America Is No Longer as Alarming to Its Foes or Reassuring to Its Friends

(David Parkins)
(David Parkins)

AMERICA’S allies are nervous. With Russia grabbing territory, China bullying its neighbours and Syria murdering its people, many are asking: where is Globocop? Under what circumstances will America act to deter troublemakers? What, ultimately, would America fight for?

The answer to this question matters. Rogue states will behave more roguishly if they doubt America’s will to stop them. As a former head of Saudi intelligence recently said of Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Ukraine: “While the wolf is eating the sheep, there is no shepherd to come to the rescue.” Small wonder that Barack Obama was asked, at every stop during his just-completed four-country swing through Asia, how exactly he plans to wield American power. How would the president respond if China sought to expand its maritime borders by force? How might he curb North Korea’s nuclear provocations? At every press conference he was also quizzed about Ukraine, for world news follows an American president everywhere.

When it came to formal pledges of reassurance, Mr Obama did not stint. In Tokyo he offered fresh guarantees that the defence treaty between Japan and America covers all Japanese-administered territory, including the Senkaku islands, which China also claims. While visiting some of the 28,000 American troops stationed in South Korea, he vowed that his government would not hesitate to use “military might to defend our allies”. In the Philippines Mr Obama signed a new, ten-year agreement to give American forces greater access to local bases.

While Mr Obama was in Asia on April 28th American officials unveiled new sanctions against Russia: visa bans and asset freezes for Putin cronies such as Igor Sechin, the boss of Rosneft, a big state oil firm. On the same day a final detachment of American paratroopers arrived in Estonia, bringing to about 600 the number of American soldiers now on exercises in Poland and the three Baltic countries (all of which fear Russia). Whereas Russia tried to mask its deeds in Ukraine by deploying troops with no insignia, the whole point of America’s action was to show off the Stars and Stripes on the uniforms.

Philosopher-in-chief

Yet even as he did his duties as planetary peacekeeper, Mr Obama could not help pondering the limits of American power, out loud. There are “no guarantees” that sanctions will change Mr Putin’s thinking over Ukraine, he mused on April 25th. He said it would be in Mr Putin’s interests to behave better, but he might not.

In recent years, Mr Obama went on, people have taken to thinking that hard foreign-policy problems may actually have a definitive answer, typically involving the use of force. Mr Obama disagrees. “Very rarely have I seen the exercise of military power providing a definitive answer,” he told an audience in Seoul.

In the Philippines he was asked whether his handling of crises from Ukraine to Syria might have emboldened America’s enemies. He retorted that his tactics “may not always be sexy”, but have strengthened America’s global position. Many of his hawkish critics, he said, were the same people who supported the “disastrous” war in Iraq and who “haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade.”

Such sentiments may appeal to war-weary voters back home. Most Americans say that defending the security of allies is “very important”, but just 6% would use force over Ukraine, says a Pew poll, and huge majorities oppose action in Syria. For countries that rely on American protection, this is troubling. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for example, feel exposed (see Charlemagne). Like Ukraine, they were once part of the Soviet Union, have Russophone minorities and doubt that Mr Putin respects their borders.

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Source: The Economist

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