We are witnessing the beginning of a new Cold War. A nation without a vision of itself and its society soon grows weary of its entanglements. If an internal identity is under unceasing critical evaluation and individualism is raised to a pinnacle, above reproach from the group, then pursuit of an external policy will be defined by short term political considerations. We should not dismiss the way this key element of foreign policy has been bungled. President Obama has displayed behavior that is both naïve and unsophisticated; for the ruler of the free world there can be no excuse for this failure. I understand that the man cannot be separated from his ideological or cultural heritage but ‘interest’ must be defined by the national interest before anything else and it is not in the national interest for the USA to be seen as lacking in imagination or weak, indecisive and cowardly.
In 2008, before his election as President of the United States of America considerable controversy was created by the emphasis placed on his commitment to his Chicago community and its racially divisive preacher. One prominent journalist stated that it was only right he should primarily represent the black community of America. In fact this issue may be part of the legacy from which Obama is unable to escape. As President he is leader of all Americans. His background shapes the man but cannot govern his decisions because America is 320 million people of which only one in eight, are Black. By the same token, his latitude towards the illiberal attitudes of America’s friends and enemies has failed to translate into greater stability abroad or heightened security at home.
His ‘A New Beginning’ Speech in Cairo in June 2009 did not spell out clearly enough the dire need for reciprocity between the Muslim world and the Rest. His speech was full of good intentions which were praised by many in the Muslim world. But it was his failure to understand the mutuality of action that soon showed up the weakness in his policy. In a speech that President Obama delivered in Indonesia in November 2010 he spoke of choosing between being defined by our differences and giving in to a future of suspicion and mistrust or, of forging common ground. In fact the President may have been elucidating a liberal view of the world but 95% of the world is not liberal and he was wrong.
We are defined by our differences and it is our uniqueness that creates our individuality, or in macro terms, our national identity. It is what creates great nations. We forge common ground by understanding and living within those differences where possible. Obama spoke about committing ourselves to the steady pursuit of progress but that already places us, in opposition, to most of the Muslim world unless that progress is defined as being reactionary, homophobic, misogynistic and favorable towards the oppression of minorities.
Lack of purpose also leads to a paucity of influence. Are we witnessing the start of a new cold war? Russia has sought a way back into the front line of nations since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991. Without the ideological conflict and control over the physical boundaries that defined the USSR in opposition to the American umbrella of democracy and capitalism, Russia floundered. Without its Eastern European Empire and its respect by fear Russia’s place in the world was shaken by internal unrest and renewed insecurity, this time the product of Islamic terrorism and American/German expansion into its traditional geographical spheres of influence.
I am not advocating for military action against the regime of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, but for too long the West found it convenient to ignore the crimes of the Developing World and left foreign policy to political activists within the community of global charities.
But America has failed to grasp an historic opportunity to create a strategic partnership with Russia.
By allowing Russia to manipulate the conflict in Syria to its advantage it has raised its profile above that of the USA demonstrating that while the US talks, Russia acts. It may have made a key ally (Israel) less secure by making it more vulnerable to pressure from both Russia and those nations that will look towards Russia in the future for protection and guidance. It has provided China with the excuse it needed to expand its naval operations into a part of the world from which it has until recently been excluded.
The U.S. government is deeply hated within the Muslim world and certainly, by the vast majority who perceive their inalienable right to conquest as unworthy of debate. It is both a reality of the nature of being a player on the world stage (that others fear and loathe your success in contrast to their failure) and a consequence of the disdain felt by nations whose former imperial glories burn bright in their consciousness with the intense humiliation of their present disrepute.
The most successful wars are those forestalled but only if we are able to remove the underlying causes of conflict. Russian success may perpetuate Syria’s agony but also prevent further use of chemical weapons in Syria by creating the momentum for disarmament.
It is estimated that Syria has 1,000 tons of chemical weapons in its non-conventional armory. If Russia is able to achieve supervision of that arsenal under international control (said to be scattered over 50 sites around the country) and to ensure its subsequent destruction it is Russia that will have returned to the World stage, newly revitalized, its prestige and influence raised in contrast to lowered U.S. authority.
If the US thinks it can afford to lose stature on the global stage then it should also remember that those who rely on others to lead from the front end up not leading at all. That is a legitimate choice but also an abdication of America’s global position.