During the past decade, I have had the pleasure several times, as a European friend of The American Interest, of participating in symposia asking questions like “What happened to Europe ?” or “Is Germany a normal country?” Now the time has come for a similar symposium asking the questions “What happened to America?” and “Is the United States a normal Great Power?”
In 2007, I answered these questions in an article published in The American Interest entitled “The Fate of a Century.” I argued that we were entering a world in which the United States would still be primus inter pares but would no longer be able to exercise imperial prerogatives, no matter how benevolent the empire, nor would it be able to wield hegemony over the rest of the world. Instead it, and the West in general, would have to resort primarily to indirect methods; diplomacy and the search for allies or proxies would play a greater role than the direct and sometimes lonely use of force.
Events have confirmed this analysis, but to an extent that has gone beyond my prediction. This raises the question: What are the consequences of this evolution for America and for the world? This situation seems to me to be the result of the interaction between several factors:
• The historical alternation between cycles of extroversion and introversion in American attitudes toward the world.
• The present trend toward a more fluid and diversified world, with new actors, new strategic dimensions, and new conflicts, which lend themselves less and less to being controlled by foreign powers, although they are constantly affected by their interventions or their influence.
• A general economic crisis, turning the attention and the priorities of Western populations mostly toward their domestic situations.
• The naive and incompetent optimism and the impetuous hubris of the George W. Bush Administration.
• The hesitant, contradictory, and often passive attitudes and policies of the Obama Administration.
The latter two points, especially taken together, have made things worse. It must be said, however, that both the launching of the Iraq War and the trend toward U.S. retreat from Europe and the Middle East were in tune with a substantial majority of the American public.
The first explanation, then, for the present atmosphere and policies relies on the precedents that have led to the cyclical theory of American politics defended by a series of scholars, from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. to Samuel Huntington, who have described the succession of phases of extroversion and introversion as having an average duration of about twenty years. Undoubtedly the post-Vietnam era marked the beginning of a period of introversion. Even Ronald Reagan, whose rhetoric and arms policy did so much, for better or worse, to restore faith in America’s primacy and global mission, was very cautious about employing American troops in far-away lands. After the attack by Hizballah that killed more than 300 Americans he promptly evacuated Lebanon. The post-Vietnam mood brought about the end of conscription and was reflected in George W. Bush’s first campaign for the presidency, which was characterized by rhetoric emphasizing realism and moderation.
On the other hand, the post-Vietnam counterculture provoked the beginning of a more hawkish counterreaction (such as the “appeal for a Reaganite foreign policy”). But it was undoubtedly the shock of 9/11 and the need to reassert American power that led to the notion of the “War on Terror”, later complemented by the struggle against the “Axis of Evil” and less bellicose formulae like the “Freedom Agenda”, “transformational diplomacy”, or Robert Kagan’s “benevolent empire.” Notions originating from political science, like “nation-building” and “state-building”, were adopted across a broad spectrum of theorists and practitioners. Today, these notions are in tatters—the result of 13 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the tragic fate of Syria, and the general distrust by Americans of their governing elites and of the functioning of Federal institutions. A new shock hurting or humiliating America would probably have the same effect as 9/11, rallying Americans to the flag and getting them behind punishing America’s enemies. But it would have to be a very strong shock indeed, as 58 percent of Americans (the highest figure ever recorded by Pew Research) tell pollsters they favor the United States concentrating on its domestic problems and leaving the rest of the world to its fate. It remains to be seen whether Putin’s aggressiveness and clear intention to challenge the freedom and unity of Ukraine will produce this shock.
Have Americans become “hamburger-eating surrender monkeys”, to borrow and adapt Timothy Garton Ash’s expression? Is Obama from Venus while François Hollande, for the moment, appears to be from Mars? Of course not. But one can argue that after Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan Americans have come to understand a reality that Europeans, after their colonial defeats (in the case of France, in Indochina and Algeria), had accepted long ago: namely, that Western democracies can no longer replicate their regimes, let alone build states and nations, in far away countries among peoples of different cultures who, even when they welcome liberation from oppressors, do not trust their liberators, particularly if they happen to be their former colonizers.
Moreover, both in terms of numbers and in terms of arms and even money, asymmetric wars are still possible to prosecute, but less so than in colonial times. Both the revolutions in the various means of destruction as well as in means of communication have helped make this so. Individuals or groups may strike blows that once seemed accessible only to states, and easy communication, between terrorists as well as peaceful demonstrators, is more widespread.
If possible at all, the transformation of a country’s political culture by a foreign power, especially when such transformation goes against religious or tribal traditions, would take at least a generation. Meanwhile, the population of the intervening power becomes impatient, especially as other crises, domestic or international, compete for its attention and resources.
America’s strength and resilience delayed this reaction, as compared to Europe. Americans are also either more idealistic or more naive and self-centered than Europeans. As Stanley Hoffmann once put it, Americans have trouble both understanding the nationalism of others and being aware of their own. Europeans don’t tend to believe that, as one American diplomat put it, democracy and the free market are the default positions of all peoples, and that intervention, by removing dictators, gives people a chance to fulfill these aspirations. While deep down and in the long run this statement may be true, it cannot be demonstrated by one military campaign. As Jacques Chirac warned George Bush at the start of the Iraq War, “You can conquer the country easily but the difficult part is holding the country afterwards.” This lines up with what Colin Powell told his President—“You break it, you own it”—and with General Eric Shinseki’s warning that the United States would need 200,000 soldiers for postwar stabilization.
In 2008, unlike in 2003, America was ready to heed these warnings. Incidentally, this echoed General MacArthur’s conclusion at the end of the Korean War: “Never again a land war on the continent of Asia.” Clearly, one message of Obama’s election was that Americans desired an end to the era of military interventions and a leader who would not see himself as George W. Bush had—as, above all else, a “War President.”
Barack Obama is indeed the very opposite of George W. Bush, even though in some respects he has continued and even amplified some of his policies, like sanctions and other actions against Iran. Far from “not doing nuances”, he “feels at ease with complexity.” Far from being “optimistic because he knows he is right”, as George W. Bush told Prime Minister José María Aznar of Spain on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Obama sometimes looks, in David Remnick’s description in the New Yorker, like “the President as Professor-in-chief, assessing all sides, and observing the tilt of the scales.” He told Remnick earlier this year that what he needs isn’t any new grand strategy but rather “the right strategic partners.” He believes that changes to the character of a state should be organic and not engineered from outside.
These beliefs are key to the grand speeches in the early part of his first term in office—particularly the speeches addressed to Islam and to Russia. These speeches were aimed at reconciling America with the countries and movements that viewed it with hostility. In terms of prestige and popularity, his election and his way of addressing the world did much to overcome the unpopularity that developed during the Bush years, particularly in Europe, but also in much of the non-Western world.
Very soon, however, doubts emerged, admirably summarized by the formula: “He can talk the talk, but can he walk the walk?” Obama was eloquent and he had a partly lucid view of the world’s evolution and its problems. But his actions were often hesitant and disappointing. He was right in trying very early to handle the Israeli-Palestinian problem, which had been (probably deliberately) neglected by George Bush, but his first moves in this direction were particularly maladroit and alienated not only Netanyahu (which was inevitable) but also Israeli public opinion. The “reset” with Russia and the overtures to China in the spirit of a “G-2” were de facto rebutted, and his stance on the Arab revolutions regularly disappointed all the local actors.
Much of this was made inevitable both by the polarized domestic U.S. political scene and by the need to act with or through allies whose agenda in great part conflicted with the American one—as with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, to some extent Turkey—or by the dilemmas raised by the Egyptian army, which was at least as repressive as Mubarak but essential for the security of Israel. But Obama is certainly guilty of a surprisingly clumsy handling of these inevitable dilemmas and ambiguities: the categorical statements (Qaddafi, Mubarak, Assad “must go”) not followed up with action, the “red lines” proclaimed and then ignored, the half-hearted surge and the half-hearted negotiations started with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the modest reduction in the financing of the Egyptian army, which John Kerry even saluted as a force leading Egypt toward democracy at the height of its repressive actions, and so on and on.
The most spectacular foreign policy initiative of the Obama Administration, the “pivot” toward Asia, was essentially justified because of the need for a renewed commitment to allies like Japan and Taiwan and other countries feeling threatened by China’s assertive foreign policy (the Philippines and even Vietnam). American policy handled the Asian side fairly well, playing both a protective and a mediating role, and being hampered in its Asian activity mostly by the cancellation of the President’s participation in several important multilateral meetings because of domestic emergencies.
But the label “pivot”, added to the open signs of disdain toward European governments, gave the completely unnecessary impression that Europe was being abandoned. Certainly Western Europe is not under the threat of a Soviet invasion as it once was during the Cold War, but the former Soviet republics like the Baltic states need reassurance in spite of their membership in NATO. So, in its own way, did Ukraine before the Crimea fiasco. Nonetheless, George W. Bush was not any more active or effective in protecting Georgia than Obama has been with Ukraine.
Where Obama is most clearly to blame and the consequences of his mistakes are the most dramatic is his handling of Syria. I have already mentioned the usual criticisms of his redlines and “Assad must go” rhetoric. But for a whole year the Syrian rebellion consisted of a peaceful crowd claiming members from all Syrian ethnic groupings and asking for reforms—for which they received bombs, tank barrages, and starvation. The American answer was limited to verbal condemnation of these atrocities. And when the Syrian demonstrators began to organize their own defense, they were promised “non-lethal weapons” (against modern fighter jets, attack helicopters, and tanks!). Even this promise was fulfilled in very small measure by the United States, as the President rejected a plan presented by Hillary Clinton and General Petraeus for more consistent help. The reason for Obama’s reluctance (partly shared by the Europeans) was fear that the weapons would fall into the hands of jihadis—a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever were one. While the more numerous Free Syrian Army was left with Kalashnikovs and some “non-lethal weapons”, the jihadis, partly let into Syria by Assad himself and amply financed by America’s allies from the Gulf, were gaining the upper hand within the resistance.
As in the Spanish Civil War, when the Germans and Italians helped the Nationalists and the Russians helped the communists as the Western democracies practiced a policy of non-intervention, the West, and particularly the United States, let its democratic allies down while Iran and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, each helped their own.
The story of Obama’s red line on the use of chemical weapons, abandoned after Russia’s proposed deal, is well known. What interests us here are the motives and the consequences of Obama’s moves in Syria. It does seem that they were linked to a desire to withdraw militarily not only from Europe but also from the Middle East. While this trend is debatable but defensible in Europe, in the Middle East, and in Syria in particular, it seems to me monstrous from every point of view. The Middle East remains, strategically and politically, as important as the Far East, because of Israel, the Iranian bomb, oil, and relations with countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In Syria itself, both morality and politics made it imperative for the United States and Europe to do their utmost to preserve a single secular or multi-religious Syrian state rather than a prolonged civil and regional war, which is likely to involve a fracturing of Syrian territory and the extension of the growing violent conflict between Shi‘a and Sunnis to its neighbors, including at least Iraq and Lebanon.
Of course, “training and equipping” the democratic resistance, as the United States did for Bosnia, involves the danger of escalation in case of failure. But the risk was limited a year or two ago, when Assad was losing ground and an intervention to help the democratic insurgents would not have involved boots on the ground.
At any rate, whatever scenario one chooses for what might have been done, we should consider the destruction of Syria and its consequences for its population and its neighbors as Obama’s Iraq—a shameful moral and political failure for America, the West, and international order.
Let me conclude on a less accusatory and more forward-looking note by mentioning three domains crucial to America’s future as a great power. The first domain is widely recognized. It concerns the role of domestic politics for foreign policy. To borrow the title of Richard Haass’s recent book, “foreign policy begins at home.” This can be taken as meaning that America should look inside and, by solving its own problems, become again an example for the world. But I mean by this phrase that an active foreign policy necessitates, in the long run, a dominant political consensus and functioning institutions at home. Great moments of American foreign policy in the 20th century were bipartisan. Today political polarization, the paralysis of Congress, and its poor relations with the Executive Branch are among the most serious and pressing problems suggesting American impotence or decline.
The second domain concerns the evolution of military strategy. Ever since Washington advised against “entangling alliances” in his Farewell Address, and since the creation of NATO, which Robert Osgood characterized as an “entangling alliance”, American strategy has bounced between two poles: engagement on the ground—manifested by the permanent presence of troops and integration with America’s allies, emphasizing stability and commitment—and “over the horizon balancing”, emphasizing flexibility and mobility. This duality obviously poses an emphasis on ground forces against one based on the Navy, the Marines, Special Forces, and the Air Force. Ever since Vietnam, the “search and destroy”, or “anti-terrorist” strategy has been an alternative to an emphasis on “winning hearts and minds” or an “anti-insurrection” strategy, based on a massive and durable presence on the ground. Clearly, the trend is toward long-distance balancing and mobility. General Petraeus’s attempt to follow the doctrine of Colonel Galula and the French army in Algeria worked in one Iraqi province but had no chance in Afghanistan, where it would have required a number of troops unacceptable to Western societies, which have abandoned conscription and which are impatient with indefinite wars and occupations.
We have seen that this raises problems for the use of force to promote democracy. It also makes extended deterrence problematic, by depriving it of the hostage role played, for instance, by American troops and nuclear weapons stationed in Europe during the Cold War. It is hard to imagine a nuclear guarantee to Saudi Arabia, for instance, manifested by the permanent presence of American troops on its soil.
Much of Obama’s strategy relies on his awareness and acceptance of this trend. While this leads him to disengage from entanglements, it is fair to recognize that his reaction is not purely passive. On the contrary, he has taken the lead in promoting such instruments as drones, Special Forces, and cyberwarfare, which seem increasingly like the tools of our time. The elements of this new triad share in common the fact that they may be used clandestinely and in times of peace. They have their limits and drawbacks: They blur the distinction between war and peace, create a permanent, clandestine preventive war, and can be counterproductive (drones create recruits for al-Qaeda in Yemen and Pakistan; the Stuxnet virus has put not just a number of Iranian centrifuges out of commission, but also a number of Western computers). But the revelations about the power of the NSA to penetrate more or less every computer or cellphone in the world, even more than the American advance in drones, shows us that the Obama Administration’s “Greta Garbo policy” has its advantages, and that discretion may be a sign of strength rather than weakness. If one day the plans for a global prompt strike missile become a reality, it is likely that it will be an American weapon, and that may restore a less apocalyptic form of extended deterrence.
The third domain is inspired by a declaration by the leader of the then-Ukrainian opposition at the Munich Security Conference on January 31: “What we need is not martial words but a Marshall Plan.” This domain concerns economic diplomacy. Even if military repression is avoided and a democratic, pro-European, and pro-Western government persists in Ukraine, Russia will still have its main lever on influence even short of further intervention by force—namely its economic weapons. It will increase pressure over Ukraine’s debt, it will raise gas prices, and it will apply boycotts of other kinds.
Europe is struggling with its own debt issues and has neither the will nor, probably, the capability of bailing Ukraine out, even in its now Crimea-less condition. Could the United States do it? Its power and popularity after 1945 were based as much on the Marshall Plan and on the various forms of dollar diplomacy as they were on military protection. But today, with Democrats wanting to help America’s poor and middle class and Republicans wanting to cut expenses and taxes, a big financial package for Ukraine is unlikely. One of the main instruments of America’s power and central position has therefore practically disappeared. It remains the greatest military power in the world. It may even remain the first economic one, if its renewed economic dynamism is confirmed. But it is not likely to regain its old influence—that is, unless its vibrant private sector intervenes, and George Soros, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates pick up the tab!
More seriously, in spite of the economic crisis, the possible reluctance of Western publics, and the infinitely greater complexity of the world scene, the United States and the European Union have no choice: They must renew the efforts they successfully pursued after World War II, this time in Ukraine. They must take up again what Putin calls “the infamous policy of containment”, intensive aid to strengthen the economy and, above all, the civil society and basic functioning of the state in all countries that choose the democratic path.