A Leaderless World
Signs of disorder grow as American influence recedes
WSJ Editorial, June 19, 2012
Not so long ago much of the world griped about an America that was too assertive, a "hyperpower" that attempted to lead with too little deference to the desires of those attending the G-20 meeting today in Mexico. Well, congratulations. A world without U.S. leadership is arriving faster than even the French hoped. How do you like it?
• In Syria, a populist revolt against a dictator threatens to become a civil war as Russia and Iran back their client in Damascus and the West defaults to a useless United Nations. The conflict threatens to spill into neighboring countries.
• Iran continues its march toward a nuclear weapon despite more than three years of Western pleading and (until recently) weak sanctions. Israel may conclude it must strike Iran first to defend itself, despite the military risks, because it lacks confidence about America's will to act. If Iran does succeed, a nuclear proliferation breakout throughout the Middle East is likely.
• Again President of Russia, Vladimir Putin snubbed President Obama's invitation to the G-8 summit at Camp David and is complicating U.S. diplomacy at every turn. He is sending arms and antiaircraft missiles to Syria, blocking sanctions at the U.N. and reasserting Russian influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Mr. Obama's "reset" in relations has little to show for it.
• In Egypt, the military and Muslim Brotherhood vie for power after the Arab spring—with the U.S. largely a bystander. The democrats don't trust an America that helped them too little in the Mubarak days, while the military doesn't trust a U.S. Administration that abandoned Mubarak at the end. Egypt is increasingly unwilling to police its own border with Israel or the flow of arms into Gaza.
• The countries of the euro zone stumble from one failed bailout to the next, jeopardizing a still-fragile global economy. The world's most impressive current leader, Germany's Angela Merkel, rejected Mr. Obama's advice to blow out her country's balance sheet with stimulus spending in 2009 and is thankful she did. Her economy is stronger for it.
The Obama Administration has since played the role mainly of Keynesian kibitzer, privately taking the side of Europe's debtors in urging Germany to write bigger checks and ease monetary policy. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner elbowed his way into a euro-zone finance ministers meeting last September and then criticized European policies, and lately Messrs. Obama and Geithner have been blaming Europe for America's economic problems. No wonder Frau Merkel doesn't much care what the U.S. thinks.
• The countries of South Asia are recalculating their interests as the U.S. heads for the exits in Afghanistan. Pakistan demands the extortion of $5,000 a truck to carry supplies to U.S. forces, while continuing to provide sanctuary for Taliban leaders. Iran extends its own influence in Western Afghanistan, while the Taliban resist U.S. entreaties to negotiate a cease-fire, figuring they can wait out the departure.
For the Putins of the world and many American liberals, these signs of fading U.S. influence are welcome. They have finally tied down the American Gulliver. The era of "collective security" through the U.N. has arrived, and, whatever the future difficulties, at least there will be no more Iraqs.
But note well that the substitute for U.S. leadership is not a new era of U.N.-administered peace. It is often a vacuum filled by the world's nastiest actors. That is nowhere clearer than in Syria, where Russia and Iran have a free run to fortify the Assad dictatorship. The price is high in human slaughter, but it may be higher still in showing other dictators that it hardly matters anymore if an American President declares that you "must go." What matters is if you have patrons in Moscow, Beijing or Tehran.
The other claim, especially popular in Europe and China, is that this American retreat is inevitable because the U.S. is weaker economically. There's no doubt the recession and tepid recovery have sapped U.S. resources and confidence, but economic decline is not inevitable. It is, as Charles Krauthammer put it in 2009, "a choice."
America can choose to stay on its current path toward a slow-growth entitlement society that spends its patrimony on domestic handouts, or it can resolve to once again be a dynamic, risk-taking society that grows at 3% or more a year.
What the U.S. can't do is expect to grow at the 2% annual rate of the Obama era and somehow finance both ObamaCare and the current American military. On present trend, America's defense budget will inevitably shrink as Europe's military spending has to 3%, then 2% or less, of GDP.
There are always limits to U.S. power, and American leadership does not mean intervening willy-nilly or militarily. It does require, however, that an American President believe that U.S. pre-eminence is desirable and a source for good, and that sometimes this means leading forcefully from the front even if others object.
Without that American leadership, the increasing signs of world disorder will be portents of much worse to come.