In his negotiation with Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev, President Barack Obama mentioned a position of mutual respect and admiration, a perfectly sensible diplomatic stance. What was unsaid may be even more important.
A concession to reduce the size and scope of our deliverable nuclear capacity in submarines and bombers puts the United States in the odd position of giving away a great deal and receiving very little in return. Russian leaders agreed to comparable numerical arrangements even though much of its force is antiquated and will soon be mothballed. The equation assumes comparable strength and delivery capacity which on its face is wildly inaccurate.
Moreover, the overarching Russian concern is the recognition of influence over those nations in the “near abroad” or what was once the Soviet empire. Should the Obama administration abandon its plan for anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, it would be a symbolic gesture that Russian influence in this East European neighborhood cannot be denied. This decision - if enacted - would send reverberations through the Ukraine to the Baltic States and beyond.
It is also instructive that the Obama administration was conspicuously quiescent during the street demonstrations in Iran, suggesting at first that we had no right to interfere in the internal affairs of another nation. When the president did speak he argued that the U.S. would serve as a witness to historical events. This is quite a contrast from a John F. Kennedy generation that would “bear any burden” for the furtherance of freedom.
When North Korea launched its missiles in tests over the Japanese archipelago, Obama said he was “upset” and that this matter would be addressed in the United Nations. Yet any action has been stalled by a Chinese veto in the Security Council and the president has yet to complain about the matter.
A decision by the Honduran government, in concert with the army, to oust President Manuel Zelaya precipitated a prompt and critical response from the Obama administration. However, U.S. officials seemed to be unaware of the fact that Zelaya had violated his nation’s constitution in an attempt to extend his authority in true caudillo style. In the end, the U.S. has ended up supporting the very forces in South America and Cuba, e.g. Chavez and Castro, intent on undermining American interests.
One might argue that Obama, lacking foreign policy experience, is learning on the job. Presumably there is much to learn and many challenges ahead.
But there is an underlying philosophical view that has become alarmingly apparent: preemptive declinism, a belief that the U.S. is not an exceptional nation and is not entitled by virtue of history to play a role on the world stage different from other nations. As Obama sees it, America is merely one of many.
That America is the balance wheel in an unstable world, creating equilibrium out of chaos, is an anachronistic position for this administration. It would seem that it is more desirable to envision a political vacuum or other world powers emerging than assert American influence.
Therefore the Obama administration acts as if it had less leverage in international affairs than it actually has. It appears timorous and fearful, sending a signal, willy nilly, that the U.S. cannot be depended on.
Yet despite setbacks and many worldwide commitments, the U.S. still possesses extraordinary power and influence on the global stage. Of course like a muscle, if this power isn’t used, it will atrophy. At the moment, the rise of declinism is having its effect.
The Pakistani government is not sure it can count on American support over the long term. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is visiting Iran on a regular basis because he too is unsure of the American commitment to his country. In fact, all through the Middle East and other foreign capitals, leaders are hedging their bets, unsure of America’s role and, in some instances positive the U.S. is not a dependable ally.
Declinism also vitiates every aspect of negotiation with allies as well as enemies. Our foes believe they can take advantage of apparent weakness and may overreach and miscalculate. Our friends may grow to distrust us, seeking to go it alone or worse, enlist assistance from others.
While Teddy Roosevelt admonished Americans to speak softly but carry a big stick, Obama seems to suggest we should bury the stick and keep on talking. Unfortunately the talk itself has dangerous implications and the world is not waiting for the U.S. to undo its present infatuation with declinism.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of “Decade of Denial” (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and “America's Secular Challenge” (Encounter Books).
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