Its reduced power comes from a question mark over the willingness and ability of its leader to actually lead
American influence is at its lowest since the fall of the Soviet Union
Exactly a century ago, the most brutal and costly war the world had ever seen came to an end. While World War I was not, as many had hoped, “the war to end all wars”, it did produce a reshuffling of the world’s great powers. The Austro-Hungarian empire was over. Germany was hobbled. Russia saw the end of the Romanovs and a revolution from within. And, perhaps most consequentially of all, the United States, central to the victory in the war, was ratified as a formidable and rising global force.
In the century that followed, American power would touch every corner of the world and be seen, even at the height of the Cold War, as pre-eminent on the planet. Most of the great international issues of the past 100 years have had an American component in their resolution or exacerbation.
America was centre stage. It did not dictate terms to the world (although sometimes it tried). But it was always a force to be reckoned with.
That is why the headlines of the past week are so striking. They reveal an America that, while still the most powerful nation on the planet, is moving offstage in situations where its absence would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. In fact, in at least one instance, America’s reduced influence would have been impossible to imagine just months ago.
One such example is the flare-up in the most dangerous relationship in the Middle East, that between Iran and Israel. In recent days, following the downing of an Israeli fighter, the Israelis struck Syria with a ferocity that has not been seen in many years. It amounts to a dangerous escalation, made all the more dangerous because of Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. It is not unthinkable that further exacerbation of this conflict could lead to a much broader war.
Indeed, the legal jeopardy in which Israel’s prime minister now finds himself only increases the precariousness of this situation. In the past, given the stakes and the important relationship between the US and Israel, the White House would have instantly responded to such a crisis and actively sought to defuse it. But that did not happen. Former high-level American diplomats responded critically. Dennis Ross, a former top US Middle East negotiator, wrote a tough critique in Foreign Policy entitled “Trump is all talk on Iran”. And another top negotiator and former US ambassador to Israel observed in a tweet: “The most notable development in an Israel-Iran conflict that has been a long time coming is the absence of the United States. White House has been silent. State inactive (as usual). Commentary in Israel…notes that Israel is on its own.”
But the absence of an active, visible presence by the US on this issue is not the most surprising such development in recent days. In South Korea at the Winter Olympics, the US vice president Mike Pence was completely blindsided, utterly upstaged and seemingly dumbstruck by a bold, well-orchestrated initiative by North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to at least create the appearance of a potential thaw in North-South relations on that peninsula. Kim sent his sister, Kim Yo-jong, to the Games, where she charmed crowds and mesmerised the media. Her visit was the first by an immediate member of the ruling Kim family to South Korea since the two countries were divided in the 1950s. Then, in meetings with the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, she extended an invitation for him to visit the North for a summit with her brother.
Ms Kim’s invitation was met with both caution and optimism by Mr Moon and public opinion in the South. But even that reaction was starkly out of step with Mr Pence’s comments, which echoed the bellicose and confrontational stance the Trump administration has taken with the North Koreans. In fact, it was clear not only from the reaction to Ms Kim’s visit but from the entire initiative of the South to invite the North to participate in the Pyeongchang Olympics that the South Korean government felt it had to chart its own course and distance itself from a Washington it believed had become a dangerous factor in the tense relationship.
More stunning than inertia on Israel and Iran in Syria is that a close US ally that was seen as existentially dependent on the US has decided that at a particularly dangerous moment, cutting ties with US policy and proceeding on its own was safer than cleaving to the US as it might have in the past.
This is new. This is a step beyond the often timid America of the Obama years. It might, in its way, be a continuation of it. But it is a sign of reduced American influence that if the trend continues, it could alter the world’s great power calculus more substantially than any event since the fall of the Soviet Union. And it illustrates starkly that American strength does not come purely from its military or economic resources which remain unmatched. It comes from the willingness and ability of its leaders to actually lead. Questions about both loom large over Donald Trump’s Washington and the world at the current moment.
David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and most recently author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow