Explaining America's New Place in the World
There has been a near constant stream of commentary from right-wing pundits claiming that America is in a headlong retreat from the world and that it is all President Obama's fault. If the President only stood taller, if he only spoke louder, if he only rolled up his sleeves and flexed his biceps, then the world would fall into line. Just like in the good old days.
Rhetoric like this might have made sense in the 1980's or even in the 1990's, but I think it is clear that such language no longer usefully contributes to America's standing in the world. From the close of World War II through the twilight of the George W. Bush Administration, America defined its place in the world essentially by means of its military superiority, if not its supremacy. Yes, America exercised "soft power." Yes, America was generous with its peace-building initiatives, and the American volunteer spirit was -- and is -- alive and well in service organizations like the Peace Corps. But the world was always aware that behind these ventures stood an American military that was ready to act in clearly defined ways.
Unquestionably, the Obama Administration has changed the ways the United States projects force. The United States cautiously aided the British and the French in Libya; it threatened force in Syria after President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, but then sheathed its sword when it seemed diplomacy might resolve the crisis; it negotiated with Iran over its emerging nuclear capability rather than blustered. To be sure, the United States still knows how to use lethal force -- principally, however, this force is used in precisely-executed drone strikes or the lightning attacks of America's special forces.
So, America does not casually threaten war the way it once did and the world is not of a mind to pay heed anyway. Why? What is causing this tectonic shift in the way American force is asserted and perceived around the globe? I think that the confluence of two larger phenomena are at work here: The first is a sea-change in the way the American public views military engagement. And the second is an equally dramatic shift in the nature of global confrontation itself.
Let's begin with the war-weariness of the American public. Absent a compelling threat to the United States, there is substantial evidence that the American public would reject military involvement nearly everywhere. Consider the polling on Syria from last August and September, after it became known that Assad had gassed his people. While Americans were appalled at Assad's crimes, they were unwilling to commit to a military response. A CNN poll released the first week of September indicated 59 percent opposition to military intervention. A USA Today/Pew Research poll released in the same time frame revealed 63 percent opposition.
This war-weariness (war-wariness might be an even better term) is traceable in significant part to America's ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraq invasion was sold as saving America from mushroom clouds, anthrax, and sarin gas. And then no weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq. Then what was sold as a brief war of liberation transmuted into a grueling, grinding guerrilla war against an unwelcome American presence. Even Afghanistan devolved into an ambiguous conflict -- yes, al-Qaeda attacked us from bases in Afghanistan, but al-Qaeda is a murky entity, present in small cells throughout the Islamic World. Indeed, when al-Qaeda's guiding spirit, Osama bin-Laden, was finally tracked down, he was in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
A second factor contributing this shift in public sentiment is the rise of the millenial generation as a political force. The millenials are the first American generation in nearly a century to come of age in a world not shaped by binary global confrontation. There is no Hitler rising in Germany. There are no Axis powers overrunning the world. We are not fighting small wars in Korea or Vietnam that are sold and explained as adjuncts of that vast morality play known as the Cold War. To the extent that there has been international conflict in the last fifteen years, it has been of a limited and morally ambiguous kind.
Indeed, what colors the experience of millenials is not global conflict but the tenuous nature of the American economy. Late-stage capitalism, with its relentless cost-shifting onto those with the least power of resistance, has hollowed out the hopes and dreams of the millenial generation. You need a college education or a professional degree to get ahead, they are told. And, thanks to right-wing economists who have undermined the American belief in education as a public good, this has become an increasingly pricey proposition. So millenials are forced to borrow. And then they enter a job market that devours its young. For entirely understandable reasons, this is not a generation much inclined to pay heed to the old-fashioned saber-rattling that right wingers find so appealing and that once had the power to stir American hearts.
Immigration has also played a role in reshaping public mood. The United States has been refreshed from its beginning by immigrants, and we are now welcoming new arrivals from throughout the world -- Africa, Asia, Latin America. The United States is becoming a microcosm of the world, and this is a very good thing. Like millenials, however, America's new immigrant communities have no memory of the Cold War. And that truly matters. The Cold War was sold to the American people as a moral confrontation, a show-down between good and evil. Soviet Russia was dictatorial, expansionist, subversive, bent on global domination by fair means or foul. Several generations of Americans came of age ardently believing in this account. It echoes still in the ears of many people over the age of forty.
Immigrants, however, like millenials have no direct experience of this decades-long confrontation. It does not form part of their collective unconscious. Their experience of the world is shaped, quite understandably, by the politics of their old homelands and the exigencies of making a living in their new abode.
For a President to threaten force, that President must have the backing of the American people. And the dominant trope used to obtain that support, from Inchon to Baghdad, was the Cold War's "good versus evil." Millenials and immigrants, for entirely praiseworthy reasons, are no longer convinced by explanations that rely on this outdated narrative. Many older Americans, soured by Iraq and Afghanistan, also have their suspicions.
The other large phenomenon reshaping America's place in the world, then, is the nature of global confrontation itself. The Cold War was never truly reducible to "good versus evil." Too many other factors were always at work -- nationalism, anti-colonialism, competing economic interests, the ambitions of regional players. But policy-makers were generally able to make use of "us-versus-them" morality to rally the public.
But how do you do that in Syria? Assad is a brutal, murderous human being. He needs to be removed from office. All civilized women and men agree on that. But how? You don't want to empower al-Qaeda, which is steadily building a foothold in that battered land. They are every bit as wicked as Assad. The world agrees on the end result, but it is the means to get there that is the challenge. Prudence is the virtue that world leaders must exercise.
Consider also Iran. No one wants a nuclear Iran. But is confrontation the best policy? The Iranian theocracy is doddering. It has lost the support of the people and struggles to win even the elections it fixes. The imams who govern Iran may be gerontological marvels, but even gerontocracies finally run out of time. Patience serves our interests well.
In other words, I believe that President Obama is probably handling world events about as well as they can be handled. He seems to have a good feel for American public opinion. And he appreciates the complexity of the global order. He has finally the right blend of virtues -- prudence, patience, and real decisiveness, exercised quietly. We may not yet be able to speak of an Obama Doctrine, but when we do, I suspect it will take account of the points I've raised above.
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