The Challenges of Being a Superpower

The foreign policy meme is fixed that President Barack Obama is weak and therefore responsible for virtually every global ill.  It’s hard for the denizens of Washington to accept that not everything in the world is about them. 

As I point out in National Interest online:  “People elsewhere have interests and ambitions.  Like the obstreperous British colonists in North America more than two centuries ago, foreigners are willing to defy major powers in order to achieve their ends.”

Government and guerrilla leaders still may worry about what Washington thinks. But they judge American threats based on a perception of U.S. interests more than abstract “credibility.” 

Little would have changed had President Obama launched military strikes in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. No other country would have feared military attack for different reasons.

For instance, what happens in Ukraine matters to Washington, but not enough to confront Russia, which considers the issue an essential matter of security. The United States might be willing to attack another largely helpless Middle Eastern state for peripheral stakes, but it won’t do the same against a nuclear-armed great power.

Unfortunately, top officials routinely put U.S. credibility at stake by issuing proclamations better left to second tier State Department desk officers. In the midst of the African summit, for example, the Obama administration complained that the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, might run for a third term. 

Why is it Washington’s job to micro-manage Congo’s political system? How would American politicians react if foreign leaders insisted that the United States impose term limits on Congress?

However, this is but one of many indignities that U.S. officials are suffering as they attempt to reorder the globe. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl offered a list of horrors. 

For instance, despite American protests the Georgian government has filed criminal charges against former president Mikheil Saakashvili and four leaders of his party. Yet Tbilisi “was warned repeatedly by the Obama administration” not to do so, explained Diehl.

The action might be political as Diehl claimed, but Saakashvili was no poster child for democracy, despite his high standing in Washington.  Is the United States entitled to protect unseemly friends irrespective of their guilt?  Would Obama administration officials accede to foreign demands that Washington not prosecute NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden?

Diehl also was angered by Egypt’s ostentatious insult to Secretary of State John Kerry and the coup in Thailand over American objections.  Also Burma’s disappointing retreat from political reform.

However, it shouldn’t shock any foreign policy observer that foreign militaries put domestic power before foreign acceptance. Moreover, most of these and other rebuffs are rooted in circumstances running back before the Obama administration. 

Yet, argued Diehl, “An international consensus seems to have gelled that the United States can’t be counted on to uphold its commitments and red lines, even with allies; the result is a free for all that can be seen as much in the nose-thumbing of Georgia as in Israel’s high-profile rejection of U.S. diplomacy.”

But Tbilisi didn’t much worry about human rights criticism during the Bush administration and Israel long has rejected American dictates. Third World dictators allied with America routinely jailed opponents throughout the Cold War. The Soviet Union cared even less about U.S. opinion than does Russia.

The biggest problem is the frivolous nature of American demands. None of the forgoing affects substantial, let alone vital, U.S. interests. Americans don’t always know best. Yet Washington should “punish and deter such governments” for their defiance, argued Diehl.

President Obama’s foreign policy doesn’t impress, but not for lack of “will” or “credibility.”  America has never been very good at micro-managing other nations’ affairs.  Washington should abandon its quixotic quest to engage in social engineering around the globe.