Despite President Obama’s hope for American foreign policy, one thing is abundantly clear as his administration enters its back stretch. The days of sweeping American power abroad are over, for now.
None of this is to place the blame for decline in American influence abroad entirely at the president’s door step, mind you. Certainly, he bears responsibility. But so does the Congress. Yet most important, the world itself is changing: 20 years of unbridled American economic, political and military order — known simply as globalization — are coming to an end.
The president’s speech Wednesday at West Point was, as all of his speeches are, a fine speech. But it did not advance the ball. He did not move the locus of American attention and energy out of the Middle East and northern Africa, where he continued to focus on the fragments of the remnants of al-Qaida. For a president who correctly noted that “not every problem is a nail,” he focused chiefly on the nails of terrorism and the hammer of the judicious use of force.
Yet, most of the action in the world today is entirely elsewhere. Events are not just taking place against the wishes of Washington; they are being dictated by a structural shift in power, not merely a lame-duck American presidency. In Europe, the Russian government led by Vladimir Putin has essentially won the contest over Ukraine. The new president in Kiev is actually irrelevant; Putin has succeeded not only in gaining the Crimea but destabilizing the nation that serves as buffer between his country and a U.S.-led Europe.
Speaking of Europe, the gains made in elections there by extreme nationalist and socialist parties is not only galling to establishment politicians of the left and right. The elections in Germany, France and Spain are perfect examples of a Europe that is drifting out of the once predictable direction of the alliance with America.
Russia and China, in their recent energy deal, are feeling each other out, not so much as allies as to understand their abilities to counter-balance American influence. China has turned up its nose at the notion of an American-led alliance in Asia — the fabled pivot — by continuing to provoke Vietnam over territorial claims in the South China Sea. Hanoi has pleaded for assistance from Washington, which has done nothing.
Elsewhere in the world, economic and political developments are merely outstripping the ability of the United States to influence them. In Egypt, the military government remains firmly in place. In Syria, civil war rages on with the Assad regime defiantly in place. In Africa, China is cementing a nearly permanent place through extensive financing. American ties with much of Latin America simply languish, utterly neglected.
New free-trade agreements that would have brought still more nations into the American-led economic fold have not just stalled in Congress but they are now likely to die. To governments big and small this will signal that the Obama administration is no longer one with which to do business. These nations will look to see who else is making offers while waiting to see if the deadlock that has replaced gridlock in Washington ever passes.
At home, President Obama has not articulated a genuine vision of America’s place in the world — platitudes aside — after the wars that were the aftermath of 9-11. He has kept on glancing, understandably, at the results of that event. But in doing so he has not actually advanced American influence. So, either the United States has never really achieved victory — an arguable proposition — or he can neither fashion a vision, let alone execute on it.
As a result, neither he nor the Congress have been able to extend meaningfully America’s nearly 25-year-old vision of globalization: a global system of intertwined economic, political and security strands all guaranteed by the Americans. Where Bill Clinton cast aside generals for bankers and business executives, George W. Bush replaced them with soldiers and spies.
In both cases, both men were reckless. Clinton disregarded structural job losses at home and Bush disregarded his deception over Iraq and the tragic consequences of the war there and in Afghanistan. Obama has been more cautious and nuanced, trying to combine soft and hard power, drones with loans, so to speak. But it has all been too subtle, too little, too late or, worse, all three.
In the meantime, the world has simply moved on. Once downtrodden Russia is awash in petro rubles. China is a wealthy nation in its own right, having gone from world’s factory floor to financier. The drug war in Mexico is winding down and a prosperous middle class has arisen. Brazil wrestles not with creating wealth but with distributing it in a way that is equitable and fair.
“America must always lead on the world stage,” Obama said at West Point. Americans might agree on that point, much to the consternation of the rest of the world: Manifest destiny and now American exceptionalism have only been popular, generally, at home. But to people elsewhere the idea that American must always lead must smack of more hubris than ability now.
In what is left of his presidency, Obama simply has more reach than grasp when it comes to influence abroad. In what is left of his presidency, it is more likely than not that the president will find himself reacting to global developments instead of shaping them. What arises next is likely to be a more multi-polar world than we’ve known in two decades — indeed, 70 years — that will be surprising and even dangerous.
The next few years will be, however, a good time for Americans to reinvent their place in the world in a manner that is as convincing as it is ambitious. The world may chafe at America’s relentless ambition but less so when it can actually be achieved. Or perhaps it is time for this country to cede that stage; personally, I think the risks of that far outweigh the benefits.
Regardless, the country needs a new vision, a new strategy and one that goes far beyond the words at West Point. Eventually, though, this will be the sole business not of this president but, rather, his successor.
Richard Parker is a former military correspondent for Knight Ridder. His award-winning commentary appears frequently on McClatchy-Tribune and in The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review and The New Republic. Researcher Olivia Parker contributed to this article.