Concerns about America’s global leadership are being voiced far and wide. While inside the Beltway handwringing over the current administration’s “provocative weakness” is predictably partisan, several of our allies have expressed similar sentiments, if less stridently. “Unfortunately,” lamented Prince Turki al-Faisal, an influential member of the Saudi ruling family, “the big bear has not proven to be very bearish-like recently."
The Obama administration’s critics specifically allege that it has overlearned the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, rendering it unwilling to use force. A chastened America speaks softly without carrying a big stick, benefitting foes like Iran and Syria, as well as a resurgent Russia and increasingly assertive China, all of which happily exploit our timidity. The storyline is that America isn't “leading from behind” insomuch as it is not leading at all. We appear weak.
Is there something to this?
Both diplomatic initiatives could ultimately fail, but they offer the best hope of mitigating threats that military strikes would do little to address: a bomb has yet to have been developed that can destroy nuclear know-how and knowledge, of which Tehran has in spades, while bombing Syria probably would not wipe out its entire stocks of weapons of mass destruction.
Other alleged evidence of U.S. fecklessness, namely not forcefully intervening in Syria’s ongoing civil war and not standing by our Middle Eastern allies under siege during the Arab Spring, similarly lacks merit.
Despite growing spillover effects from Syria’s civil war (to say nothing of the humanitarian crisis), our military’s involvement in the country would be courting trouble given the conflict’s sectarian nature—some lessons can’t be overlearned. Even arming the “good” opposition is problematic given that al-Qa’ida-aligned extremists are fighting alongside and even interwoven with more moderate forces.
As for the administration’s abandonment of its regional allies facing popular upheaval, another supposed exemplar of our collective weakness, the US was incapable of saving them, regardless of the merits of doing so. The die was already cast. The real fault lay with our longstanding alliance with leaders that for decades stymied their own peoples’ hopes and aspirations. History will judge us harshly for this.
The alarmist narrative of American weakness persists nevertheless, with some of the administration’s detractors darkly suggesting that, while we’re asleep at the switch, Russia and China are unraveling the US-led global order. But this gets things backwards. It is not the US that’s weak, but rather our main global rivals.
Russia, for one, is withering on the vine. A monolithic economy dependent on (falling) oil and gas production, lousy public education, and corruption all bode poorly for the country’s future, as does a demographic crisis that could result in a precipitous fall in its numbers.
Meanwhile, China, despite its remarkable rise, also confronts serious challenges. The country’s export-oriented economy requires a radical refocus on domestic consumption, its environmental problems are grave, and its population is aging rapidly. All of these factors will test its rigid political order.
Neither country, in brief, is a Goliath-slayer. Indeed, going forward, it is their weaknesses, not their strengths, that will present enormous challenges to global stability and therefore to the US.
Just as erroneous diagnoses yield erroneous prescriptions, underestimating American strength while overestimating its main rivals skews views of policy. Believing America’s global stature is imminently imperiled tends to validate the necessity of military assertiveness and, conversely, makes US restraint appear weak.
America isn’t weak, though. It’s vibrant and strong, and its recent diplomatic achievements to head off crises are laudatory and wise, especially when using force isn’t a viable option.
Of course, some of our allies have their own motives for clamoring for a more militarily assertive US, and consequently their counsel should be taken with caution. But for other critics of the administration consumed by phantom menaces, claims of its “provocative weakness” are themselves weakly supported and misinformed.
Shifrin is an employee of the U.S. State Department; his opinions are his own.