One of President Barack Obama’s most important legacies is a sense that the U.S. is no longer the dominant global power: It can be ignored. It’s a new reality that became apparent this year as various authoritarian regimes and populist movements have tested it out.
President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been at the forefront of the effort. In the latest development, on Tuesday, the foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Moscow to discuss a plan for Syria. The U.S. was not invited. Instead, the ministers adopted a statement saying the three countries were willing to serve as the guarantors of a deal between the Syrian government and opposition. All other countries with “influence on the situation on the ground” are welcome to join, the statement said.
This is the kind of call the U.S. has grown accustomed to making during the post-Cold War decades of Pax Americana. Now, three authoritarian regimes — one of them, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s, an increasingly nominal U.S. ally, and the other two open U.S. adversaries — feel empowered enough to assume their role in an area where perhaps the biggest threat to the West, the Islamic State, operates.
Russia appears to be purposefully working with the less democratic U.S. allies. Earlier this month, it broke with long-standing practice and joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in a promise of oil-output cuts. In these talks, Russia had to deal with Saudi Arabia, helping it secure Iran’s consent to a production cap. Qatar, another gulf state allied to the U.S., is taking part in a murky but politically important privatization deal as one of the buyers of a 19.5 percent stake in the Russian oil company, Rosneft.
Russia hasn’t been averse to talking to the U.S. — it has done so repeatedly on Syria — but nothing came of it, in part because the Obama administration was never united on the very idea of doing deals with Putin. Kremlin officials appear to have hated the experience. “Contacts remain, but every time we agree on something, Americans steer away from what has been agreed,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a recent speech. “We get lectured.”
So the Kremlin is openly building bypass routes to other Middle East players, whose decision-making processes are more like Moscow’s than Washington’s. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar don’t have to betray the U.S. to talk to Moscow on their own — but nor do they feel the need to include it.
Another authoritarian country, China, has not just ignored U.S. demands that it stop reclamation projects in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, it has apparently militarized the islands. It hasn’t attacked U.S. ships or planes in the area yet, but by seizing a U.S. underwater drone last week, it carefully showed that it might.
The British public, of course, also ignored U.S. warnings when it voted for Brexit. And now, the U.K. government, Washington’s most special ally in Europe, continues to ignore U.S. interests by maintaining uncertainty about its future deal with the European Union. Most of the remaining EU members are far less pro-American than the U.K., and American influence in the bloc is on the wane. Even in Germany, which owes a historic debt to the U.S., anti-U.S. sentiment is strong: Obama’s proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is massively unpopular here. Even if the U.S. wanted to keep pushing it, it would probably stand no chance in today’s EU. And if nationalist populist leaders make headway in several European elections scheduled for next year, the U.S. may get even less cooperation out of Europe.
The growing tendency to exclude or ignore the U.S. is a direct result of Obama’s incoherent foreign policy. It has been billed as a values-based one, but much of the world doesn’t share U.S. values, suspects the U.S. of hypocrisy, or accuses it of arrogance. This kind of positioning required consistency and a willingness to put the U.S. military might behind the principles the nation purportedly defended. Both were missing.
The U.S. has been by turns shrill and timid in the Middle East. Syria has convinced many rulers in the region that Putin was more invested, and thus a more essential negotiating partner.
Obama tried being both friendly and firm with China. Neither worked. Chinese leaders viewed the U.S. “pivot to Asia,” announced during Obama’s first term, as primarily a China containment effort. Obama’s second term, with the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal clearly aimed at curbing China’s economic might, didn’t help matters. China is looking to make bilateral trade deals and strengthen its defenses with little deference to the U.S.
In Europe, Obama has remained well-liked throughout his eight-year run, but, apart from the stillborn TTIP, his administration hasn’t done anything for American allies on the continent. The U.S.-led failures in Libya and Syria flooded the EU with refugees, but the U.S. didn’t offer help. Obama promised protection to the Baltic states against potential Russian aggression they feared, but the size of the military aid that eventually arrived left them as fearful as before. Ukraine, which hoped for U.S. help in an ongoing armed confrontation with Russia, also got less than it hoped. No lethal weapons arrived from the U.S., and Germany and France were left to negotiate a peace deal with Putin as the Obama administration stepped back from the issue.
Under Obama, the U.S. managed to project an image of a country focused entirely on its own interests, sometimes dressed up as values, but unwilling to stake much on defending them. It managed to look passive-aggressive to both allies and foes.
Proponents of a values-based U.S. foreign policy fear that Donald Trump will not pursue one, preferring a transactional approach. That’s OK if the alternative is Obama’s insistence on values without strong action to back it up. Perhaps the U.S. cannot afford to be more forceful: There is no electoral support for boots on the ground in the Middle East, much less for risking clashes with Russia or China. But that means the U.S. shouldn’t pretend to project liberal democratic principles internationally: It’ll just be an empty promise.
Breaking the values mold and moving to transactional diplomacy isn’t an easy path, however. It requires a clear understanding of U.S. business and military interests in every part of the world and of what the U.S. is willing to give up to secure these interests. A transaction involves give and take — a concept that was ignored during the Pax Americana years. Trump may be interested in working this way, but he’d need a different foreign policy community to play the new game: To the existing one, horse-trading is a foreign concept.