Accepting the World as It is

By Noah Rothman

Commentary Magazine

February 2, 2016


In hindsight, the fragile naiveté that typified President Barack Obama’s approach to geopolitics when he first came to office seems like even more of a ponderous folly than it was at the time. “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game,” the newly inaugurated president declared before a 2009 gathering of the United Nations General Assembly. “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation.  No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed.  No balance of power among nations will hold.”

This was only so much vanity masquerading as high-minded savoir-faire.

The presumption that diplomatic guile had replaced brutish hard power in terms of its efficacy on the world stage was an obvious conceit. The idea that the world’s revisionist powers and stateless bad actors could be corralled and managed, so long as the manager had the requisite intellect, was nothing short of embarrassing hubris. But after nearly a decade of war, we wanted to believe. Today, however, this self-deception is inexcusable.

A brief survey of the geopolitical landscape reveals how truly misguided Obama’s solipsistic approach to international affairs has been. A war in Iraq that the president himself declared won is no longer so. Another war in Syria has become the greatest humanitarian, moral, and geopolitical catastrophe of the 21st Century. American troops are on the ground in both theaters, and their mission scope expands by the week. In the effort to ingratiate itself toward its traditional Middle Eastern adversaries, the United States has lost the trust of its traditional Middle Eastern allies. The result has been the proliferation of conflicts over which the United States has no influence in places like Libya and Yemen. The North African coast has become a haven for Islamist radicals and refugees fleeing to Europe in their millions. The refugee crisis has threatened the integrity of the European Union itself, which has helped keep the peace on that restless continent for generations. Russia has gladly exacerbated that crisis, allowing it to prosecute its new war of territorial acquisition on the continent’s fringes. Low-intensity skirmishes in Latin America and the East Asia demand American attention if not yet intervention. Terrorist organizations from sub-Saharan Africa to Central Asia, to the great cities of North America, Southeast Asia, and Western Europe are plagued by radicalized suicide attackers who are inspired by organizations beyond Washington’s reach.

And they had the unmitigated gall to call this “smart power.”

It finally seems as though the president has awoken not merely to the fact that history did not end in January of 2009, but that the natural forces that gave rise to the maligned “zero-sum game” that has characterized international affairs since the Peloponnesian Wars continue to dictate the course of history. In his final proposed defense budget, the president implicitly acknowledged that the greatest threats to American national security are not non-state actors or, heaven forbid, the weather, but other nations. It was always ever thus.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warned that the United States was compelled by external forces to prepare for “a return to great-power conflict.” With revanchists in Moscow seeking to avenge the slights it had endured at the close of the last century and revisionists in Beijing harassing and threatening its neighbors in contested sea lanes, the threat to American global hegemony has not been as acute as it is today since the end of the Cold War.

The president’s final defense budget is an acknowledgment of this reality. It warns of the threat of “Russian aggression,” which is today kinetic in Ukraine and Syria but looming dangerously on NATO’s border in the Baltics. “We haven’t had to worry about this for 25 years, and while I wish it were otherwise, now we do,” the defense secretary warned. The United States does not have the luxury of focusing exclusively on the European front. “Carter indicated that China’s rapid military buildup and South China Sea brinkmanship necessitated reorienting the US poster in the Pacific more explicitly as a check on Chinese ambitions,” theGuardian reported.

“Today’s security environment is dramatically different than the one we’ve been engaged with for the last 25 years, and it requires new ways of thinking and new ways of acting,” the Pentagon chief declared. Well, yes, but that is by no means unprecedented. Given the strain on American resources and resolve, evident in the aborted efforts to withdraw prematurely from its post-9/11 wars, it was natural that the globe’s aspiring regional hegemons would test U.S. willingness to defend its frontiers. A president who entered office with the objective of eliminating America’s capacity to fight a two-front conflict was always going to inspire its adversaries to test that proposition.

It will not be until Barack Obama leaves office that his most committed defenders allow themselves to conduct a realistic audit of the dangerous precedents he set. One of them is objectively likely to be the discrediting of the professorial foreign policy the left believed would serve as an antidote to the “cowboy diplomacy” of the Bush era. No matter who succeeds Barack Obama in office, the threat environment they will inherit will compel them to abandon the president’s irresponsible defense posture. It is precisely because the president pursued an ideological foreign policy for so many years that he has found a begrudging new respect for the compelling nature of the stick over the carrot. The next president will not benefit from the luxuries that Obama was bequeathed, which allowed him to experiment with power sharing, ill-conceived diplomatic overtures, alliance restructuring, and major doctrinal shifts. The next president will have the thankless task of maintaining and enforcing what is left of the post-War order through the explicit threat of disproportionate force. For this, the Americans next commander-in-chief will be attacked by denizens of the faculty lounge or the comfortable members of the editorial board. But force of arms is, at times, all that stands between the civilized world and the Hobbesian chaos that would accompany a return to multipolarity.

The Obama experiment has failed. Even the White House acknowledges as much. Do not expect such intellectual honesty from those with an enduring emotional attachment to the world as they would like it to be.