The loss of American credibility makes me sad. I write about it using “we” and “us,” not just “America” or “the U.S.,” because this issue provokes a rare emotional response in me. And it is a problem that isn’t going away and that can’t be solved.
The worst thing that a state can do is to squander its credibility. The Athenians knew that 2,500 years ago and it is just as true today. Credibility matters not only to a state’s allies, but also to its enemies and frenemies. The ramifications of a loss of credibility are vast. If allies doubt a state’s commitment to their security they will seek alternate allies; if enemies doubt a state’s resolve they will try to exploit it; and if frenemies can’t understand a state’s underlying motivations or strategic perspective they might seek alternate economic or political allies while simultaneously trying to exploit economic and political weaknesses.
The current state of American foreign policy is one of reaction, damage control, disarray, discontent, and incoherence. There is no clear grand strategy that underlies the Obama Administration’s foreign policy decisions, and with the notable exception of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, the policy has ranged from ill-advised to ill-considered to ill-thought out to disastrous and nonsensical. The inability of other states to look to a policy like “containment” or “democracy promotion” adds to uncertainty of our intentions, and uncertainty is generally a bad thing for global stability. This uncertainty is intensified by the inability to trust our commitment and resolve to do what we say we will do; rather than to just make assumptions based on well-articulated strategic visions. I am not taking a position on what our commitments should or should not be -- just that if we make them, we must follow through.
The Obama and Bush 43 Administrations both contributed to the credibility problem in different ways. Bush had truth-telling (re: WMD) and competence (re: de-Baathification, dismantling of Iraqi Army, diverting troops from Afghanistan) problems; but these aren’t the worst problems to have because lies are often expected and competence changes with the people in charge. Obama has damaged our credibility in a much more straight-forward and damaging way -- he has created the (probably true) perception that we don’t do what we say we will do. There are of course arguments about how much credibility matters, Dan Drezner has written excellent pieces about “The Credibility Fairy.” But the damage of being an unreliable partner would be mitigated if there was a coherent strategy or vision to explain American foreign policy, but instead Obama’s foreign policy is rooted in crisis management and risk-aversion.
Libya is the worst (best?) example of our self-destructive policies. We agreed to bring Libya back into the international community if it gave up its WMD programs. It did and we helped take out Qaddafi at the earliest opportunity, and left instability and ISIS in his place. Our decision to aid the rebels in Libya was made with the best of intentions; but you know what they say about good intentions...
Libya is the best but not the only example. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Obama really did set a “red line” in Syria regarding Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. That line was crossed and we did nothing. We outsourced real decision-making on Syria to Russia and Iran, ended up involved anyway. Nobody is better off because of our (in)action, and in the end Assad will effectively remain as mayor of Greater Damascus with a Russian-led no-fly zone in North Syria and an American-led no-fly zone in South Syria. And elsewhere, the U.S. agreed to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity if it gave up its WMD-- and we know what happened there. We should not have forcibly confronted Russia over Ukraine; my point is just that Putin was right in his assessment that we would not follow through on our commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Finally, the Obama Administration is (wrongly) perceived as being the least friendly to Israel in modern times, it turned its back on Hosni Mubarak after decades of friendship and embraced an obvious disaster in Morsi, and it (rightly) ignored its allies throughout the Middle East in pursuing the “Iran Deal.”
If we are perceived as lacking credibility, then the states that relied on American security assurances, outside a formal treaty, will reconsider their position. Taiwan and Israel are the most obvious examples-- and both are beginning to hedge against an America that may not be as reliable an ally as it used to be. Taiwan has few other potential partners -- so we see it talking to China in a more robust way. Israel is one of America’s closest allies, but it too is trying to develop closer ties with China, Russia, and India.
There is value in having a coherent vision. It gives enemies and allies clarity about what to expect from us and how to plan their actions, which gives us clarity in turn. President Reagan had a coherent, anti-communist world view that built on decades of containment. China has for decades had a vision of economic expansion without accompanying finger-wagging and ideological demands that have made it a comfortable partner for many states. President Bush 43 believed in promoting democracy. Obama did not believe in democracy promotion… until he did… sort of… yes in Egypt, no in Bahrain… and he wanted to get uninvolved in Middle Eastern wars, but got involved anyway.
How can we undo the damage to our credibility that has been wrought since the turn of the century? As I have written here before, some problems have no solutions, and to some extent this is one of them. All states should realize that we are going to pursue our own interests, which is good and natural, but we need to be clear about what those interests are - and I don’t think this administration knows what they are. The 2016 election has the potential to change things, but Hillary Clinton has no discernable vision, and the only Republican who even seems capable of articulating a sane (Trump definitely has a vision, but it’s not sane) grand strategy is Marco Rubio, though he hasn’t quite done it yet.
A new president will be a start, but the realization that pieces of paper, telephone calls, and public statements don’t stop bullets is not going away. America needs to articulate a credible vision and to follow through on its commitments and promises. A very gradual re-orienting away from America may or may not be good for us, but it may be too late for us to do anything about it.
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