At the end of last year, President Obama was in Hawaii. French President Hollande was in Saudi Arabia, whose leaders openly declare their contempt for American leaders. Obama is basically having fun. Hollande and the royal family are basically doing strategy. They are designing actions to advance their interests in the new world; not, as is often said, a world without America, but a world in which American leaders have turned against America.
Which is not an easy task.
Those of us who lived abroad during the Cold War were given a window that was closed to our fellow citizens back home: if our eyes and ears and, above all, our noses were sufficiently sensitive, we could understand the importance of America, which defined the world for quite a while. Most of my years abroad were in Italy, and I was constantly amazed by Italians’ assumption that, over in Washington and New York, as in Hollywood and Detroit, “the Americans” were following Italian affairs in great detail. One day an important national leader asked me, “What do they think in Washington about Aldo Moro’s editorial in today’s Corriere della Sera? I didn’t have the heart to tell him that maybe three people in Washington might have read it, or that fewer than a dozen had ever heard of Aldo Moro.
The point being that all over the world, the people who mattered always had an eye on America, assumed that America was watching them and had plans for them, and thought that at the end of the day America was likely to be decisive in their future.
These convictions, most of which were fantasies, became even stronger when the Soviet Empire imploded, in the Bush-Clinton-Bush era when America was the lone superpower. One way or another, the world had to come to terms with the United States, because there was no effective counterforce, and, aside from a few fanatics, no one could imagine a fundamental change. Who could challenge American power? Our enemies had to be very careful, our friends felt very comfortable, and the events of those years–our intervention in the Balkans, our smashing of Saddam when he ventured into Kuwait–removed any delusions of grandeur by would-be uppity nations.
American hegemony wasn’t limited to military power, but encompassed the most basic components of the modern world, from Internet and its attendant gadgets and technologies (Microsoft, Apple, Google…) to movies, scholarship and literature. America was omnipresent and omnipotent. When the fanatics attacked us on 9/11, we destroyed the Taliban in Afghanistan in record time, and countries with some military capacity begged to join us.
Omnipresent and omnipotent. As al-Qaeda scrambled to find safe havens, we prepared to invade Iraq, and the invasion was a further demonstration of American might. To be sure, there were problems. Big problems, even. But at the end of the day, al-Qaeda was smashed in Iraq, tyrants like Qadaffi scrambled to appease us, and our key allies, from NATO to Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, felt mighty secure. And Saddam was gone.
And then, poof! We opted out. Because we’re like that. Nothing new. It’s not “war weariness”; it’s the way we are. But also because Obama, which is something very new, and even harder to understand.
Actually, we never wanted in. Just think at how Bush the Elder scolded us, lest we even thought about celebrating the fall of the Soviet Empire. Americans’ typical view of “normal” is a world at peace, where we all try to get along, because, you know, we’re all basically the same, and we’re all basically good. People like that don’t have an imperial vocation. Without 9/11, Bush the Younger wouldn’t have spent much time on foreign policy. He’d have devoted most of his energies to being compassionate.
Most of the rest of the world doesn’t think that way. Most of the rest of the world agrees with Machiavelli’s first principle: “Man is more inclined to do evil than to do good.” Which is why most of the rest of the world is either at war, or preparing for war, and it is very hard for them to believe that we really do want to opt out. We’ve been so engaged and so powerful for so long, that they can’t imagine that we have really turned tail. Most of the French still believe we read Le Monde every day, and most Saudis probably still believe that our CIA station in the kingdom is there to tell them what to do.
Never mind that Obama and his buddies told everyone they wanted out. Never mind that our abandonment of Israel was clear before the end of Obama’s first year in office. Nobody out there in the real world could believe it. They assumed that we were being cleverly deceptive, that any pullback would be temporary, and that we would remain committed to our long-standing basic principles. Democratic, pro-Western allies would be treated like the friends they wish to be, and tyrannical, anti-American enemies would be recognized as such. Ergo, the mission for the French and the Saudis, and all the others, was to remain engaged with us, to keep reminding us of our common imperatives, and to help us “understand” our common menaces.
Why? So that we’d act when it became necessary, and they would have a voice in our actions. We’d help Europe withstand an aggressive Russia, we’d help our Middle Eastern friends resist Iran, we’d help the Africans resist jihad, and we’d support Latin American democrats.