If President Obama wished to give substance to his belief that the U.S. is no longer the world’s sole superpower, or a superpower of any kind, he has certainly done so this week. By admitting that has no strategy for responding to the Islamic State’s actions in Syria, including seizing a border post abutting Israel on the Golan Heights and capturing UN observers; and showing no prompt response to Russia’s confirmed movement of Russian heavy weapons and soldiers into Ukraine, he has shown the world that the U.S. is no longer planning to act as a global guarantor of international peace or as first responder to international threats.
So what will the U.S. do? Evidently, very little. No response to militias marauding in Libya; no response to the Islamic State’s expansion; no response to Russia’s now open invasion of Ukraine to sustain puppet states within Ukraine’s borders.
It may well be that the U.S. cannot respond to these threats alone. A pact between NATO and the Gulf cooperation council is necessary to respond to the Islamic State; all of NATO and other European states are needed to deal with the war in Ukraine; and at least Egypt and Turkey and Algeria are needed to limit the depredations of Libya’s militias.
Yet Obama is not even acting to rally his potential allies to deal with these threats. U.K. PM David Cameron is doing more to highlight the threat from the Islamic State, even if Britain can do little or nothing by itself to halt the Islamic State’s advance.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the western world and its allies are in a moment of grave weakness. In Japan, Abenomics is starting to crack. In Europe, the economy remains weak, with Italy back in recession and growth everywhere – except in Britain — stalling out. Brazil, the world’s sixth largest economy and a major democracy, has slipped into recession. Even in the U.S., despite a strong second quarter, economic growth for the first half of 2014 remains well under 2% at an annual rate, much less than hoped for. Against this backdrop, enemies of the Western-led international order should feel emboldened to pursue their own interests, without much regard for a western response.
So we see beheadings in the Middle East, encirclements in Ukraine, chaos in Yemen and Libya, a hard anti-democratic crackdown in Egypt, the collapse of democracy in Thailand, and a host of other problems, with western nations apparently lacking any will or ability to stop them.
What will come next? Either the U.S. — still the leader of the free world — starts to marshal its allies and assets to fight these threats, or they will grow worse and worse. Truly severe sanctions, military countermeasures, and diplomatic successes are necessary to reverse the current trends of lawlessness and depredation. Without that response, the U.S. will not be “safe” behind its oceans and money. It will simply be another floundering late empire, destined to be cut off all around its edges by weaker barbarians, before collapsing at its center. Time is not on Obama’s side.
I for one am glad that Obama is cautious in responding to these crises. I suspect there is a great deal of behind-the-scenes diplomatic action taking place. In any case, Obama would be criticized for whatever action/inaction he took– that’s the nature of politics today. Too often in the past the U.S. response has been a military one and we need to use the other forms of national power (diplomatic, informational, economic) in concert with our allies and partners even if they are slower to work and don’t provide that short-term satisfaction that some action has been undertaken. We are an instant gratification society but some long-term conflicts cannot be overcome quickly and deserve a long-term solution.
Our previous military ventures in the Middle East have been failures. Why should we believe leading a coalition against ISIS in Syria will not backfire? Both Ukraine and ISIS in Syria are fraught with risks for a military response and a measured and multinational response is appropriate for both. Such responses do take time but they are worth trying. Let even more sanctions applied against Russia take their toll.
No easy answers in either case and beware the call for action, any action!