Barack Obama is the first American President in modern times to cast off American claims to global hegemony and a values-based policy agenda, thus closing off a chapter in the modern world history books. But if we’re being absolutely fair, we would have to say that Obama simply added a few final touches to a process of erosion of U.S. leadership that started before he had any say in the matter. Facts on the ground make American hegemony exceedingly difficult to achieve today, if not unattainable. How can the United States aspire to be the world’s leader when it is still reeling from an economic downturn? How can it assume the leading role when liberal civilization itself is in crisis? (American institutions are “decaying”, as Francis Fukuyama says, while the European Union is stricken with paralysis.) Finally, how can the United States lead the world when the fabric of the post-Cold War order, which America was instrumental in creating, has effectively come unraveled?
The world was already headed down a dead-end on George W. Bush’s watch. It was steered in this direction by Schröder and Chirac, with Brussels lending a helping hand. Could Obama have stopped this drift? Perhaps, but only if he had been able to summon the strength of character of the likes of Roosevelt, Adenauer, de Gaulle, or other global titans. But Obama is no titan, so he opted to flee from the world stage. Flight is actually not the worst possible choice. It would have been much worse, for instance, if Obama got it into his head that he is omnipotent, and that the United States is still the global arbiter, without having any idea how to resolve a growing number of global crises.
President Obama’s refusal to enforce the normative dimension of U.S. foreign policy will be one of the most prominent aspects of his legacy. The United States turned into a “non-ideological” power on his watch, meaning that the leading liberal democracy did not simply withdraw from its missionary role and democracy-promotion efforts but also showed itself to be unready to offer the world a civilizational alternative. It is precisely the normative policy dimension exhibited by liberal democracies that unites them even as it also separates them from states that limit themselves to geopolitical balance-of-power games. For the first time since World War II, the United States has stopped aspiring to be a normative role model. Obama has thus followed in the footsteps of the German leaders who turned pragmatism and transactionalism into a political ideology of convenience. When two leading liberal democracies reject the moral dimension as essential to their global outlook, we can start questioning the trajectory of Western society. In most cases, replacing ideology with a tit-for-tat policy of convenience will pay only short-term dividends, leaving more serious, long-term problems in want of solutions.
Obama’s policy on Russia and the post-Soviet states has clearly demonstrated what the non-ideological approach is all about, and what it leads to. The premise of the “reset” was that in order to achieve its foreign policy goals the Obama Administration decided to turn a blind eye to Russia’s domestic developments, thus excusing itself from any need to react to Russian authoritarianism. The reset did bring some tactical gains, but at what price? The policy contributed to the international legitimation of Putin’s rule and made it simpler for Russia to rekindle its great power ambitions. The Eurasian Union, Putin’s pet project, partly serves the Kremlin’s own needs, but it would have been impossible had the United States not removed itself from the post-Soviet space.
The Russian elite interpreted the reset as weakness on the part of the Obama Administration and as an invitation to be more assertive in the post-Soviet space and beyond. Here is how the Kremlin’s logic works: “Obama needs Russia more than we need America; he can’t get to a solution on the Iranian and Syrian questions that will salvage his reputation without our help.” Moreover, the Russian ruling establishment may sincerely believe that the West, including its leading power, the United States, is in irreversible decline. Putin declares that “emphasis on rights and freedoms is the recipe for losing a sense of direction in internal and external policies.” Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov tirelessly repeats his mantra that “ideology does not answer the reality of the 21st century”, and applies Oswald Spengler’s early 20th-century warning about European demise to the present-day West. When one constantly talks about Western decay and America’s recession, one may even begin to believe in them! Besides, Obama’s policy style, which seems premised on the idea of doing everything possible to avoid coming off as assertive, is a sure sign of impotence for the Kremlin crowd.
Anyway, as it happens, the reset did not guarantee cooperation between Russia and the United States. It failed to prevent a crisis last year, when in July 2013 President Obama was forced to cancel a summit with Putin at which he would have been humiliated, or at the very least made to feel uncomfortable.
Ironically, even as Washington has unlinked domestic and foreign politics, the Kremlin has linked them. Its foreign policy has become a major instrument for advancing its domestic agenda, which is based on strengthening personalized power. In a broader context, the reset signaled Washington’s (perhaps unwitting) legitimation of the post-post-Cold War order in Europe and Eurasia. This order rests on the informal tandem of Germany, the leading European actor, and Russia, which has begun to reassert its control over the “gray zone” that comprises most of the post-Soviet space as the West looks the other way. Europe’s and the Kremlin’s tug of war over Ukraine, in which the leading European powers have chosen to limit themselves to rhetoric, ended in Europe’s defeat (at least so far), illustrating for all that the post-post-Cold War order in the region has been established.
The Obama-Putin deal on Syria is yet another indication of America’s drift away from ideological precepts. Washington agreed to reduce the most calamitous humanitarian and political crisis of the day to a technical issue concerning the elimination of chemical weapons. By doing so, the United States relinquished its global responsibility and also implicitly accepted the concept of absolute sovereignty, which has always been promoted by authoritarian states. Thus Washington contributed to the creation of a precedent that enables authoritarian regimes to preserve themselves by blackmailing the West.
The Faustian bargain that President Obama struck with Putin allowed the Russian leader to ride the global tide in 2013. In 1991, America celebrated victory in a confrontation of two nuclear superpowers, albeit as a result of the Soviet Union’s self-inflicted demise. In 2013, America suffered defeat when, in dealing with the world, it renounced the principles that define the West as a civilization. Of course, there is no reason to believe that the Authoritarian International (China, Russia, and Iran)—the “Central Powers”, as Walter Russell Mead calls them—will succeed in filling the void left by the United States. But even short-lived victories, coming as the result of efforts to chip away at “weak spots”, will cost the West dearly.
The reset hasn’t stopped the Kremlin from trying to turn Russia into the antithesis of the West; nor has it stopped it from trying to contain the United States. (Then again, why should the Kremlin have to contain the United States, when the American President is already doing it himself?) Putin has made “traditional values” an alternative to Western values not only within Russia, but globally as well. Why do you think he rushed to see Pope Francis in Rome in November 2013? He wanted an ally in his global crusade to defend the “traditional values” that, he says, are being “ruined in many countries from the top.” The Kremlin has also revived expansionism by trying to create its own integration project, the Eurasian Union (in a way, a smaller version of the USSR but without the Communist accouterments). Skeptics call Putin’s “We’re Back!” project a fantasy, pointing to the advanced state of decay of the Putin regime and to the enormous budget problems Russia faces. Besides, how can Putin talk of containing the West when the Russian elite keep their money in Western banks?
It’s true that the current Russian political regime is losing ground, but it still controls the situation, and Putin’s 65 percent approval rating is a figure Western leaders can only dream of (even if it’s liable to plummet at a moment’s notice). True, the Eurasian Union is a chimera. But so was communism, and it took some time, along with a tremendous waste of human capital, before humanity came to this realization. Yes, Putin’s budget is a bust, but he will not retreat from the global stage to take care of domestic problems as Obama did. In fact, the Russian authorities have always done the opposite. They have turned outward to the world as Russia’s internal problems have mounted, trying to offset internal weaknesses with external strength. The worse things are at home, the more reckless the Kremlin will be in the international arena. Putin decided to “nationalize” the elite, implying that at any given time he can tell the elite to withdraw their funds from Western banks and sell off their Western properties, thus making his regime less vulnerable to external pressure.
So here is another axiom to consider: Vacillation and indecision make one’s adversary, however much a lightweight he might be, relatively stronger and more confident. Thus, to a large extent, Putin owes his cockiness and macho style to Obama’s retrenchment and indifference to the world.
Some of my American colleagues tell me, “We should ignore Russia if it is too hard to deal with.” But this approach will allow the Kremlin to engage in a no-holds-barred fight. Is America ready for that fight?
On the other hand, those who fear the consequences of Western paralysis urge the United States to return to its former role of maximal global responsibility. “It’s time to revive Atlanticism!” they proclaim. They want the American President to shed his seeming aloofness and stop shying away from global problems. The United States cannot ride into town like John Wayne and save the world again, for the simple reason that the world has changed. Besides which, if America aspired to be international arbiter and to re-assume the role of a great power, it would have to reclaim its credibility and demonstrate that it has a strategy and knows where it wants to lead the world. Such a reincarnation is not possible while President Obama is in office. How can the President who vacillated on important issues so many times persuade everyone that he will not change his mind again and reverse course in a few months?
If the United States decides to return to a leading role on the world stage once it is under new leadership, it will find a much less forgiving audience. The United States will have to prove that its behavior is driven by values and not just another tactical trade. Washington has imitated the process of standing up for human rights, democracy, and reform far too often; the next time around it will have to go to great lengths to prove that its new act isn’t just a re-run of the old one.
If President Obama should suddenly start thinking of his place in history, he may decide to rally liberal democracies not only to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity but also to aid its European choice. Participating in the Ukrainian project will test America’s ability to operate within a normative framework, and it will also send a message to an old and tired Europe. It could be Obama’s one big chance to change his global image and legacy. Will he give it a shot?