It was not difficult to define American geopolitical strategy over the seven decades following World War II — at least until 2009. It was largely bipartisan advocacy, most ambitiously, for nations to have the freedom of adopting constitutional governments that respected human rights, favored free markets, and abided by the rule of law. And at the least, we sought a world in which states could have any odious ideology they wished as long as they kept it within their own borders. There were several general strategic goals as we calculated our specific aims, both utopian and realistic.
(1) The strategic cornerstone was the protection of a small group of allies that, as we did, embraced consensual government and free markets, and were more likely to avoid human-rights abuses. That eventually meant partnerships with Western and later parts of Eastern Europe, Great Britain, and much of its former Empire, such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. In Asia, the American focus was on Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. The U.S. military essentially guaranteed the security of these Asian nations, and they developed safely, shielded from Soviet or Chinese Communist aggression, and more recently from Russian or Chinese provocations.
(2) The U.S. also sought a stable, globalized world, predicated on free commerce, communications, and travel. This commitment on occasion involved ostracism of, or outright military action against, rogue regimes of the sort run by thugs like Moammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Manuel Noriega, or the Taliban. There was no predictable rule about what offenses would earn U.S. intervention, and there was plenty of argument domestically over what should properly prompt such action. Perhaps a general observation was that rogue dictatorships that began killing Americans or lots of their own people, or that invaded their neighbors or threatened U.S. interests were most likely to be targeted.
(3) The U.S. tried to combat terrorism, whether, as in the past, Communist-inspired or, more recently, prompted by radical Islam. In the latter regard, the U.S. sought to make the world unsafe for al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and various terrorist groups funded by Iran and, more stealthily, by opulent Persian Gulf autocracies and rogue Middle East regimes like that of the Assads in Syria. Without the American war on terror, the world would have been an even more dangerous place.
(4) America sought not to invade but to isolate and ostracize a few radical regimes that threatened our friends or the general postwar order. Applying that rule to today’s world, that would mean policies designed not to go to war against Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela, but to prevent them from harming their neighbors or U.S. interests.
(5) There was special consideration given to isolated and vulnerable democracies or evolving democracies that might well not have existed if it were not for help and support, the exact nature of which remained implicit rather than codified by formal treaties. In this regard, attackers that aimed at destroying Israel or Taiwan outright were assumed in some way to earn the enmity of the United States. Any attack would prompt help to the attacked.
(6) Americans were outraged, albeit selectively, over genocide, particularly if it involved Westerners or occurred in Europe. For example, the U.S. intervened against Serbia, but not against the far more lethal mass murderers in Cambodia, the Congo, or Rwanda.
(7) The U.S. accepted that large nuclear nations such as China, Russia, and Pakistan were largely immune from American pressures. Consequently, we sought various formulas of coercion and incentives, alienation and enticement, to ensure that these powerful, aggressive nations did not bully our friends or destroy the existing postwar order.
For all the policy blunders and moral hypocrisies of the last 70 years, American strategy mostly worked and thus created the present globalized world. American foreign policy ensures its continuance. At times, isolationists unduly prevented U.S. police action; at other moments, nation-builders naïvely thought they could remake the Third World into the image of the West. Sometimes interventions worked, at other times not so well; there would be no Hyundai or Samsung without the Korean War, even as Vietnam was lost to Communism. Iraq was finally freed from a genocidal monster who turned oil money into death for his own people and his neighbors; but it was not firmly set on the path of constitutional government after the abrupt American pullout.
Over the last five years, those long-held strategic principles have largely been ignored or rejected by the Obama administration. There is real doubt today that the U.S. would risk coming to the aid of South Korea, Japan, or Taiwan. If Putin tomorrow sent a division into Estonia to deliberately provoke an Article V NATO response, he might well not get one — and therefore may well try. If Iran tested a bomb next year, the U.S., for all its now-trite “unacceptable” and “outrageous” talk, would likely shrug and assume that a nuclear Iran was analogous to a nuclear Pakistan or Israel and thus no big deal. Our allies assume that since 2009 American friendship is mostly rhetorical or ceremonial, but no longer exists in the sense of any serious guarantees.
The U.S. might intervene again against a dictator, but only if it could do so by leading from behind, with other powers in the front line, and only if the target were weak and clearly tottering. So, for example, we followed France and the United Kingdom into Libya, once it was evident that Qaddafi’s days were numbered, while steering clear of unilaterally punishing Syria for WMD use, although thousands more had been killed in Syria than in Libya, by an Assad who had much more fight in him than did Qaddafi. We certainly have had little interest in the Mogadishu-like landscapes into which these two Mediterranean countries have descended. American intervention is currently predicated not on the nature or threat of the rogue regime, but on two criteria: Would removing a rogue killer entail casualties? And: Would other countries lead the intervention?
After the laudable elimination of Osama bin Laden, there is currently no real war on Islamic terrorists, except for the NSA surveillance program, some remnants of the Bush–Cheney anti-terrorism protocols, and an under-the-radar drone targeted-assassination program, in which, acting as judge, jury, and executioner, the administration sends armed Predators to blow up suspected terrorists (and anyone unlucky enough to be near them) in Pakistan. Otherwise, both the world and the American public long ago ceased to care about workplace violence, man-caused disasters, overseas contingency operations, the promise of trials for terrorists in civilian courts, Miranda rights given to foiled bombers, renditions bad then good, Guantanamo rhetorically closed, the Muslim Brotherhood largely secular, and jihad little more than a personal journey. As of now, when innocent people are killed, as in the Benghazi attack, the president pontificates about tracking down the murderers — and the world tunes him out.
Rogue nations — Iran, North Korea, Venezuela — now have little fear of the United States. In fact, in their hubris they go out of their way to insult the U.S. by gratuitously sending to the U.N. a former hostage-taker of American diplomatic personnel, or promising to send another missile over our allies’ air space, or lecturing the U.S. president on his country’s sins.
Taiwan and Israel must know that U.S. friendship now entails no implicit commitment to their security. If Israel preempted Iran and took out the latter’s nuclear facilities, it would be just as likely that the U.S. would embargo spare parts as provide them. If in the 1970s the security of Taiwan was in doubt, now the uncertainty extends to Japan as well.
Whereas the U.S. might pursue a rogue commandant who terrorized gays or started carbon-spewing fires, there is little chance that we would intervene to stop a mini-holocaust. A rich vocabulary that the mass killing was “intolerable,” “unacceptable,” and belonged “to the 19th century” would not be necessarily followed up by any concrete action. Red lines, deadlines, and step-over lines are assumed by those to whom they are applied to be face-saving measures that assure provocateurs that inaction will follow. Tough talk by itself, designed to prevent escalations, has a bad habit of ensuing them.
The Obama initiatives of the last five years have ended in general failure. “Reset” with Russia — an effort to undo the Bush-era ostracism of Russia after the Georgia invasion — only encouraged more aggression and anti-Americanism. In fact Putin seems to harbor a particular grudge against Barack Obama, as if U.S. sermons in combination with perceived weakness demand a crude Russian demonstration of our hypocrisy.
The special relationship with Turkey only empowered Erdogan to undermine democracy and promote an intolerant Ottoman Islamism.
Isolating Israel brought no dividends. Engaging Iran and dropping sanctions has probably ensured its soon-to-be nuclear status and the alienation of our former allies in the Sunni Arab world. Our policy with regard to Egypt would be seen as a disaster, if anyone could figure out what exactly the American policy was.
The pivot to Asia was a toothless gesture. If Obama’s current Asian policies persist, most of our major allies in the Pacific will probably go nuclear in the next few years.
There is not much special relationship any more with Britain or Israel. In Latin America we have no particular affinities for those few beleaguered states that resist the growing trend toward totalitarian socialism and instead hold out for free-market constitutional government.
We have offended a successful Canada over the Keystone pipeline, and pleased a failed Mexico by ignoring our own immigration law and thereby providing jobs for its citizens, remittances back home, and a nice safety valve for Mexico City’s social and political disasters.
A final irony? The above recessional from the world is not predicated on conserving resources at home and bulking up our “soft power” by running budget surpluses, keeping growth high and unemployment low, and restoring faith in the U.S. dollar. Our retreat from the world was accompanied by an historic indulgence of running up serial record budget deficits, piling on regulations and taxes to ossify and redistribute the economy, and using ruinous zero interest rates to jump-start an economy that won’t jump under this administration’s policies.
What drives the Obama anti-strategy?
The world is confused. Is the U.S. just inept, and therefore our friends and enemies for a while longer are putting decisions on hold, assuming that wiser heads in the Democratic party, or the voters in 2014 and 2016, will correct the aberration? Or is the new anti-strategy a deliberate effort to diminish U.S. influence and outsource regional problems to local hegemonies, on the theory that Iran, Russia, and China have more legitimate influences in their own neighborhoods?
Who knows? But most people abroad fear that we have entered a very dangerous period. It is becoming clear that the United States cannot continue on its present course and still be the United States, and without the United States in the lead, the world cannot remain the world as we have known it since 1945. But, unless a return to sanity arrives before then, the next two and a half years are a window of opportunity for lots of bad people to cash in their chips and take their winnings to the bank.