27 June 2010
Even as it contends with an economy is recession, a staggering national debt, two active wars and myriad social problems, the United States remains the one country that the world looks to for leadership. America is undoubtedly still the world’s superpower. Of course, such a position has obvious drawbacks. When entering a conflict, be it economic or military, the US is compelled to play the role of referee. It attempts to find the “golden mean” and resolve the dispute as equitably as possible (in most instances). Just as typically, however, neither party to the issue is completely satisfied with the resolution.
So, why does the US bother with these problems? Doesn’t it have enough of its own? Does it really have to go looking for new challenges, especially when the parties to the conflict are not likely to appreciate American interference? There are many reasons that the US involves itself in disputes that seemingly have no relevance to the average American (or average Frenchman, average Indonesian or average Brazilian).
First, as the world’s only superpower, the US is required to involve itself simply in order to prevent other would-be superpowers from stepping up and replacing it. Many would argue that there is no possibility of this. Bear in mind, however, that the US simply did not wake up one morning and to discover that it was a superpower. It was a process that took nearly fifty years. Thus, rather than risk a resurgence of Britain, France or Russia, or risk the emergence of a new “superpower” like Brazil, China, India or Iran, the US is drawn into conflicts not of its making.
Second, after seventy years of superpower status, there are few problems in this world in which the US is not complicit. At one time or another it is has sided either with or against practically every country or region of consequence. It has devoted enormous amounts of diplomatic effort, moral suasion, financial and military support to conflicts in the Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Central America. To be sure, this involvement has not been continuous or consistent. It could easily be stated that it has not even been relatively affective. However, wherever this “Gentle Giant” treads, it has left an indelible mark.
Third, accounting for practically one-quarter of all global economic activity, there are few conflicts that do not have a price tag denominated in dollars. There is not a sector of the American economy that does not touch some distant shore or is touched by it. Even when the proverbial Mom & Pop hardware store faces ruin at the hands of Wal Mart, tool makers from South Korea to Sweden are involved, along with international shipping companies, banks and a host of middlemen, both foreign and domestic.
Fourth, the US has inherited the mantle of “civilization.” When American diplomats and politicians say the word “civilization,” implicit is the concept of “Western Civilization.” Passed down through the centuries from the Greeks, to the Romans, to the European empires, America now bears this burden. “Western Civilization,” at times replaced by the geographically neutral “Free World,” embodies in two simple words a host of cultural, ethnic, economic, moral, political, religious and philosophical assumptions.
These assumptions have informed and guided American foreign policy for over two hundred years, because America is the (now well grown) child of Western Civilization. These are also assumptions that 80% of the world’s people know nothing about, don’t care about, contest and/or despise.
Herein lays the challenge, obviously, for any American president. Equally, this is a challenge for foreign leaders. No matter how close the relationship, no other state has objectives and motivations equivalent to those of the United States. As a consequence, differences over objectives and the means to those objectives are likely to appear now and again, even with allies. When a new American president comes into office with a mandate from the American people for “change,” old alliances and partnerships are tested, even strained.
President Obama has concluded that Americans have tired of bearing the burden of being the world’s policeman (Reason #1, above). To this end, he has attempted to rebuild coalitions that frayed during the Bush presidency and draw regional players into new coalitions. He has also attempted, with limited success, to address some of the grievances that smaller states and (competing) civilizations feel they have suffered (Reason #2, above). The President’s economic program, (Reason #3, above) is an attempt not just to stabilize America, but to stabilize the world. When America sneezes, the world gets pneumonia.
Finally, there is the issue of Barack Hussein Obama himself. His very name is a challenge to the image Americans have held of their country and its role for over two hundred years (Reason #4, above). Many Americans were, and are to this day, disturbed by his early years of schooling. Many Americans were, and are to this day, disturbed by the fact that he could attend a church that preached against America. Many Americans were, and are to this day, suspicious of his New Left agenda. Thus, they rejoiced at his election – not because he overcame their doubts – but, because it proved that the bedrock values of democracy, tolerance and freedom of speech were alive and well.
His name has been a siren’s song for Westernizing elites in developing nations around the world. And therein lays the paradox. Only America could produce a “Barack Hussein Obama,” and non-Western civilizations (Africa, China, Islam and others) recognize this. To acclaim his presidency would be a tacit admission that their civilizations are secondary, if not inferior, to Western Civilization. Thus, despite his best efforts to restore America’s standing in their eyes, his efforts have been rebuffed.
For Obama himself, this must be a great disappointment. Certainly, the professional bureaucrats that toil under one president after another – particularly in the State Department and Defense Department – are frustrated. Obama needs to stick to the fundamentals of ensuring American leadership, revitalizing the American economy, and using American military power sparingly, but overwhelmingly, if need be. Five centuries of European dominance, including the last seventy by America are not going to be forgotten by reverent chanting of “Yes, We Can!”
This posting is a follow-up, of sorts, to “Iran – the next 6 months” that can be viewed at:
I highly recommend you read both postings in conjunction. Thank you!
26 June 2010
What are the next six months going to bring on the question of Iran’s nuclear development? This brief essay attempts to answer this question from an American geopolitical perspective.
After seven months of painstaking effort, the US built the most tenuous of coalitions and succeeded in passing yet another round of sanctions against Iran. Critics have decried these sanctions as meaningless because they did not target the main source of Iran’s economic power: oil. Having invested the time and effort in building this coalition, the US is not about to undertake any military action, unilaterally or with Israel. Neither is it going to “green-light” independent Israeli action. All other things being equal, the US will work to solidify and strengthen the new sanctions regime. The next six months will see the “Iranian question” pass with relative quiet.
President Obama was not able to build consensus around sanctions targeting the Iranian petroleum industry because tampering with the world’s oil-based economy would have resulted in a tremendous setback to the world economy. This would be more a result of psychological over-reaction in the markets, rather than economic reality. Iran is becoming a progressively weaker player in the global petroleum industry, due to the cumulative affect of previous rounds of sanctions.
However, the US and Europe are still struggling to emerge from the recession that has gripped them since late 2008. Although Iranian oil and natural gas exports (and imports) are a mere fraction of the global petroleum trade, the psychological affect on Western economies would have been severe. In addition, the US (and to a lesser extent, Europe) have non-economic stakes in not pushing the Iranians into a corner too quickly.
The US wants as smooth as exit from Iraq in August, just two months from now, as possible. Sanctions with any more teeth would in all likelihood have prompted the Iranians to activate its proxies in Iraq, making the US withdrawal bloody and domestically disastrous for the Obama administration. With Congressional mid-term elections in November – and the Republicans already likely to win at least one house of congress – a foreign policy debacle in Iraq needed to be avoided.
Likewise, the US and NATO need time to deploy additional forces to Afghanistan and implement new policies there. The resignation of General McChrystal notwithstanding, these policies will take time. Again, if pushed to the wall too soon, Iran would be prompted to up its support for Al Qaeda and Taliban forces. Although these Sunni fundamentalist movements are anathema to the Shi’ite regime in Tehran, the old dictum, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend,” applies.
Iran could certainly attempt to apply pressure elsewhere in the Middle East. It is allied with Syria, and has proxy forces in Lebanon (Hizbullah) and Gaza (Hamas). However, none of these regional players are likely to respond to an Iranian call-to-arms, if pressed by the US. The facts are simple.
• Hizbullah was bloodied by Israel in 2006, although politically the war was seen as a “loss” in wide segments of the Israeli public. In fact, the northern border with Lebanon has been quiet for four years now.
• Hamas was bloodied by Israel over a year ago. Although Israel is still fighting the diplomatic repercussions, it is clear that Operation Cast Lead was an Israeli military victory.
• The conventional thinking on Syria is that if faced with the inevitability of an Iranian defeat at the hands of the US, it too will sit on the sidelines. Noisily, yes, but as long as Israel does not take any action to disturb the status quo the Syrians will loudly decry “American imperialism” in the UN, then hunker down in Damascus.
This brings us to the end of the year. President Obama will be preparing for the 2011 State of the Union address. He will face a Congress whose Republican ranks will have swollen. The applause will be decidedly less deafening than during 2010’s address.
The US will have exited Iraq, although the future there will still be in doubt. More American troops forces will be engaged more deeply in Afghanistan than ever before. The economy will still be in neutral, at best. In January 2011, President Obama will have a choice in front of him. He will either ask the American people (i.e. the business community and Congress) for more time to allow sanctions against Iran to work or tell the American people that they must prepare for a third war in ten years in the Muslim world.