Obama scuttles. America retreats. Things fall apart

The 44th President of the United States replaced Pax Americana with a new world disorder. Will the 45th learn from his mistakes?

Features US Politics
The 44th President of the United States replaced Pax Americana with a new world disorder. Will the 45th learn from his mistakes? (illustration by Michael Daley)

Last April, two months after the Maidan Revolution of Dignity had displaced Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and a few weeks after Vladimir Putin had annexed Crimea, a major player in the unfolding drama of Ukraine called me to talk over the volatile situation. It seemed that Putin, having blithely ignored Russia’s treaty obligations by ingesting a chunk of his neighbor’s territory, might not stop there. So toward the end of our conversation, my Ukrainian friend asked, “If this gets very bad, can we count on the United States?” To which I could only reply, “I’m mortified to have to say it, but prudence demands that my answer be ‘No’ — at least until January 21, 2017.”

The foreign policy of President Barack Obama and his two Secretaries of State, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, is so close to being a comprehensive catastrophe as to suggest comparisons to the great power meltdown that erased the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary from the chessboard of history a century ago. Of course, there will be more left of the United States when Obama’s term of office ends than there was when the Emperor Karl “relinquished every participation in the administration of the state”, Habsburg rule in central and south-eastern Europe ceased, and the two small states of Austria and Hungary were left behind; the United States itself is not going to come apart at the seams in the wake of the Obama administration. But very little of the world order of which the United States was the linchpin and guarantor will be left on January 21, 2017. Indeed, there is very little of that post-Cold War order left today.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a kleptocratic, Mafia-like police state sitting atop a crumbling society, is nonetheless poised to dismantle the fundamental international security architecture that has kept the West safe since 1949. The decisive test may well come over the next few months in the Baltic republics; if Putin, using his now-familiar excuse of ethnic and nationalist solidarity and his now-familiar tactics of the Big Lie and destabilisation by special forces, takes a bite out of Latvia or Estonia, what will Nato do? Despite its solemn obligations under Article 5 of the Nato treaty to regard an attack on one member state as an attack upon all, the most that can be expected from the Obama administration, on its record, will be further economic sanctions; the few European states willing to face down Putin will find no American leadership to follow; Article 5 will thus be rendered null and void; and that will mean the de facto end of history’s most successful security alliance — and the abrogation of the victories it won in 1989 and 1991.

On the other side of the globe, China is flexing military muscles to match its economic prowess, enlarging a blue-water navy that will soon be capable of challenging American guarantees of freedom of navigation through some of the world’s major maritime choke-points, including the Strait of Malacca. Japan and South Korea, having seen Obama’s “pivot to Asia” for the charade it is, are already considering serious rearmament to protect their interests. No Taiwanese who hopes for his country something better than what has been happening in Hong Kong rests easily. North Korea, for its part, remains in thrall to a lunatic with a terrible haircut and nuclear weapons at his disposal, thanks to further American spinelessness and diplomatic failure.

But an even graver nuclear danger lies between East Asia and Europe, in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. After six years of kowtowing to the Iranian mullahs, including private pleas from President Obama to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Washington’s diplomacy has not stopped Iran’s march towards nuclear weapons, and there is little likelihood of the administration’s soft-touch approach changing in the last two years of Obama’s term. No Sunni Muslim ruler is prepared to live in the same neighbourhood as an undeterred Shia nuclear power. Thus an Iran possessing, or thought to be on the threshold of possessing, nuclear weapons will undoubtedly mean a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia, a nuclear-armed Egypt, and quite probably a nuclear-armed Gulf statelet or two. But whether deterrence will actually work in that volatile neighbourhood, beset as it is by congenital political corruption and inflamed religious passions, is an outcome on which no thoughtful analyst would wager.

Meanwhile, Iran’s client Hezbollah has virtually destroyed Lebanon, as Putin’s client, Bashar al-Assad, has virtually destroyed Syria; a not-so-mini-caliphate has declared itself in otherwise-ungoverned northern Syria and within the rubble of an Iraq left by Obama to fend for itself; and despite burning enough carbon in aircraft fuel to cause green hearts to skip a beat, John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East has not only failed to produce a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, it has empowered the most radical elements in the West Bank and Gaza while exposing Israel, the Middle East’s only mature democracy and a beacon of economic and technological development, to even more vile opprobrium from the world’s witless (and worse).

The list could go on and on: Latin America, which once seemed poised on the edge of sustainable breakthroughs to democratic politics and genuine market economies, is reverting to its historic bad habits of corrupt authoritarianism and mercantilism. The Castro brothers remain firmly in control of an impoverished island-prison 90 miles off the coast of Florida (from which Putin thumbs his nose at the self-bound Gulliver to the north), and continue to export their half-baked ideology (and Cuban internal security forces) to Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Africa, in which Obama pledged to take a special interest, continues to crumble as one failed state after another cannot provide even basic security (Nigeria and Boko Haram) or indulges in endless and pointless bloodletting (Central African Republic). Pakistan remains arguably the most dangerous state on the planet. And Afghanistan, where Obama & Co once pledged to see through what they regarded as the “good war”, is being abandoned by America; at the time of writing, the Taliban is back in business in Kabul, in terrorist mode at the moment but with larger ambitions for the future.

Over the past year, the drama of Ukraine and the Obama administration’s failures to respond vigorously to Russian aggression have led more than one American commentator to evoke memories of Baldwin, Chamberlain, and the appeasement strategies of the 1930s — a comparison that comes all the more easily as Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov continues to play the role of a more polished Joachim von Ribbentrop, deploying the Big Lie with a straight face and getting no pushback from John Kerry, the Samuel Hoare of the moment. But Baldwin authorised the arming of the RAF with Hurricanes and Spitfires, and Chamberlain, however reluctantly, took his Polish “red line” seriously. Barack Obama, for his part, is complementing appeasement by dismantling the US military in all its component parts. And the gassed victims of Bashar al-Assad, who paid the ultimate price in their quest for a measure of political decency in their country, bear mute witness from the grave to what a “red line” means to the 44th President of the United States.

Friends of the US around the world may well hope that the dramatic repudiation of the Obama administration in the 2014 midterm congressional elections portends a shift away from this pattern of American retreat (which in truth is less an orderly withdrawal and more a scuttle, led by the historically ill-informed and the strategically ignorant). That hope, alas, would be misplaced. The Constitution vests virtually all effective power over foreign policy in the presidency, and while Obama’s has been an administration singularly insouciant about constitutional niceties, it seems very unlikely that an administration that has decided to govern domestically through administrative and regulatory fiat (i.e., to govern without Congress) is going to do anything but ignore admonitions from the new Congress to undertake one of its famous “re-sets” and get serious about world affairs.

Moreover, there is little in the administration’s make-up to suggest that its key foreign policy figures, including the President and the Secretary of State, believe a fundamental policy reset is needed. Whatever the people around John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson may have thought of themselves, the Obama administration really does believe itself composed of “the best and the brightest”, men and women who need not take counsel from critics or even consider the possibility that they may have misread the dynamics of early 21st century history. That Obama might even toy with the idea of bringing senior Republican figures onto his national security team in this moment of crisis, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did prior to America’s entry into World War II, is almost inconceivable, given the President’s self-regard and hyper-partisanship.

As for pressure from below, from the electorate, it is certainly true that tweeted beheadings of American journalists and aid workers got the American people’s attention, and Obama’s air war against IS was the result. But at the time of  writing, that mild muscle-flexing seems another exercise in feckless half-measures rather than the effort to “degrade and destroy” the neo-caliphate that the President promised Americans (and the world) prior to the bombing campaign. Moreover, there is no indication that the Obama scuttle was a decisive factor in the 2014 midterm elections, save as one more entry in a long catalogue of the administration’s failures. Elections in 2006 may well have been that rare exception to the rule that midterms in the US political cycle are almost exclusively about domestic (meaning economic) issues; tired of a war in Iraq that seemed to be going nowhere, the American people registered their dissatisfaction with Bush administration foreign policy by handing the House of Representatives back to the Democrats (and, in what history may eventually view as a great irony, got the boondoggle of Obamacare as a result, three years later). But the old patterns reasserted themselves in 2014, in a campaign conducted almost exclusively as a referendum on Obama’s domestic policies (including Obamacare).

Thus the best that Congress can do over the next two years is to wield its power of the purse and its investigative authority in such a way as to put some spine back into US foreign policy. Further administration-proposed cuts in military preparedness can be resisted, and reversed. A bipartisan congressional effort to provide serious defensive aid (including anti-tank weapons) to Ukraine is not inconceivable, and might even garner the votes necessary to override a presidential veto. Congressional hearings exploring (and exposing) the failures of Obama administration foreign policy over the past six years might help clarify a public record that has been muddied by mainstream media Obamaphilia, which continues, if at a lesser level of passion than before.

While waiting for a President serious about the world, however, there is much that the United States can and should do to prepare to address the new world disorder that President Obama will leave to his successor. And the first thing that can and should be done involves serious thought. How did the post-Cold War order crumble so rapidly? Why did we not see these things coming? What did the Clinton and Bush administrations get right, and what did they get wrong, in terms of post-Cold War strategy and tactics?

It would be expecting too much to hope that the Democratic Party and its 2016 presidential candidate might offer serious answers to these serious questions. For the Democrats have become the Republicans of the 1920s and 1930s: the party whose theme song is “Make the world go away”. Unlike those interwar Republican isolationists, however, and unlike the isolationist fringe in the contemporary Republican Party represented by Senator Rand Paul, the 21st-century Democrats don’t believe that a nasty, brutish and violent world will corrupt a pristine America; the new isolationists believe that America is the cause of many of the world’s problems, which will resolve themselves if left alone. Further planks in that neo-isolationist platform include the following notions, which, taken together as a strategic worldview, help explain a lot of what often seems inexplicable about Obama administration foreign policy:

  • Conflict is an aberration, not the normal condition of international affairs in a world of competing interests and ideals.
  • Peace is a state of mind that can be willed into being, not the achievement of a balance of power in service to accepted (and enforced) norms of international behaviour.
  • The American use of armed force is almost always a bad idea and reflects a failure of imagination and will on the part of US policymakers.
  • The present state system ought to be replaced by some form of international governance, in which multilateral and international bodies take the leading roles.
  • America’s principal responsibility in the world is to advance the construction of this multilaterally organised world order, not to defend and advance the interests of the United States and the West.
  • With the Cold War over, there is no power, group of powers, or ideology that poses a grave threat to the United States and the West.
  • American is not indispensable, for there is nothing morally or politically distinctive, much less special (or, heaven forfend, “exceptional”) about the American experiment in ordered liberty. So there is no distinctively American approach to world affairs and the US ought not seek any distinctive role in the world politics of the 21st century.

As for the Republicans, their campaign consultants (who managed to seize defeat from the jaws of a very attainable victory in 2012) will almost certainly want to run the 2016 presidential campaign as yet another referendum on the economic and other domestic failures of the Obama administration, including the fiasco of Obamacare. But Obama, Kerry & Co will likely leave the world in such tough shape that a serious Republican candidate will have to propose a grown-up foreign policy, not only to heighten the contrast with the Democrats but to prepare the country (and the West) for the long, hard road that must be trod, in order to escape the slough of disorder in which Obama will have left world politics.

One blueprint for such an approach has been proposed recently by the foreign affairs columnist of the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens, whose former position as editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post gave him an on-site education into what world politics in the real world looks like — and how it can kill you, and any hope for a measure of decency in international affairs, if you don’t bother to pay attention.

In his new book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder (Sentinel, £24), Stephens dismisses out of hand the basic premises that inform Democratic/neo-isolationist thinking, which are the premises on which Obama’s foreign policy has been based. There is no self-constructing or self-maintaining world order and there never has been, Stephens argues. What order there is in world politics is an achievement, not a given. That achievement, which is always fragile, is realised and sustained only through leadership. And there is no other plausible candidate for taking the lead in stabilising the world and maintaining a modicum of order in world affairs than the US. Anyone who denies these self-evident truths, he suggests, ought not be trusted with the power and authority of the American presidency.

As for the strategic vision that ought to guide American leadership in reconstructing a measure of world order from the disorder Obama will leave behind, Stephens suggests taking a cue from American social science, and specifically from new theories of policing that have had a major impact on reducing crime in American cities over the past several decades. The origins of that theory may be found in a 1982 article by a Rutgers criminologist, George Kelling, and the man who would become, before his death in 2012, the most respected social scientist in America, Harvard’s James Q. Wilson. Kelling and Wilson’s article had the deceptively simple title “Broken Windows” and it drew on an experiment conducted years before by a Stanford psychologist, Philip Zimbardo. But let Stephens tell the fascinating tale:

Dr Zimbardo parked a car on a street in the Bronx, with the hood [bonnet] up and without licence plates. Within ten minutes, vandals began to pick the car clean of its valuables: battery, radiator, tires. By the next day, people began destroying the car, ripping up pieces of upholstery and smashing windows. Then, Zimbardo conducted the same experiment in tony Palo Alto, California, near the Stanford campus. This time, the car — also with hood up and the licence plates removed — sat untouched for several days. So Dr Zimbardo smashed a window with a sledgehammer. “Soon, passers-by by were joining in,” wrote Drs Kelling and Wilson. “Within a few hours the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed.” . . . What to conclude? “Disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence,” Drs Kelling and Wilson argued. It had long been known that if one broken window wasn’t replaced, it wouldn’t be long before all the other windows were broken, too. Why? Because, they wrote, “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking windows costs nothing.”

The idea that the mere appearance of disorder encourages a deeper form of disorder cuts against the conventional wisdom that crime is a function of “root causes.” Yet municipalities that adopted policing techniques based on the broken-windows theory — techniques that emphasised policing by foot patrols and the strict enforcing of laws against petty crimes and “social incivilities” — tended to register sharp drops in crime and improvements in the overall quality of life.

And that, Stephens argues, explains why things unravelled so quickly in the Obama years: “One window breaks, then all the others,” as “rules are invoked but not enforced,” and “principles are idealised but not defended.” The result? “The moment the world [began] to notice that rules won’t be enforced, the rules [began] to be flouted” — as indeed they have been by a cast of dangerous nasties that includes Vladimir Putin, Ali Khameini, Assad, Hugo Chávez and his downmarket successor Nicolás Maduro, the brothers Castro, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Kim Jong-un, and the Communist mandarins in Beijing.

Moreover, the broken-windows theory, on Stephens’s account, offers a strategic model for US foreign policy — and indeed for the West’s engagement with world politics — for the future: “The most urgent goal of US foreign policy over the next decade should be to arrest the continued slide into a broken-windows world of international disorder.” How? By putting the equivalent of cops on the beat, i.e. by using the U.S. military, and allied armed forces, to stop the gangsters, reinforce norms of international behaviour, and protect the responsible locals being threatened by the gangsters. The strategic goal, in other words, is to deter aggression by “keeping neighbourhoods” — which in this case means volatile world regions — “from becoming places that entice criminal behaviour”.

As for tactics to implement that vision, Stephens recommends raising US defence spending to 5 per cent of GDP (it’s now at 3.5 per cent) to pay for and equip a force with lots of usable and easily replaceable weaponry, not multi-billion-dollar wonder-weapons. Those troops and weapons would be deployed to “sharply punish violations of geopolitical norms, such as the use of chemical weapons, by swiftly and precisely targeting the perpetrators of the attacks (assuming those perpetrators can be found)”, while keeping the focus on “short, mission-specific, punitive police actions, not on open-ended occupations with the goal of redeeming broken societies”.

Thus Stephens tries to navigate a course between Obama’s scuttle, on the one hand, and what he regards as George W. Bush’s failed efforts at nation-building abroad, on the other. His broken-windows strategy would “discriminate between core issues and allies and peripheral ones,” with a sharp focus on the borders of today’s free world: “the borders that divide the free countries of Asia from China and North Korea; the free countries of central Europe from Russia; and allies such as Israel and Jordan from any of their neighbors.” Such border-patrolling will require strategic judgment of a high calibre, as it “wouldn’t try to run every bad guy out of town” nor would it demand that “the US put out  every geopolitical fire. But it would require American statesmen “to figure out which of those fires risks burning down the entire neighbourhood, as the war in Syria threatens to do, and which will probably burn themselves out, as is likely the case of South Sudan.”

Bret Stephens understands that implementing his strategic prescription for a post-Obama US foreign policy will require a change in attitude and perception on the part of the American people, who were happy to have won the Cold War (although that victory was never celebrated as such by either President George H.W. Bush or President Bill Clinton); who were happily anticipating a “peace dividend” when the attacks of 9/11 occurred and President George W. Bush took the country into two wars of which Americans eventually grew weary (in part because the second President Bush did not adequately explain the necessity for a long, twilight struggle against jihadism); and who do not, the Euro-Left’s fantasies notwithstanding, have imperial aspirations for the future.

In addition, it is not at all clear, today, that Americans have roused themselves from the post-Iraq torpor on which Obama played in mounting his policy of retreat. Yes, the new horror of beheadings and crucifixions conveyed by social media moved the President’s foreign policy approval rating steeply downwards and built popular support for the air campaign against IS; but did that amount to a tacit endorsement of the new role Bret Stephens proposes, namely, that of America as global constabulary absent a global empire?

If that popular endorsement is forthcoming between now and the presidential election of November 8, 2016, it will only be because a Republican candidate ignores the consultants who will advise another anti-Obama, domestic-policy-oriented campaign, takes foreign policy seriously, and conducts what amounts to a national educational campaign. Such a candidate will also have to fill in what would seem to be left unaddressed in Stephens’s prescription: Won’t the American constabulary require permanent garrisons at key potential flashpoints around the world, similar to (if much smaller than) the garrisons that protected the threatened “neighborhoods” of central Europe and South Korea for decades?

If Nato really is rendered defunct by Vladimir Putin over the next biennium, and if much of Europe remains in a state of advanced denial about its peril (a denial manifest in the failure of virtually every European Nato member to fulfill its defence-spending obligations), what should be the shape of the new, post-Nato international security architecture for the future?

What, if anything, is left of the Anglo-American “special relationship” with reference to a “coalition of the willing” in support of American leadership in policing the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods?

Can Australia and particularly its navy (working in close partnership with the US Navy) become America’s principal security partner in keeping open the maritime trade routes that are threatened by possible Chinese naval interdiction at key choke-points throughout the western Pacific? Might Japan be a third partner in any such enterprise (and should it, given the history of the 20th century)?

But those important questions will remain moot unless and until some Republican candidate explains to the American people the central truth in Bret Stephens’s analysis: that “if the world’s leading liberal-democratic nation doesn‘t assume its role as world policeman, the world’s rogues will fill the breach, often in league with one another.” And that, to return to historical analogies, will lead us deeper into the dangerous disorder created by the Obama scuttle. For absent American leadership, the world of the early 21st century will, as Stephens puts it, look a lot “like the 1930s, a decade in which economic turmoil, war weariness, Western self-doubt, American non-involvement, and the rise of ambitious dictatorships combined to produce catastrophe”.

As of early 2015, no major figure in American public life seems willing to put that case before the American people. But someone is going to be elected President on November 8, 2016 and inaugurated the following January. And absent a clear mandate to repair the damage done by the Obama scuttle — a mandate that has to be created over the next two years — the 45th President of the United States is going to wake up, not long into his or her first term, and wonder why the job ever seemed attractive in the first place. For such will be the chaotic and dangerous mess that inevitably lands on the one desk in the world, the desk in the Oval Office, where something constructive can begin to be done about it.