurprisingly leans toward absolution of Obama’s “deliberative” style, but it is unable to ignore the fact that the president appears disengaged and his White House seems almost entirely overtaken by events. Even in instances where Obama is praised for being proactive, such as in the Iranian nuclear negotiations, nagging questions remain about both the ultimate success of his gambits and his sophistication in dealing with untrustworthy, opportunistic actors. The resulting picture is of a sixth-year president still seemingly in thrall to a pseudo-academic approach of strenuously parsing options and undertaking ostensibly measured responses.

All that is part and parcel of the Washington obsession with peeking behind the doors of the Oval Office. The article is noteworthy, however, for offering yet more evidence of an increasingly popular intellectual take on U.S. decline. In this reading of power and politics, no president successfully can deal with the “perfect storm of messy problems, lousy options, ambivalent allies and a skeptical public,” in the words of James Lindsey, a vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Similarly, a Stanford University historian, David Kennedy, offers another excuse for the flailing about of U.S. policy by asserting that “it’s difficult virtually to the point of impossibility to have a grand strategy in a world that is so fluid and in which we no longer wield the power we once had.” In such exculpatory logic, being able to do less means having no choice but to do less; in other words, it is a small step from that view to a conventional-wisdom (i.e., Beltway) assessment that it is the right choice to withdraw more from the world, for the risks of action appear to outstrip the costs of inaction.

What remains, then, are the “singles” and “doubles,” the small-ball and limited achievements in foreign policy that Obama himself began touting earlier this year after his trip to Asia. Being reactive and achieving minimal success is now praised as the most prudent approach and the only realistic expectation in response to such a dangerous and complex world. Moreover, such thinking almost naturally lends itself to a position long advocated by liberal internationalists: A weakened and challenged United States must (as well as should) offset its disadvantages by working ever more closely with international institutions and in multilateral fora, both to build legitimacy and to lighten the burden on America.

There is some common sense in all this, of course, and certain things that conservatives, among others, can praise. From a broader historical perspective, it will probably be unremarkable to future observers that American policymakers decided to retrench in the 2010s after difficult, costly, and controversial military campaigns in the 2000s, just as it is understandable that President Bill Clinton’s refusal to take serious military action against al-Qaeda in the 1990s led ultimately to 9/11 and a 180-degree turnaround in policy by the Bush administration.

However, the new intellectual minimalism too often seeks to ignore the current administration’s policy failings and bad decision-making, not to mention unrealistically looks to the rest of the world for actions that it cannot and will not take. Retrospective criticism can never be proved either right or wrong, but it seems increasingly clear that the Obama administration’s failure to maintain U.S. forces in Iraq after 2011 created a security vacuum that the jihadist Islamic State (ISIS) has now filled. Nor did the president and his advisers take seriously the threat from that “j.v.” jihadist team until its success in Iraq and Syria and its butchery became impossible to ignore. Similarly, Obama’s “red line” debacle and failure to get involved early on in the Syria civil war not only emboldened ISIS but allowed jihadists to infiltrate the opposition, ensured the survival of Bashar Assad, and created a humanitarian disaster. The White House’s eagerness to “reset” relations with Russia sent messages of irresolution to Vladimir Putin, who acted with an aggressive opportunism that has brought Ukraine to the brink of war, while Beijing has become increasingly emboldened by Washington’s refusal to get more directly involved in supporting allies facing territorial challenges from China, and has lately decided to begin ending the fiction of Hong Kong independence.

There is no way to know if a wiser and less cautious Obama policy would have entirely altered subsequent events. Yet it is hard to assert other than that American inaction and bad decisions at a minimum created the impression that the world’s most powerful nation would look the other way when faced with uncomfortable choices about how and whether to intervene. Aggressive regimes understand far better than bureaucrats in Washington just how tenuous is the supposed global order that once deterred threats and threatened punishment for undertaking destabilizing acts and atrocities. Pressing the system’s weak points and stressing its connective tissue is increasingly seen as a low-risk strategy, given U.S. ambivalence and European weakness.

The mention of Europe highlights the increasingly untenable policy of expecting America’s allies (particularly in the West, but also in Asia) to do more. The inability of Europe’s leading countries to field more than what are essentially home-defense forces has dramatically shifted the balance of power on the continent. Combined with Russia’s will to power, liberal democracies are not merely on the defensive, but are forced into a reactive mode that will further weaken NATO’s credibility both inside and outside the alliance. Europe may yet dig itself out of the hole it has created, but that will take years, a good deal of scarce money, and more political will than can be discerned anywhere at this time.

It is valuable to hold a reading of history that understands the limits on any great power’s ability to shape the world in its preferred image. Conservative internationalists have begun talking again about prudence as a guiding principle in foreign relations. Yet today’s foreign-policy intelligentsia seem too eager to explain away bad choices by the Obama administration by appealing to a suddenly changed global environment. The world that Barack Obama has long seemed uninterested in dealing with is far less fluid and messy than that of the 1930s, to take just the most obvious comparison. It is, however, a world becoming far more dangerous the longer the American president fails to articulate a clear position and policy on what U.S. interests are vital, which of these are under threat, and how his administration will respond with a coherent, and not merely reactive, strategy.

What the Post’s article shows instead is how academics and think-tankers sympathetic to Obama will adopt a minimalist approach in order to excuse his failings. Kennedy, the historian, gives a perfect example of such thinking: “In a sense that is Obama’s strategy, a recognition of that fact. So that rhetorically as well as in reality, he’s trying to diminish the expectation that we can control events.”

Such a belief, whether adopted for political, ideological, or intellectual purposes, will drive Washington farther down the path to reducing its presence and actions abroad, which in turn will fulfill predictions of decline from both the right and the left. Adopting the minimalist position makes it far easier to give up hope of using more sophisticated, bold, or prudent strategies to change today’s negative trends and growing threats. Such a passive path may not be preordained but seems increasingly likely, given Washington’s penchant for trying to minimize the scope of the disorder abroad and for delaying the making of serious decisions. The other option, equally unpalatable, would be a massive U.S. whiplash toward a major intervention, possibly in response to another severe terrorist attack or the outbreak of full-scale war in Europe. Both outcomes would reflect a failure of American policy, reveal the paucity of American strategic thinking, and ensure that global disorder will be the dominant theme of the next decade.

— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review Online.