Like submarine sailors peering into a periscope, other nations are watching the United States for clues about its ability or willingness to live up to its historic role as a global superpower. Signs of the slightest US withdrawal from world affairs would delight America’s adversaries and send shivers among its friends.
Three months into President Obama’s second term, the clues – possibly hinting at a downsizing of the US role – seem more prevalent than ever.
As he takes his first trip abroad as a lame-duck president, the trip itself – to Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank – is being played down by the White House as not offering any major breakthroughs. In fact, the biggest question hanging over the trip is whether the president can reassure Israelis that he truly will act to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. US credibility on this point remains uncertain.
Another clue is the unusual sight of American B-52 bombers flying over South Korea in recent days. The Pentagon is trying to reassure South Korea of the US commitment to its defense by parading the Air Force warplanes in the skies.
The longtime Asian ally has recently doubted Mr. Obama’s willingness to sacrifice troops if North Korea makes good on its threats to use its recently tested atomic bombs and missiles. Some in South Korea are even calling for the country to develop its own nuclear weapons rather than rely on US retaliatory power.
Then there is a directive issued this week by the new Defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, to reexamine the nation’s defense strategy. This sends confusing signals because a new strategy was heralded only last year.
His move is driven by hefty budget cuts forced on the Pentagon under sequestration. On Monday, the Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said the cuts and a reworked defense strategy show a “need to adjust our ambitions to match our abilities.” But it could also reflect the relatively dovish outlook of the former Republican senator.
Perhaps the most-watched clue on whether the US is downsizing its global role is the pace at which it withdraws troops from Afghanistan. Obama wants most US combat troops home by the end of 2014. But the administration has gone back and forth about the withdrawal timetable. And the world is watching to see if the US will compromise by talking with Taliban leaders about joining a possible coalition government in Kabul.
During his first term, Obama raised eyebrows when the US did not take the lead in wars waged in Libya and Mali. He has also let Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other nations largely lead in backing rebels in Syria’s violent civil war. Such actions conform to his words in a 2009 speech given as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Americans, Obama said, “must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement.”
With so many treaty commitments to defend other nations – from Poland to the Philippines – the US must be careful in sending signals that it might tend haphazardly toward isolation. Its 20th-century record of winning three wars – World Wars I and II, and the cold war – set up expectations for continuing leadership in the 21st century, despite mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere.
Like a person, a nation is as good as its word. Whether by design or stumbling toward major budget cuts, the US needs to be more clear about its global role. No matter which direction the US is headed, it must go forward with integrity and transparency.