Is American leadership of the world irreversibly in decline? Certainly the two people running for US president seemed to pay it little heed during their first debate.
American exceptionalism, the concept that has generally been the chief justification for US leadership of the world for more than 70 years, was not mentioned by Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton or her Republican rival, Donald Trump. Nor were the usual nostrums of aspiring presidents: exporting American values; spreading freedom; democracy and human rights; leading the world towards peace and prosperity.
Clinton and Trump argued about fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), the Iran deal, NATO’s obligations, North Korea’s belligerence, China’s trade practices, Russian hackers and US nuclear first-use policy. However, they stayed off hot-button foreign subjects, such as Syria’s brutal war, Yemen’s agony, Libya’s chaos and the continuing refugee crisis.
Neither candidate offered to lead the fashioning of a new international order for the 21st century, organised around big ideas and big institutions.
Clinton did not reprise her stirring manifesto from six years ago for American leadership of this “new century”. In September 2010, when she was secretary of State, Clinton discerned “a new American moment (yielded by) the complexities and connections of today’s world… a moment when our global leadership is essential, even if we must often lead in new ways”.
But on the presidential debate stage, the idea of American leadership was noticeable by its absence. Why?
Blame the temper of the times. And partly, the dark and isolationist vision for the United States propounded by Trump. Wearied by war and the human and financial cost of projecting American power, there is no longer much public appetite for the long-standing US role of global policeman. Trump has seized on the miasma of public doubt and disinclination with his populist “America First” message. Add to that US President Barack Obama’s policies of retrenchment and the bipartisan political consensus for American leadership may be fracturing before our eyes.
Some of Obama’s disengagement made sense. He could hardly be blamed for picking his way through the blowback from George W. Bush’s ill-judged invasion of Iraq but Obama made his own mistakes, too.
The most glaring of these was his refusal to enforce the red line he had drawn for Syrian President Bashar Assad. There was also the appalling failure to plan for a post-Qaddafi Libya. There was his determination to spell out a clear withdrawal strategy, complete with a timeline, for Afghanistan, which may have led the Taliban to simply hunker down and resolve to wait out the Americans.
Finally, Obama repeatedly acknowledged the limits of American power, prompting snarky comments that the world could hardly be blamed for taking him at his word.
That was then but in the closing months of Obama’s tenure the question must be about the future. Is US disengagement irreversible? Is Obama’s retrenchment more than the usual dip in the traditional Cold War cycle between US assertiveness and retreat? Does it signal the beginning of a longer turning inward?
It is undeniable that the international landscape has changed dramatically over the past 60 years. The Cold War has come and gone. American supremacy rose to great heights and is waning. Developing countries are gaining power and building multilateral institutions without the United States, not least the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
The projection of American power has mostly been in sync with the temperament of its president. George W. Bush had a markedly Manichean worldview, prompting misguided overreach strategies such as the 2004 Greater Middle East Initiative. The more judicious and cerebral Obama justified inaction on Syria, even as it descended into a humanitarian catastrophe unlike any since Rwanda, by insisting on America’s inability to influence overseas events for the better.
If Trump becomes president, his response to Russia’s meddling in Ukraine may indicate the approach he would adopt for American leadership. “Ukraine is a problem,” he acknowledged late last year, “and we should help them but let Germany and other countries over there that are directly affected — let them work it. We’ve got enough problems in this country.”
A Clinton presidency would be somewhere in between. Even though she did not raise it in the debate, Clinton is known to favour a new America-led internationalism, as well as a no-fly zone in northern Syria and the intensification and expansion of the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Whether or not the age of American world leadership is ending before our eyes, a President Trump would probably hasten it.