Foreign Affairs: Obama’s retreat from empire

As the Obama Administration's conduct in Syria, Iran and Egypt has demonstrated, the spirit of empire which has shaped America’s destiny is fading, raising questions about who will fill the void.

Obama walking away 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Obama walking away 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Having just unveiled to his cabinet a pact with a bunch of Colombian rebels who gave America the right to “use, occupy and control” what later became the Panama Canal, Teddy Roosevelt asked Elihu Root: “Have I answered the charges?” Root, who was asked these questions not only in his capacity as secretary of war, but also as a leading Wall Street lawyer, answered unambiguously: “You were accused of seduction, and you have conclusively proved that you were guilty of rape.”
Eleven decades and 18 presidencies on, no one is accusing America’s current leaders of seducing distant nations, nor of raping foreign lands. On the contrary, the spirit of empire with which Roosevelt was imbued – and which has since shaped America’s destiny – is fading, while raising questions about the future of America, its rivals, and the world that sprawls between them.
AMERICAN LEADERS’ distance from the outer world harked back to George Washington’s political will of international neutrality, and was upheld throughout the 19th century by a succession of insular presidents like Abraham Lincoln, who never left America.
The first American president to be truly curious about the outer world was Teddy Roosevelt, and it was he who also laid the foundations for the American empire.
What began with US gunships’ eviction of those of Spain from Cuba and the establishment of a naval base in the Philippines was then compounded by the Panama Canal as well as Roosevelt’s brokering of peace between Russia and Japan. The US military’s decisive entry into the hitherto stalemated World War I sealed America’s new role as a world power.
Meanwhile, America’s industrial might and commercial sway were such that the isolationists, who kept it out of the League of the Nations and initially out of World War II, ultimately saw the US emerge from the war as the superpower that most people alive today have been familiar with all their lives.
Now, with US troops already out of Iraq and preparing to leave Afghanistan next year, while Washington seeks accommodation with Tehran without demanding any ideological concession from the Islamist autocracy, the dots are connecting: the American empire is on the retreat.
AMERICA’S IMPERIAL pretension, which began as a geostrategic vision, later became a messianic gospel.
In winter ‘41, with Nazi Germany firmly gripping continental Europe and with America still out of the war, Time and Life magazines’ publisher and editor Henry Luce hailed in a prophetic essay, titled “The American Century,” what he described as “an immense American internationalism.” Clueless about what was to happen later that year in the Pacific, Luce wanted America to join the war for nonstrategic reasons.
“We must undertake now to be the Good Samaritan of the entire world,” he wrote, because “it is the manifest duty of this country to undertake to feed all the people of the world, who as a result of this worldwide collapse of civilization are hungry and destitute.”
This is pretty much the opposite of what the current American attitude has become.
As demonstrated during the Syrian crisis, America is now a reluctant emperor, a warrior tired of roaming the high seas, poring over atlases in search of bad guys and ceaselessly probing distant and labyrinthine power structures in order to figure out who is against whom, why, and how American interests, money and blood fit into the picture – whether of a Middle Eastern civil war, an Asian succession struggle, or yet another African coup.
Obama’s somersault on Syria, his abrupt transition from military attack to Congressional debate and then to disarmament deal with Russia, bore profound meaning not because of its twists and turns, but because of the American public’s emphatic backing of the choice against war. Obama and large parts of the American public may be divided on many other things, from healthcare to gun control, but on this there is a broad consensus, perhaps a zeitgeist: America wants home. This is evidently what inspires US Secretary of State John Kerry’s attitude to the Iranian situation. Setting aside considerations of honor and memories of attacks on US interests, ideals, and representatives, he seeks instead to focus on dismantling another time bomb, so another red pin can be pulled out from the big map of flashpoints that boggles Obama’s mind.
The only question this gathering retreat leaves is whether America’s deep imprint on history is ready to give way, and if so what can fill the void it is beginning to create.
THE AMERICAN CENTURY was not only, or even mainly, about warfare and diplomacy.
As Luce noted, it was also about economics, culture and values.
“America,” he noted 72 years ago, is “the intellectual, scientific and artistic capital of the world.” America “will send out through the world engineers, scientists, doctors, movie men, makers of entertainment, developers of airlines, builders of roads, teachers, educators,” and it will export “the great principles of Western civilization – above all justice, the love of truth, the ideal of charity.”
The place where this part of the vision was tested is Egypt, and the result from an American viewpoint is a major debacle.
Ironically, Egypt was the one place where Obama sincerely, if clumsily, tried to uphold Luce’s vision. By demanding Hosni Mubarak’s departure after demonstrators gathered in Tahrir Square nearly three years ago, Obama was hoping to promote democracy on the Nile. That is also why he suspended military aid to Cairo after its security forces shot at demonstrators.
Paying the price of haste, Obama now stares at an Egypt that is no longer democratic, and last week also began restoring military ties with Russia. The arrival in Cairo of Moscow’s foreign and defense ministers, reportedly to sell MiG-29’s as well as assorted missile systems, signals America’s loss of the hegemonic status it won in the main Arab country four decades ago, in the aftermath of Anwar Sadat’s ouster of his Soviet advisers.
The Russian return to Egypt, like Moscow’s role in the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, is a reflection of the American retreat from the world. This would never have happened to John F. Kennedy, let alone Richard Nixon, not to mention Ronald Reagan, or even Bill Clinton. Obama’s America is tired of running the world, and this is besides the fact that its military’s global deployment is financially exorbitant.
Historian Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, argued that all superpowers, from Rome to the Soviet Union, ultimately overextend, and the US is no exception. America’s transformation in recent decades from the world’s biggest creditor to its biggest debtor is a symptom of this decline, and the map of its military presence worldwide is strikingly similar to Britain’s on the eve of its own decline.
The jungle’s animals are sniffing the America lion’s fatigue, and that includes the Jewish state. This is what Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman meant when he said this week in Sderot that while America was “the keystone” in Israel’s foreign relations, Israel should seek additional allies.
Not incidentally, while Liberman said this, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was in the Kremlin meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, days after a red carpet was rolled out in Jerusalem for French President Francois Hollande, who was cheered here for his independent, hawkish and counter- American stance on Iran.
RUSSIA’S QUEST to enter post-American imperial voids is only relevant militarily and diplomatically. Russia can sell arms and offer negotiators and intermediaries, but it has little to sell other than arms and raw materials.
China, however, can sell anything America sells anywhere in the world, from gadgets and cars to highways and airports.
Chances are high that a country like Egypt will now prefer to give China large construction and public works projects. The Chinese will be cheaper than the Americans, and they will have no political demands or expectations.
Indeed, Israel’s discussions with Beijing concerning the railway to Eilat indicate that China’s emergence in this region as a grand builder is but a matter of time.
All this obviously does not mean that America’s era as a superpower is drawing to a close; its strategic retreat will take time to unfold, and the economic competition it faces does not mean it will be fully pushed over, least of all overnight. Moreover, just like Russia is an economic non-starter, China is a diplomatic zombie, lacking Russia’s urge to spin the globe.
Most importantly, no one in the world seems, for now, ready to succeed America culturally.
“American jazz, Hollywood movies, American slang, American machines and patented products are in fact the only things that every community in the world, from Zanzibar to Hamburg, recognizes in common,” wrote Luce in 1941.
This cultural and technological dominance has since then only expanded and intensified, and will likely outlast the American imperial retreat. If not for any other reason, this is because it is the creation of the American people, rather than the doing of their statesmen – whether they be imperial launchers like Roosevelt, or imperial folders like