For presidents, like sports team managers, the tough weeks tend to outnumber the jubilant. But even by the standards of an unforgiving job, Barack Obama could be forgiven for feeling unusually buffeted of late. Many of the blows have come on the domestic front, with the all-consuming stand off of the government shutdown segueing into frantic efforts to defend and repair the roll-out of Obamacare amid charges of fatal technological incompetence. But if he were tempted to seek solace in the autonomy of foreign policy – as modern presidents have been wont to do – there has been little consolatory triumph to be found.
In August and September, he was caught in a mighty tangle over Syria, threatening military strikes over its chemical weapons use before being hamstrung first by Britain’s refusal to join the charge and then by the reluctance of his own Congress. The legacy of that mess continues to work itself out in unpredictable ways, such as increasingly public tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia, hitherto one of its more solid allies. Though the eventual Russian-orchestrated deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was a respectable one given the circumstances, the episode as a whole spoke of an America straining to translate its power into influence, or to maintain a united front among its friends.
Now the rolling scandal over National Security Agency surveillance, triggered by the mass leak of secrets by Edward Snowden, has entered another phase of intensity, this time centred on Europe. Revelations that the US tapped the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, operated numerous “listening posts” on European soil, and sucked up vast quantities of communications data from millions of citizens across Europe have broken in the press. Public expressions of displeasure have been forthcoming, including a European Union statement. Taken together, these vignettes of public dissention will be enough to make many ask the question: is the US losing its influence even over its allies? Is this just a tricky moment for a particular president, or harbinger of a broader trend?
First, the necessary caveats: enduring alliance relationships resemble long marriages, in that the mere presence of moments of strain, or even audible arguments, cannot be taken as evidence of imminent separation. Looking back over the longer-term history of America’s relations with its allies, episodes such as the Vietnam War, the “Euromissile” crisis of the 1980s, and the controversial interventions in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, demonstrate that sharp differences of opinion and conflicting priorities are no radical new state of affairs.
And however unhappy they may be with their recent treatment, it is not obvious that countries such as Germany, France or Saudi Arabia have anywhere to go if they did decide the time had come to tout for alternative alliance partners. It is not entirely clear how European annoyance might manifest in ways that have practical importance. It is true they have it in their power to threaten progress on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership process, but it is not clear that such an action would harm the US more than Europe itself. In short, even if they are disgruntled, necessity may ultimately prove a sufficient force to help them get over it.
The reason present friction between the US and its allies carries greater weight, however, is that it arises in the context of a global shift in power away from the US and its established allies and towards new powers. The prospect of “American decline” in terms of relative international power is the focus of a great deal of debate over both substance and semantics. But the central fact is that even the part of the US’s own intelligence apparatus charged with long-term foresight regards it as established that within 20 years the world will have transitioned from the “unipolar” American dominance of the first post-Cold War decades to a world in which multiple centres of power must coexist. The centre of economic gravity has already shifted markedly towards Asia during the last decade.
This certainly does not mean any single new power is about to rise to replace the US as a hegemonic force. Nor does it mean the US will be going anywhere: the scale of its existing advantages across a range of fronts – military, economic, institutional – is sufficiently great that it is assured a prominent place at the table of whatever order may come. What it does mean is that Americans must presently be engaged in thinking carefully about how best to leverage their advantages to retain the maximum possible influence into the future. If they cannot continue to be first among equals in managing the world order, they will wish at least to ensure that order is one that runs in line with their own established preferences.
Many of those who are optimistic about the ability of the US to pull off this project of declining power without declining influence place emphasis on two things: the extent to which the US has soft power due to widespread admiration for its political and cultural values, and the extent to which it has locked in influence through the extent of its existing networks of friends and allies. Even if these advantages cannot arrest America’s decline on harder metrics, if played properly they can mitigate its consequences and secure an acceptable future. Shoring up support from like-minded countries such as those of Europe ought to be the low-hanging fruit of such an effort.
So the current problems do harm on both fronts. It will be difficult to maintain the allure of soft power if global opinion settles on the view that American political discord has rendered its democracy dysfunctional at home, or that its surveillance practices have given rein to the mores of a police state. And it will be harder to preserve American status through the force of its alliances if its politicians' economic irresponsibility (for example, publicly contemplating a default on American national debt) or scandals over surveillance or drone strikes alienate their public or cause their leaders to question the extent to which they really are on the same side as the US.
Obama’s day-to-day foreign policy struggles should not be simplistically taken as signs of collapsing American influence. But if the long-term plan is to carefully manage relative decline so as to preserves maximum influence, episodes such as those his country has faced since August do nothing to boost the prospects of success.