U.S. must not duck global leadership
Thousands in Tokyo have been echoing Barack Obama's signature call for "change" — but as in "Change! Japanese-U.S. relations."
Our military is rushing anti-missile batteries to Iran's Arab neighbors in the Gulf in anticipation of new Iranian military escalation.
As in the case of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, the U.S. both gives the most aid to a devastated Haiti and still seems to receive the most criticism.
China has just warned us not to supply more armaments to Taiwan.
Our Predator drones continue to be the judge, jury and executioner of suspected terrorists in Pakistan.
What's gone wrong with Obama's dream of multilateral cooperation?
For starters, the world's tensions were not caused by, and remain far larger, than George W. Bush — and thus cannot be so easily solved by his absence.
Obama also has apparently confused what people say with what nations do.
The world's masses — most of them young, poor and non-Western — may applaud a hip, post-racial Barack Obama more than they ever would an old-money Texan like Bush. Obama may give soaring Wilsonian speeches abroad and be crowned with the Nobel Peace Prize for his anointed vision of a new global brotherhood.
But, unfortunately, national leaders themselves do not behave like excited concertgoers or European intellectuals. Instead, they have only long-term self-interests — not temporary emotional crushes — and so seek to expand their influence whenever they can.
Obama better understand that difference. A world without strong U.S. leadership really would become a far more dangerous place where the strong do as they please and the weak obey as they must.
After World War II, a reluctant America guaranteed a global system of secure trade and encouraged free-market capitalism and democracy. Both communist and fascist tyrants fought those efforts, eager to expand totalitarianism beyond their borders. And envious allies and neutral countries that benefited enormously from the American-enforced system resented the high profile of the United States.
All that responsibility was unpopular and costly for the United States. But the American people felt the activist bad choice was far better than the passive alternative: allowing more of the chaos that had wrecked much of civilization in the first half of the 20th century.
And if allies sometimes derided America, privately they were mostly relieved that there was some sort of policeman — and that it was us and not an authoritarian China, Iran or Russia.
After winning the cold war, the United States continued to keep the peace that allowed a new globalization to lift millions worldwide out of poverty. In bipartisan fashion under Presidents Reagan, Bush I and II and Clinton, America dealt with right-wing and left-wing tyrants alike that threatened regional order, whether a Muammar al-Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Manuel Noriega or the Taliban.
Obama for practical and idealistic reasons may believe that America no longer can afford or should play that pre-eminent role; he may even believe that such prominence was never really needed and was mostly counterproductive.
That diffidence often certainly seems the message from Obama's serial apologies, bowing, attacks on prior American foreign policy, and suggestions that tensions abroad are caused by misunderstandings — many of them our own — rather than irreconcilable differences in national character and objectives.
But he should at least admit that in such a vacuum of American power and influence, the natural order of things abroad would be chaotic.
Let us hope that Obama learned that tragic fact when events heated up in 2009. Promising to close the Guantanamo detention facility; initially planning to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York; broadcasting supposed past American sins; issuing meaningless deadlines to Iran; and snubbing allies like Britain, Israel and the Czech Republic won't win over enemies or ease world tensions.
Implicit in all this braggadocio is a growing suspicion abroad, rightly or wrongly, that a more naive, more unsteady America is broke, tired and unwilling to confront challenges as in the past.
Right now the world's bad actors confidently see "hope" for a vast "change" in the old world order — but not the kind Obama once so boldly promised.