The world stage is trembling with emerging challenges, challenges so deep and potentially fracturing that the globe may never be the same again. This is 1789, 1848, 1917 and 1941 wrapped in one momentous year. Wherever one turns, chaos reigns and, in large part, this dislocation is due to a United States’ reluctant to play its post-World War II role as the “great equalizer.” From the Middle East to the Far East, from London to the Levant, U.S. withdrawal physically and emotionally is having a profound influence on diplomatic calculations.
There are obvious examples. Geneva negotiations over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program offers the retention of fissile material, in return for the relaxation of sanctions. This is precisely what the Iranians have contended for more than a decade. It virtually assures an Iran with nuclear weapons and incorporates the Iranian economy into the global economic network. It also invites regional nuclear proliferation as a counterweight to Iranian ambition and brings Israel close to the brink of war.
The unilateral Chinese declaration of an air defense zone over the East China Sea incorporating the contested Senkaku islands is a direct challenge to U.S. interests in the Pacific. It has shaken our allies and portends possible air and sea confrontations.
The Ukrainian government facing hostility from Russia, which threatens to turn off its natural gas supply, is facing a choice of East – Putin and Russian domination or West – the European Union. The people would prefer the latter, the government the former, but the U.S. sits on the sidelines unwilling to take a position.
Al Qaeda has regrouped since the death of Osama bin Laden roiling North Africa from Libya to Syria. Although it was declared an insubstantial threat by President Obama, it is now the main opposition force in Syria, an influential group in Iraq yet again, an ally of the Taliban in Afghanistan and even has a formidable presence in South America.
The prevailing sentiment in the Obama administration is that if you speak softly and carry no stick, things will fall into place. U.S. forces should not be seen as the global policeman for our involvement – it is widely believed – complicates knotty issues making them even more complicated than they would have been otherwise. Overlooked in this calculation is what the perception of U.S. weakness means for our friends and foes alike.
Allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel have already arrived at the conclusion that a weak, appeasement-minded U.S. government is not one on whom you can rely. These nations must fend for themselves or seek new alliances. The Japanese, sensing a U.S. withdrawal from the Pacific, have doubled its defense budget this year.
Conversely our foes such as China and Russia believe they can exploit the appearance of U.S. weakness. They are increasingly assertive in the United Nations and have filled a vacuum left by the United States in Syria, much of the Middle East and the China Sea.
Even in South America our enemies are jockeying for influence in areas where the U.S. response has been neutrality, a stance without substance. A Monroe Doctrine has been tar and feathered and resigned to dissuetude. Latin America isn’t even on the U.S. radar screen.
The signs of weakness are ubiquitous, notwithstanding the obvious fact that the U.S. is still the most powerful military force on the globe. By channeling American foreign policy interests through the United Nations and a variety of international organizations, the Obama administration has allowed others to dictate policy, even hold our interests hostage to their goals.
A classic idea that weakness begets challenges is once again emerging. From Athens to Rome, the lessons of history march forward, often ignored, but repeatedly reenacted. History is now at our doorstep asking questions that have a distinctly familiar ring.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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