That President Obama has been a singularly weak leader in foreign policy and national security is a view that was held by the entire field of Republican candidates for President this year, a sizable percentage of the American people and, perhaps to some degree, even Hillary Rodham Clinton, an exponent of a more conventionally muscular approach to American world leadership. Obama’s emphasis on the limits of U.S. power and the intractability of global challenges, along with his seeming aversion to “big box” military action indeed mark a change from the heroic style of presidential leadership the public has been accustomed to since World War II. While it is true that Obama is no pacifist—he ratcheted up the use of lethal drone strikes considerably above the level of George W. Bush—and that predecessors as illustrious as Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan also refrained from the large-scale use of force, the impression is widespread that Obama has deliberately forsaken the reins of global leadership and thus bears responsibility for American decline. The nearly unanimous verdict of critics is that Obama’s diffidence in wielding American power has diminished U.S. prestige, emboldened adversaries, and created a vacuum that revisionist powers have rushed to fill.
However, this is only a partially valid indictment that overlooks shifts in the global structure and balance of power, many of them decades in the making, that Obama is the first American President to confront; moreover, he has done so at a time of acute political dysfunction on the home front. Most significantly, he is the first President in nearly a century to face the challenge of integrating American power within a multipolar global framework, even as he has grappled with the relative decline of American preponderance with respect to rising powers and emergent threats.
So while many critics echo Donald Trump in treating the restoration of American leadership as a relatively simple matter—as essentially an act of will—the reality is that America’s global position has weakened largely because of changing circumstances that the United States is mostly powerless to reverse. To be sure, American power and wealth remain unmatched in aggregate terms, and it is fashionable to exaggerate our decline. Nevertheless, Obama’s successor may find that his characteristic caution and seeming irresolution are not the cause but a result of America’s diminished capacity to shape the world in accordance with its interests and ideals.
The waning of American primacy under President Obama is due to several factors, some external and others internal. As has been frequently remarked for some years now, the emerging multipolar international system is more complicated and difficult to manage than any situation the United States has faced since the end of World War II. Its architecture today is essentially triangular, with China and Russia bidding, if not to rival the United States globally, then to supplant it regionally—and at a time when America’s traditional West European partners, particularly Britain and France, are either less able or less willing to pitch in. India’s emergence as a fourth great power is further diversifying the global chessboard. Lesser powers, such as North Korea and Pakistan, have the capacity nonetheless to destabilize the international system thanks to their possession of nuclear weapons. Adding to the complexity is the crumbling of states in the Middle East and elsewhere, the emergence of lethal non-state actors with global reach, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, and the multiplication of threats to the global commons (potential pandemics and several environmental issues, for example), for which governance protocols are inadequate.
One metric of a changing global balance of power is greater vulnerability of U.S. territory to attack. U.S. strategy must now reckon with the ability not only of Russia and China to devastate the homeland but also potentially North Korea. Obviously, too, the United States must defend itself against terrorist organizations that will continue to strike its territory and would likely employ weapons of mass destruction should any fall into their possession; hence the abiding concern over unstable Pakistan’s vulnerable and constantly expanding nuclear arsenal.
Another metric of the shifting balance of power is the potential vitiation of U.S. extended deterrence. Both China and Russia are pursuing anti-access/area-denial strategies aimed at confronting U.S. military commanders, and ultimately the U.S. President, with unpalatable options. China is acquiring air, land, and sea-based capabilities designed to put U.S. aircraft carriers and military bases in East Asia at risk, such that American leaders could face difficult choices in confrontations involving Japan, Taiwan, or the South China Sea.
Similarly in Europe the United States is in the uncomfortable position of having expanded NATO to Russia’s very doorstep while simultaneously reducing alliance military capabilities across the continent. Russia’s ability to quickly marshal superior strength at points of confrontation with NATO in Eastern Europe essentially puts the escalatory onus in any crisis on the United States. It is this reality—a regionally unfavorable balance of power, which is compounded by a skewed balance of interests in most cases—that explains basic U.S. inaction in response to Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine. But confrontations are both possible and unpredictable, and it is therefore not an exaggeration to say that something more than a completely remote possibility exists for a kind of Cuban missile crisis in both Asia and Europe, in which leaders in Washington, Beijing, or Moscow—particularly if under acute domestic duress of some sort—might decide to climb the escalatory ladder rather than accept a humiliating outcome.
The final change working against the United States internationally is the increasing dysfunction of America’s own political institutions. George Kennan once observed that the necessary foundation to U.S. international power was America’s “internal strength”, which he defined as “the health and sanity of our own society.” By that measure U.S. global leadership has stood on shaky ground, both morally and financially, for a while now. The very premise of America’s global engagement over seven decades has been that problems between and within nations can be resolved peacefully through a democratic process of give and take. But in recent years the capacity for compromise has seriously atrophied in the United States due to bitter and entrenched partisanship; democracy itself has malfunctioned.
The result has been paralysis—a political system that fails in its basic function of safeguarding the country’s present and future security and well-being. As a consequence, both unresolved domestic problems and deficits have piled up, owing to the fact that government programs, taxes, and entitlement cuts are all politically fraught and, at different ends of the political spectrum, ideologically taboo. This in turn makes for an inherently weak foundation for U.S. global leadership; it undermines the image American democracy projects to the world, and it saps the resources required to implement any global strategy. The inability of Democrats and Republicans to agree on solutions to the nation’s major challenges is thus a far more important source of weakening U.S. clout and credibility in the world than Obama’s hesitant leadership. A nation that cannot govern itself successfully is one that ultimately can neither afford nor make a moral claim to global leadership.
Little about the toxic 2016 presidential campaign suggests imminent improvement in the health and functioning of the American political system. The candidates have altogether refrained from addressing tough choices with regard to spending and taxation, or tradeoffs between entitlement programs and national security. With one exception, they have also seemed oblivious to fundamental shifts in the global balance of power that pose novel challenges to the United States. That exception is Donald Trump.
Having traveled the world, Donald Trump has taken the measure of rising Chinese power and virtually alone has spotlighted the increased risk the United States is running incident to the security guarantees it handed out to treaty allies long ago. Trump understands diminished U.S. clout and describes vividly his at least superficial perception that other countries have eclipsed the United States economically. His entire campaign is explicitly premised on wildly exaggerated American decline and the pledge to reverse it.
Paradoxically, however, the foreign policy he espouses is tailored to an America that is great no longer, one that abdicates the role and responsibilities the United States has carried globally since the end of World War II. He purports to make America safer, though not stronger, by cutting costs and commitments in Europe and Asia and pursuing a policy of appeasement with respect to China and Russia. He would thus tacitly accept, if not welcome, a new global balance of power formed without the preponderant weight of the United States.
Foreign policy critics have largely condemned Trump’s apostasies, noting that the vacuum he would create would be filled by China and Russia, thus confronting other states who are partners of the United States—such as Germany, South Korea, and Japan—with options ranging from accommodation to the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Trump is oblivious to the fact that NATO and U.S. treaty alliances in Asia have prevented major war between great powers for seven decades, and that the weakening or removal of these structures could ignite regional rivalries, unleash a nuclear arms race, and produce chaos on a global scale.
However reckless the Trump foreign policy may be, it nonetheless represents a plausible and even inevitable future should the United States continue on its present course of institutional paralysis and political gridlock. Executing today what is fast becoming a dual containment strategy against China and Russia while fighting a war against a still-expanding global jihadi movement is arguably a costlier, riskier, and more demanding challenge than anything the U.S. government has attempted since World War II, and it cannot be sustained on the current fiscal basis and weak domestic political foundation.
In this context, Barack Obama will likely be viewed by posterity as a status quo President who sought to maintain continuity with U.S. grand strategy and alliance partnerships, even if he tried to do so on the cheap. Perceiving a rising China as the greatest challenge to the United States, in his first term he reduced military assets in Europe and attempted to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; both moves were intended to shift scarce resources to Asia. But Putin’s assault on Ukraine and the explosive emergence of ISIS forced him to reengage in both Europe and the Middle East. Whipsawed by events, Obama has been justly criticized for misreading Putin, underestimating ISIS, and damaging U.S. credibility thanks to his feckless posturing with respect to Assad.
However, these assessments often fail to account for the global perspective that a U.S. President responsible for sustaining American primacy in all theaters of the globe must constantly bear in mind. For Obama this meant putting a premium on husbanding strength and avoiding military entanglements while relying on the panoply of instruments within the U.S. diplomatic toolbox—what Kennan referred to as “measures short of war.” But such is the mismatch between U.S. resources and global commitments that Obama arguably ended up overstretching the U.S. military anyway, while still under-resourcing his de facto containment strategy toward China.
Obama, in short, has attempted to execute a balance of power strategy that in principle is well suited to a multipolar global system. Whether such cold, Nixonian realism in foreign policy is suited to the American temperament is another question altogether. Since the radical break with isolationist tradition in the wake of World War II, public support for U.S. global leadership has been sustained by a romantic faith in America’s overseas mission—a kind of internationalized Manifest Destiny. Obama’s challenge to the myth of omnipotence, although based on a realistic appraisal of the changing balance of power in the world, has been psychologically deflating. The risk over time is that the American people will choose to recoil from a world that readily bends neither to America’s power nor its moral vision. In the meantime, especially when feelings of vulnerability run high due to recurrent terrorist attacks in Europe and on U.S. soil, the public nostalgically hankers for leadership that projects confidence in America’s capacity to defeat all comers: thus the attraction throughout 2016 of candidates who promised a restoration of American primacy—an America that wins again.
In reality, Hillary Rodham Clinton is the only remaining candidate committed to sustaining U.S. leadership in the world. For that reason her election is as hoped for by U.S. friends and allies as it is opposed, insidiously, by Putin’s Russia. But although Clinton would indeed bring a more muscular approach toward U.S. adversaries, she, too, will have to reckon with today’s heightened risks of confrontation and over commitment. She would do so, moreover, with seemingly fewer cards domestically than Obama in terms of the political capital and the skills necessary to rehabilitate governance at home and strengthen American leadership abroad.
Donald Trump, by contrast, pledges nothing less than the restoration of American primacy, unconstrained by allies and undeterred by foes. His heady vows to vanquish the nation’s enemies resonate deeply with a public steeped in the mythology of U.S. omnipotence and demoralized by the perception of American decline under Obama. Behind the triumphalist rhetoric, however, a President Trump would be the instrument of a headlong American retreat—an America that erects barriers because it thinks it cannot compete; that betrays commitments to allies that it purportedly cannot afford; that bows to Chinese and Russian spheres of hegemony. He would indeed mark a break with the continuity of U.S. global leadership that runs from Truman to Obama.
But the explanation for the paradox at the heart of Trump’s appeal is rooted in American history. To dominate or to withdraw are the characteristic and defining U.S. postures toward the world; primacy and isolation are the only two traditions in American statecraft. There is simply no successful modern precedent for the contemporary challenge facing U.S. foreign policy, which is to manage the balance of power within a complex and fluid multipolar framework. The last President before Obama to attempt this was Woodrow Wilson, whose efforts were ultimately repudiated by a U.S. body politic determined to resume equating security with avoidance of foreign commitments and entanglements. Thus Trump cannot simply be dismissed as a product of American political dysfunction; his embrace of America First represents continuity with the oldest and most deeply embedded impulses in the history of America’s relationship with the world.
Even if he fails to win the presidency, Donald Trump will have underscored, and no doubt exacerbated, the domestic impediments to America’s future global role and influence. Indeed, any successor to President Obama who aims to put the substance, and not merely the swagger, back into U.S. international leadership will have to reckon with the reality of Obama’s world: a broken political system at home and a global balance of power increasingly tilted against the United States. The next President will have to reckon with the crisis of means and ends that lies at the heart of America’s grand strategy—namely, the mismatch, which Trump has highlighted, between U.S. capacity and U.S. global commitments. Absent a restoration of effective governance and a rebuilding of military strength, the United States will inevitably face the choice between trimming commitments and muddling through with a deterrent posture in Asia and Europe that risks being reduced to a bluff. Under the circumstances, retrenchment of the kind suggested by Donald Trump may end up becoming an irresistible, though extremely perilous, choice for the United States.