You have to wonder whether President Barack Obama really still believes in the power of his own example in the way his subordinates apparently still do. The conceits in which the president indulged in his final State of the Union address were breathtaking; perhaps none more so than his contention that the world still looks to Washington and not toward aspiring regional hegemons for leadership. That might still be true, but only because the White House has failed in its effort to remedy that condition.
The latest State of the Union address was not so much an appraisal of the state of the Union as it was an attempt by Obama to rehabilitate his presidency. It was, however, the president’s pivot to foreign policy where he made some of the most debatable assertions:
I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air. Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation dares to attack us or our allies because they know that’s the path to ruin. Surveys show our standing around the world is higher than when I was elected to this office, and when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead — they call us.
It’s true; the world does still look to the West and the world’s only global superpower. Too often, though, appeals to this presidency for leadership have gone unanswered. In recognition of that shifting dynamic, the globe’s restless and increasingly unstable nations have begun to look toward revisionist powers to fill the vacuum.
Perhaps the president forgot that his administration was initially so mistrustful of the overt application of American leadership that it advanced the absurdly contradictory notion that it could “lead from behind” while NATO’s Western European powers sought to prevent civilian massacres in Libya. The result was a fractious process dominated by competing European and Middle Eastern interests. That doctrine performed as it was designed, eventually giving way to a vacuum of management and yielding a failed state in which warring tribes and radical Islamist terrorists thrived.
This wasn’t the first time that the president personally appealed directly to foreign capitals to take a leadership role in global affairs. On the eve of Barack Obama’s long-anticipated decision to punish Bashar al-Assad for repeatedly defying the will of the United States and violating proscriptions on the use of chemical weapons, it was the president himself who warmly welcomed an offer from Moscow to intervene in the conflict and prevent war. The deal to avert Western intervention in Syria in exchange for the surrender of the regime’s chemical weapons stockpile accomplished neither. It did, however, demonstrate to the Kremlin just how desperately Barack Obama needed Moscow to achieve another policy aim – securing an international agreement ostensibly designed to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. That policy goal, too, is premised on the effort to extricate the United States from regional affairs, the presumption being that a dominant Iran can maintain the balance of powers in the Middle East with less cost to Washington.
The rest of the world, too, has eagerly welcomed Moscow’s extroversion amid Washington’s commitment to retrenchment. When the United States wavered between dubbing the ouster of Egypt’s elected President Mohamed Morsi a coup or a legal transition of authority (ultimately settling on confused silence), the president was actively ceding hard-won U.S. influence in Cairo back to the Kremlin. Eventually, Washington settled on calling the putsch a sort-of coup, triggering the withdrawal of some military assistance to Egypt. In response, the new government, led by General-turned-President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, promptly inked a deal with Moscow for $2 billion in arms. The most populous Arab nation on earth has since been host to Russian President Vladimir Putin and has flirted with joining a Russian economic zone that is designed to compete with the European Union.
Egypt has been distancing itself from Washington for some time. Unable to further tolerate the chaos in Libya by the summer of 2014, the United States awoke one morning to the surprising news that Cairo had joined forces with the Emiratis and executed airstrikes on Islamist targets in that African state. “The United States, the officials said, was caught by surprise: Egypt and the Emirates, both close allies and military partners, acted without informing Washington or seeking its consent,” the New York Times reported. Less than a year later, America was again shocked to learn that another jilted American ally, Saudi Arabia, had taken its security priorities into its own hands. Revealing the formation of a pan-Sunni coalition of nations, Riyadh led the intervention in Yemen against an Iran-backed militia that had already sacked the capital of Sana’a and was driving toward the critical port city of Aden, which sits on the mouth of a straight through which much of the world’s oil transits. Had the Gulf of Aden been lost to an Iran-backed militia, the threat to the global economy would have necessitated Western intervention. As such, Washington sat back and allowed a Sunni-Shia proxy war to flourish on the Arabian Peninsula. That is a war that is ongoing and which has expanded into a sectarian conflict that now threatens to engulf the entire Middle East.
As for Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party is content for now to challenge the status quo in more subtle ways, with the glaring exception of its backyard. China has determined to elevate its territorial disputes in the South China Sea into regional crises, even going so far as to create territory from scratch in the middle of a coral reef in order to aggravate tensions in Southeast Asia. For the most part, China’s threat to Washington is financial rather than martial. For developing nations in Latin America and Africa, China is positioning itself as the lender of first resort. Beijing hopes to establish a competitor to the International Monetary Fund that would induce allegiance to China while declining to impose the West’s conditions on developing nations – little things like transparency and the establishment of mechanisms to combat domestic corruption. The aim is to decouple the United States from allies in East Asia like South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, and the Philippines.
Yes, the world still looks to the United States for leadership, despite the president’s best efforts. It insulted the intelligence of his audience when Barack Obama contended that American leadership is tantamount to the esteem with which the international community holds the United States. A resurgent superpower forcefully and unapologetically engaged in the pursuit of its own national interests may not inspire great affection abroad, and the level of sentimentality toward the United States is no measure of its efficacy on the world stage. The president surely knows that the world has begun to look toward the East as the West loses confidence in its mission. Indeed, that was his plan all along.