Absence of U.S. Leadership Makes the World More Dangerous Than Ever
By Joe Lieberman
The Washington Post
February 24, 2016
For more than 50 years, national security leaders have
gathered annually at the Munich
Security Conference, a conclave established during the depths of the Cold
War as a meeting place for the Western allies standing against the communist
threat. I have been privileged to attend almost half of these meetings — from
the era of hope and excitement that followed the Soviet collapse in the early
1990s through the divisive and difficult wars of the post-9/11 decade — but
none has been as troubling as the one held this month.
That is because the world has never seemed as dangerous and
leaderless as it does now. Only the extremists and bullies act boldly, and
therefore they have seized the initiative. It is a moment in history that evokes
the haunting words of W.B. Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the
worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The simple fact is that there is more instability in the
world today than at any time since the end of World War II. The threats come
from emboldened expansionist powers such as Iran, Russia and China, and also
terrorist aggressors such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. In short, the
enemies of freedom are on the march.
At the same time, the United States — which assumed
global leadership after World War II to protect our domestic security,
prosperity and freedom — has chosen this moment to become more passive in the
The absence of American leadership has certainly not caused
all the instability, but it has encouraged and exacerbated it.
For example, while the threat of violent Islamist extremism
has existed for several decades, the military and political disengagement of the
United States from Iraq after the success of the surge and our failure to
intervene to stop the slaughter in Syria have conspired to create a vacuum in
the heart of the Middle East. This vacuum has been exploited by the region’s
most dangerous anti-American forces: totalitarian Sunni fanatics and the Islamic
Republic of Iran.
The result is the creation of a terrorist sanctuary of
unprecedented scale and Iranian domination over multiple Arab capitals.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has also moved to exploit
the vacuum, first by seizing
Crimea and moving into eastern Ukraine in 2014. The United States
reacted to that breach of world order with words of outrage and some sanctions
against Moscow, but also by refusing to give Ukrainians the defensive weapons
that might impose a heavier military cost on Russia for its adventurism. Rather
than deterring Russia from further aggression, our hesitation in Ukraine
signaled to the Kremlin that the United States itself could be deterred when
Russia acted boldly and decisively.
Putin soon extended this lesson to Syria, where he dispatched
his forces last year in order to turn the tide of war in favor of a
weakening Bashar al-Assad. Despite predictions of “quagmire,”
that is precisely what Russia’s intervention has achieved — while
reestablishing Moscow as a force to be reckoned with in yet another vital
region. The U.S. response? To ask for Putin’s help in extinguishing fires that
he himself has been feeding.
This fits a broader pattern. In too many places in recent
years, the United States has treated its adversaries as essential partners to be
courted, while dismissing or denigrating its historic allies and partners as
inconveniences or obstacles to peace. But as frustrated as they are with the
United States, our friends also recognize that they are incapable by themselves
of managing the crises that confront them without the United States.
In Munich this month, the United States ratified its
diminished role byreaching
an agreement on Syria that elevates the standing of Russia, pressures
the Syrian opposition and stands little chance of ending the campaign of
indiscriminate violence being waged on behalf of the Assad regime against the
long-suffering Syrian people. Almost no one in Munich thought it would work.
At the end of the conference, I shared these fears about
the state of the world with an Arab diplomat. “I agree,” he replied, “and
when we return to Munich next February, it will all be much worse.”
The best way to defy that prediction is for the United
States to reassert its historic leadership role — not by acting alone, but in
concert with our worldwide network of allies and friends, which is yearning for
In a conversation with the leader of a European ally, some
of us asked what the United States could do to be most helpful to him and his
country. His answer was direct: “Elect a president who understands the
importance of American leadership in the world.”
That would be in our national interest and is also wise
counsel to American voters as we decide whom to support in this year’s
topsy-turvy presidential election.