In the third century a.d., external pressures from competing powers along the periphery of the empire, along with growing weakness and incoherence within the imperial government, began to undermine the power of Rome. Externally, the Goths, Franks, and Vandals rose and began to roll back the Roman system of governance and trade. Internally, the Senate became impotent and a series of weak emperors led first to the geographic division of the empire and ultimately its demise. The period of history that followed came to be known as the “Dark Ages” and lasted nearly a thousand years, during which human progress was truncated until the emergence of the Enlightenment.
Today, all along the perimeter of the current global system of governance, the combination of external pressures from authoritarian regimes and a series of questionable internal strategic choices have weakened the defenses of the rule of law, individual liberty, and free trade. These actions have allowed Russia to carve out territorial gains in the Crimea and Ukraine, China to assert sovereignty over a vast area of the ocean through the uncontested creation of artificial islands, Iran to inflate an expanding sphere of influence through acts of terrorism in the Middle East, North Korea to gain nuclear weapons, and Cuba to reemerge as a normal nation within the Western hemisphere despite its long and unapologetic support of Communism and terrorist activities.
Some have asserted that these setbacks have been results of fecklessness — irresponsibility or an inherent weakness of character on the part of the current administration, or an accidental combination of bad luck and philosophical discordance within the American political system. These assertions are unhelpful in that they bypass the deep intellectual roots that lie behind our nation’s current “humble” and “lead from behind” foreign policy, roots we must trace to their source, challenge, and then best if we are to go forward as the leader in the global system of governance, champion of free trade and individual rights and liberty.
The president’s intellectual upbringing instilled within him what some might describe as the conviction that the United States poses a primary threat to world peace.
Barack Obama’s election and his subsequent formulation of foreign policy was in many ways a reaction to the nation’s experiences in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Exhausted from its wartime efforts, the nation sought a leader who promised “Hope and Change” at home and around the world. The nation received a new foreign policy that from the start was a solution, “Peace and Normalization,” looking for a problem. The president’s intellectual upbringing instilled within him what some might generously say is a healthy skepticism of America’s role in the world and what others might critically describe as an overt conviction that the United States — with its history of military adventurism and accompanying belief in its own “exceptionalism” — poses a primary threat to world peace. Certainly the Obama administration’s openness to legitimizing nations that had openly presented themselves as America’s enemies was remarkable.
And certainly the Obama administration’s openness to dialogue with nations led by autocrats was a striking departure from diplomatic norms of the past; similarly, Obama’s decision to swap positions of military strength in Iraq and Afghanistan for a role bordering on irrelevance runs against established strategic doctrines. Pursuing non-confrontational relationships with Russia (the “reset”) and China as well as the opening relations with Cuba appear to demonstrate Obama’s strong personal desire to significantly alter the trajectory of American foreign policy. By all appearance, he aimed to reverse the course set by Theodore Roosevelt at the beginning of the American Century and return the nation to a more “normal” role in the world. In this way, he would secure his legacy in the foreign-policy realm. The strength of his interest in legacy is in evidence with the recent nuclear-arms deal with Iran, wherein he deemed a bad deal better than no deal at all, revealing that Nixon, now, must go to China.
American allies the world over have begun to seriously question the United States’ ability and willingness to take the leading role, as it has in the past, in standing up to authoritarian regimes that are acting in ways inimical to Enlightenment values. When challenged to defend its conflict with the rule of law as it pertains to freedom of navigation and open seas, China replied, in essence: “Whose rules and whose laws? Not ours.” Instead, China ordered its warships to pass within territorial waters of the United States. When challenged to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a state and its right to exercise religious freedom, Iran responded by moving to rebuild the Persian empire — an empire backed by an anti-Semitic, extremist Shia Islam philosophy that seeks nothing less than Israel’s destruction and the conversion of nonbelievers. Russia’s consolidation of territorial acquisitions in Eastern Europe and its deployment of military forces to Syria — actions deemed uncivilized and almost prehistoric in an era where even inconvenient borders are deemed safe — signal not only a direct challenge to the United States but also a return to a medieval era of history when might made right. Facing chaos on their borders, rising threats, and an America disconnected from strategic reality, nations in Europe and Asia now edge ever closer to “cutting a deal” with the rising powers in their regions.
Russia, China, and Iran, because of their unique histories and cultures, view the world in a way that is separate and distinct from other nations, especially those in the West, and they are seeking to carve out spheres of influence wherein their rules will serve as the de facto norms. Within these spheres, individual liberty, religious liberty, free trade, and self-determination will be set aside in favor of censorship, shariah law, mercantilist centrally planned economies, and the false stability of authoritarian regimes. The power vacuum created by American passivity has opened an opportunity for these nations to reemerge and challenge the current global system of governance.
If the perimeter of the global international system, a system that represents the cumulative lessons of the Western enlightenment, is to be reinforced, the United States must cease being passive. The current brief interregnum of anti-exceptionalism must give way to a new appreciation of harsh realities. If we are to hold the line, confrontation is now inevitable. This is the legacy of the Obama administration. Russia, China, and Iran — authoritarian states led by autocrats emboldened by American moderation — will continue to push until stopped. That said, demonstration operations, executed with sufficient magnitude and firmness, need not lead to war.
Naval and air power, properly applied in appropriate levels and mixtures, can go a long way. Ground power can also play a role as rapid-force entry units are raised in alert and moved to staging positions. The mere threat of applying military and economic power, if done in a credible manner, should be sufficient to reestablish American leadership and equilibrium within the system. We have authority and responsibility within the global system and the wisdom to wield it if we so choose. The enemy is at the wire, and history will be our judge.
When the Vandals arrived at the gates of Rome, the greatness of the empire had long passed. The result was a forgone conclusion, and the man who was emperor at the time is now mercifully forgotten. But the emperors who oversaw those critical years leading up to the end, when Rome might have been saved, are still remembered: They possess the ignominy of having wasted precious opportunities. Today our 44th president stands at the precipice of history, and all indications suggest that the passage of time will diminish his legacy as the coming years reveal the utter incoherence of his foreign policy and his many consequential misjudgments.
— Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain, is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the director of its Defense Strategies and Assessments Program.