America was once the colossus around which all other peace-loving, democratic or aspiring democratic nations rallied.
Global crises and near-crises, hotspots and powder kegs appear to be multiplying daily. All of them have implications not only for America’s interests, but also for those of the country’s allies and friends as well as many others. So, where is the United States?
From Crisis of the Day to Crises Every Day
Consider the following. The November 28 launch by North Korea of another ballistic missile, this one likely capable of striking the US mainland, serves to underscore the increasing danger of a potential conflict in East Asia involving at least one superpower and even nuclear weapons.
Last weekend’s attack on a mosque in the Sinai, in which over 305 worshipers died and hundreds of others suffered wounds, provides yet another example of the Middle East’s largest nation’s inability to confront a rising extremist threat in the midst of a repressive and authoritarian military government.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, the civil war in Yemen now bears apocalyptic similarities to the one to its north in Syria, where the brutal dictatorship responsible for sparking that nation’s bloody civil conflict now seems firmly entrenched. Bashar al-Assad’s rule comes in large measure thanks to the pitiless and inhuman backing of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and numerous Shia militias from outside Syria. The parties to the Yemen conflict, most especially Saudi Arabia, the government-in-exile it supports and the Houthi rebels show no inclination to resolve their differences at the negotiating table. Meanwhile, the country faces a famine and cholera outbreak, both of which will impact children the most.
The foreboding in the Middle East doesn’t stop with Egypt, Yemen and Syria. Saudi Arabia and Iran continue their war of words. Saudi Arabia and a number of other Gulf states have all but ostracized Qatar, insisting that the tiny nation kowtow to impossible demands and threatening the integrity of one of the region’s more stable alliances, the Gulf Cooperation Council. Israel, meanwhile, worries about Hezbollah’s gains in the aftermath of the Syrian Civil War and Iran’s plans to establish a permanent base. The latter would be patently unacceptable to the Jewish state.
America’s most important and strategic alliance, NATO, is frayed. Right-wing parties have showed resurgence in Germany, France, Italy, Hungary and Poland, and the rock of Europe, Germany, now faces an uncertain new election in the wake of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s failure to form a coalition. NATO nations bordering Russia continue to fear Russian threats, aka “routine exercises,” and wonder if NATO will be there for them.
And global initiatives like the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which held the promise of greater global prosperity and cooperation, now face unpredictable prospects without American leadership and participation.
Leaving Leadership Behind
What is the response of the world’s leading power to these various crises? Where are the policy statements from the US president and reassuring words of its secretary of state that America is engaged, rallying support and ready to propose, if not lead, solutions to these vexing and dangerous problems? Where is the purported “leader of the free world”?
From its president we have tweets, mostly flattering himself and attacking critics. Its secretary of state argues for slashing his department’s budget by 30% and beavers away at a redesign of its organization chart, despite the resignation of his re-designer-in-chief. In the past, one might turn to the White House and State Department daily press briefings for insights on America’s plans and policies. But the former is devoted to explaining away the miscues, misstatements and boldfaced lies of its chief occupant; and the latter, well, they don’t do those any more.
In fact, Rex Tillerson seems to be taking his whole department offline with the resignation and forced departures of dozens of senior career diplomats, a hiring freeze on the rest of the Foreign Service and marginalization of the remaining career service. The Trump administration’s actions against the State Department amount to an effective “disarmament” of America’s previously formidable diplomacy arm.
The Obama administration was accused of “leading from behind,” sometimes rightly so. But this administration seems to be leaving leadership behind. It has exited the global stage.
Lest anyone, most especially Americans, think that such a move is a long time coming, think again. Between the end of World War II and Donald Trump’s taking office, the world looked to the United States to balance the forces of instability that wracked the world in the first half of the last century. It wasn’t always successful, and not all of its actions proved positive in hindsight. But whether leading the world to greater prosperity through free trade; confronting terrorism; constraining nuclear weapons proliferation; combating climate change and other forms of environmental degradation; mitigating humanitarian disasters; addressing regional conflicts; speaking out against corruption; protecting women and children from exploitation; defending human rights; or generally working to build a world of greater cooperation and collaboration, America was the colossus around which all other peace-loving, democratic or aspiring democratic nations around the world rallied.
Now, those who looked to the US for a sense of promise in the future, as a force for stability and the voice of freedom must wonder: Is America becoming like any other nation, enjoying its moment in the sun and then slowing descending into the morass of populism, hyper-partisanship bordering on tribalism, moral relativism and divisiveness that have befallen so many other great nations of the past?
The hopeful answer is that it’s far too early to write America’s eulogy. The United States has experienced paroxysms of populism and fitful fevers of common sense-leaving before. It periodically steers itself off-course — occasionally seriously so — but its institutions and its people manage to right the massive vessel in the direction of its enduring values and principles.
Sadly, the ship’s current crew lacks a basic chart or simple compass. And it doesn’t take advice very well. So, for a while, it may mean full-steam ahead into dangerous waters of uncertainty, doubt and even fear. And the world is left to wonder when the leadership that only America can provide will reappear.