In the old postwar, pre-Obama world, the United States accepted a 65-year burden of defeating Soviet communism. It led the fight against radical Islamic terrorism. The American fleet and overseas bases ensured that global commerce, communications, and travel were largely free and uninterrupted. Globalization was a sort of synonym for Americanization.
It was neither a particularly pleasant nor popular task. To keep the Soviets out of the Persian Gulf, we made unpopular deals of convenience with odious dictators and monarchs to keep the oil freely flowing to global consumers. In return, the billionaire and authoritarian sheikdoms often used cartels and monopolies to jack up the price of oil, while subsidizing on the sly anti-Western Islamic terrorists. The United States almost had to beg those in the Middle East for the costly privilege of protecting them and buying their $100-a-barrel oil. What a strange world the U.S. created: we found Saudi oil; we protected Saudi Arabia; we kept the Persian Gulf open and secure; and we earned embargoes, OPEC, and 15 Saudi mass murderers on 9/11.
America for forty years has also been railing against the supposedly unfair protectionist trade policies of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — to no avail. That we protected all three countries, first from the Soviet Union, and then from China, was a given, as was their periodic outbursts of anti-Americanism.
Europe followed the same paradox of the angry teen railing against his parent. In the last half-century, two themes predominated in our transatlantic relationship. One was total reliance on the U.S. military and American-led NATO alliance to protect it from an expansionary Soviet Union and its eastern European Warsaw Pact. On occasion, we took out anti-Western lunatics like the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, or Slobodan Milosevic.
The second theme was a fashionable European anti-Americanism. Without too many obligations for their own national security, Europeans could afford to invest in cradle-to-grave social programs. It was just as easy to assume a secure globalized world was a natural occurrence, rather than the result of the huge American investment in a worldwide military.
As in the case of the Middle East and the Pacific, the Europeans just figured that the U.S. commitment to their security was both ironclad and timeless — allowing them the luxury to dream of utopia and occasionally to ankle-bite their pestering American overseers. We were caricatured as efficient though unimaginative Romans; our European betters were the far more brilliant but other-worldly Greeks.
The Post-American POTUS
The election of 2008 changed all that. Barack Obama certainly did not see any special relationship with either Britain or Israel in the fashion of past presidents. He grandly announced that, given his Hawaiian roots, he would be our first Pacific president, and promised a pivot of American attention toward Asia. (That pivot impressed the Chinese as much as the vaunted French army of the 1930s deterred Hitler.)
Nor was Obama just talk. He almost immediately declared a total exit from Iraq and withdrawal dates from Afghanistan. In Libya, “leading from behind” outsourced leadership to Britain and France. Benghazi was our thanks for bombing Gadhafi out of power.
In Egypt, Obama seemed to tilt toward Muslim Brotherhood head Mohamed Morsi. Obama certainly seemed far friendlier to Turkish President Recep Erdogan than to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In Syria, the de facto result of Obama flip-flopping was the empowerment of the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis. Without warning to our allies, Obama promised the Iranians an end to crippling trade sanctions if they paused on nuclear proliferation, without dismantling their nuclear enrichment infrastructure — a move that terrified the Sunni Arab monarchies.
In the Pacific, Japan now takes the lead in confronting Chinese intrusions into its air and sea space. South Korea increasingly and rightly assumes that North Korea is mostly its own problem. Taiwan knows it has to get along with China on Chinese terms. Who would have ever thought that the Philippines would like the return of a U.S. base?
The resentments of Germany, and its own resentment of southern Europeans are entirely a European problem, as is missile defense against a potential Iranian bomb, as is the unwinding of the EU, and as shortly will be the future of the NATO alliance.
Obama was able to recalibrate seven decades of bipartisan foreign policy for a variety of convenient reasons. An unexpected domestic oil and gas bonanza, brought on by new methods of fracking and horizontal drillings (that Obama largely opposed), suddenly made the Middle East less relevant to America.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the bombing of Libya, made Americans tired not just of the costs of war, but even more of the inability of these liberated countries to govern themselves, and of their general ingratitude shown their American liberators. Karzai, Maliki, and the nameless in Libya are not necessarily an attractive bunch.
And$17 trillion in debt and a chronically sluggish economy — at a time of vast expansions in federal entitlements — translates to many Americans that a dollar spent overseas is a dollar lost to food stamp programs. And for the last thirty years, there has been a growing resentment of Americans toward our allies who seem to criticize the U.S. the more they are guaranteed American security.
Add all this up, and American foreign policy has become ironic. Obama was largely welcomed abroad as a pleasant change from the unpopular interventionist and internationalist George W. Bush, whose freedom agenda and guarantees of security for an array of allies were often resented by those they sought to serve. In contrast, Europeans, Middle Easterners, and Asians all claimed they wanted a new direction in U.S. foreign policy. With Obama, they’ve finally obtained their hopes for change (be careful what you wish for) — and now must deal with a newly assertive China, Iran, and Russia largely on their own.
As long as we do not call Obamism “isolationism,” the American people seem to have no problem with the new retrenchment, either because they do not like the costs of engagement or they do not much like the thought of helping those who resent our help.
So far this is mostly ironic. But from now on out it will begin to get a bit dangerous as outlaw nations like Iran, Russia, and China begin to carve out regional hegemonies. At some point, our former allies will seek U.S. help, and at some point, if history is any guide, Americans will reluctantly offer it to them — but a far greater price than needed to be paid.