It was a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away: In July 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama made big, bold news by travelling to Berlin to – as The New York Times triumphantly recorded – “restore the world’s faith in strong American leadership and idealism.” With 200,000 Berliners waving campaign-provided American flags, Obama called for renewing America’s alliances and undoing the cowboy unilateralism of George W. Bush and Obama’s 2008 opponent Sen. John McCain.
The events of recent months are an indication of how spectacularly Obama has failed to fulfill his 2008 promise. This week comes the news that Saudi Arabia’s newly installed King Salman and three of the other six Gulf monarchs are boycotting Obama’s Camp David summit – a meeting called by Obama to reassure the Arab states that the forthcoming nuclear deal with Iran was not a betrayal of their longstanding security relationship with the United States. Beyond their fears of Iran’s nukes, the Gulf states see the rise of an aspiring Persian hegemon – in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq – taking advantage of, if not actively conspiring with, a retreating America. In this case “no show” means “no confidence.”
While the Middle East is where Obama has done the most damage to traditional U.S. alliances, the situation in Europe is not much better. The failure to respond to Vladimir Putin’s land grabs – which, to be fair, began with Georgia in the twilight of the Bush years – exposes NATO’s senility. The story of the post-Cold War Atlantic alliance, its late and limp performances in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, and now in Europe itself, is one of continuous decline. Even with the victory of David Cameron’s Tories, Britain continues to shed whatever elements of greatness it retains; with the nationalists wiping out all opposition in Scotland, another secession vote is more than possible, and Britain’s army is on course to be smaller than the NYPD. While Europe deserves most of the blame for its disarmament and indecision, the Obama Pentagon is pressing forward with plans to further reduce America’s military posture in Europe. The president came to office figuring the peace of Europe was eternal and self-sustaining, and thus there was no need to maintain the alliance that has been the key vehicle for U.S. global leadership since World War II. It is no wonder that Eastern Europeans doubt the credibility of NATO’s Article V, collective-defense guarantees.
Which brings us to East Asia and Obama’s supposed “rebalance” or “Pacific Pivot.” To say that things aren’t quite so bad there would be the soft bigotry of low expectations, except it was the president who raised expectations of more energetic American leadership there. Further, as expressed in the 2012 Defense Guidance, the pivot marks the sole “doctrinal” bit of Obama thinking; it was more than a reaction to Bush-era policies. Our East Asian allies cheered the initiative but now regard more as rhetoric than a strategic reality. It’s not just that the administration’s efforts – such as the repositioning of Marines to northern Australia, the attempt to build a strategic partnership with Burma or to revive the stalled partnership with India – have been underwhelming. Indeed, since trumpeting the rebalance to Asia the administration has distanced itself from allies’ enthusiasms. Obama’s pledge of a “new era” in U.S.-Japan relations barely survived the departure of Prime Minister Abe for Tokyo. The visit of reformist Indian leader Narendra Modi was a decidedly low-key affair. More tangibly, the Chinese have resumed their various encroachments into the South China Sea. At the end of the day, the U.S. position in the region is no better now than in 2008, and arguably worse: an empty pivot is worse than no pivot.
Over six years in office, Barack Obama has gone along way to unraveling the alliances – both formal and informal – that have been the framework for American geopolitical leadership since the end of World War II. Watching the Gulf states, in particular, try to fend for themselves in the absence of American power – as the Saudis are trying to do in Yemen and Syria – is painful and looks as though it will make things worse rather than better. King Salman’s decision to pass up Camp David may be less an insult than a recognition that it would be a waste of time.