During the Bosnian crisis of the 1990s, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared the United States to be the world’s “indispensable” nation. Barack Obama repeated the same sentiment recently with regard to his aborted plan to bomb Syria in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad in his country’s civil war, though he spoke more tactfully in terms of a special American responsibility to maintain planetary peace and order. But where, exactly, does the U.S. stand today — not in its own eyes but in the world’s?
It’s been a long time since John Adams, our second president, laid out the document known as the Plan of Treaties — a vision of America maintaining peaceful relations with the rest of the world and confining international relations to commercial agreements. His son, John Quincy Adams, who became our sixth president, would declare nearly half a century later that America did not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.
How times have changed.
America was a continental and hemispheric empire by the end of the 19th century, as well as a Pacific power whose territorial reach extended halfway around the globe. Still, we avoided wars not of our own making until Woodrow Wilson sallied forth in World War I to make the world, as he put it, safe for democracy. That turned out to require another world war and the nearly half-century confrontation with Soviet Russia and Communist China known as the Cold War. Everybody’s war became our business and monsters, from Fidel Castro to Saddam Hussein to Moammar Gadhafi and Syria’s Assad, seemed to require our continual attention. The end of the Cold War meant no end to the system of alliances we had created in the wake of World War II; it merely ended their global expansion. Thus, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization formed to contain Russian expansion in Europe and then found itself, at the beginning of this century, engaged in Afghanistan.
John and John Quincy Adams would have recognized none of this. My guess is that they would have recoiled in dismay, not to say horror.
The prestige of the United States reached a new low during the presidency of George W. Bush with the unprovoked invasion of Iraq. The world breathed a sigh of collective relief with the election of Barack Obama, who was greeted as a hero in Berlin when he brought tidings of a more peaceful America that intended to be neither the world’s police nor (a distinction without, for many, a substantive difference) its bully.
That moment, too, now seems long ago.
President Obama pulled the U.S. out of Iraq — exactly on the Bush timetable, not a moment earlier — but he doubled down on our misadventure in Afghanistan and turned Libya into a failed state on the pretext of rescuing it from a dictator. He vastly expanded the Bush program of drone warfare, which now rains death on nations with whom we are technically not at war, from the Horn of Africa to the western reaches of Pakistan.
At this moment, America finds itself in a position it has not occupied in a century. It is less feared or despised than defied with impunity or simply ignored. The Syrian crisis brought this situation to a head. The United States had never engaged in a war since 1945 without allies. The United Nations supported our intervention in Korea in 1950. Regional allies joined us in fighting the Vietnam War. Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, we went in with the support of “coalitions of the willing.” Often our supposed allies were client states, but we never lacked at least a fig leaf of international support. When Obama announced his intention to bomb Syria this September, however, not a single nation ranged itself on our side. Eventually, President Francois Hollande of France spoke up in support, but the silence that had greeted Obama’s initial appeal was stunning. America was perfectly alone in the world, just as it had been in 1776.
We should not have been surprised. We’ve worn out our welcome in the world. If President Vladimir Putin of Russia, with whom our relations have been glacial, had not rescued us from what would have been the certain folly — not to mention illegality — of our bombing by brokering a deal for Assad to surrender his chemical stockpile, our president likely would have fired the shots that finished off our credibility as a responsible world power for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, we encounter angry resistance or simple dismissal on a variety of fronts. The European Union ignored Obama’s strictures about austerity policies, as did the International Monetary Fund — our own creation. The president of Brazil canceled scheduled meetings with us because of the disclosure of our spying operation. Allies, too, were furious, as was the United Nations. We made ourselves obnoxious in our manhunt for Edward Snowden, and Putin taunted us by giving Snowden political asylum.
This episode torpedoed a head-of-state meeting as well, while the government shutdown forced Obama to cancel another trip to Asia. The dysfunctions of our diplomacy seem to the world to be matched by that of our domestic politics. Which other government has found itself unable to send its elected representatives abroad to conduct business for lack of funds or has threatened the world twice in the past two years with a default on its sovereign debt — not for insolvency but because of the willful obstruction of a handful of backwater politicians who are indifferent to or ignorant of the stability of the world’s economy?
America’s massive armaments no longer confer respect because they are largely irrelevant to the wars the world fights today. The dollar’s position as the world’s reserve currency — perhaps our last hole card as a serious global power — is threatened by our inane default politics. Had Europe not shot itself collectively in the foot over its response to the financial collapse of 2008, the euro might already be poised to challenge the supremacy of the dollar.
The United States is, in short, a crippled giant on the world stage today. We are no longer admired or imitated; what country in its right mind would want the brand of democracy we’re practicing now? We’re no longer feared; the Syrian debacle has made that clear. The Egyptian generals ignore us as they complete their crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. The president of Venezuela expels our diplomats. The president of Iran refused to shake our president’s hand at the United Nations.
We’re in trouble, at home and abroad. We need to fix our politics if we want to function as a nation, and no one seems to know how to do that at the moment. We need to adjust our stance in the global community if we are to be a meaningful and constructive participant in it. We’re too large to disappear but not large enough to avoid becoming a laughingstock if we don’t mend our ways, chuck our arrogance and understand the world as it is: a place where our writ is no longer law and where we can no longer impose our will at pleasure. Humility, for us, will be the beginning of wisdom.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].