In recent weeks, Washington’s top security officials – from President Obama on down – have begun a sort of “reassurance tour,” telling allies and others that the United States still has their backs. Mr. Obama is in Japan, the vice president was in Ukraine, the Defense secretary went to Europe, and the secretary of State has been traveling almost everywhere.
Why this sudden rush to renew old defense vows?
In three words: Syria, Senkaku, and Crimea.
Many of America’s friends have begun to worry about US stamina for defense and its commitments to others. Their concern was first sparked by Obama not living up to his “red line” threat last year against Syria for its use of chemical weapons. But it was reinforced by his ambiguous support for Japan in its struggle with China over the Senkaku Islands, and now a tepid response to Russia’s taking of Crimea in Ukraine.
Combined with budget cutting at the Pentagon, the US defense umbrella looks a bit tattered and torn.
“The era when the US possessed overwhelming military power, including nuclear power, is over,” stated Japan’s Sankei newspaper this month. “With Chinese nuclear missiles able to strike Washington and New York, would America really retaliate with nuclear weapons on behalf of Japan?”
The administration is now offering both words and actions to renew US support to other nations. It is stationing fighter jets in NATO countries close to Russia’s borders. It keeps looking for ways to back non-jihadist rebels in Syria. And for his trip to Japan, Obama became the first president to state that a bilateral security treaty requires the US to militarily defend the Japanese islands claimed by China.
But Obama’s motives go beyond simply restoring US credibility. The US is also worried that some countries may now be tempted to pursue nuclear weapons.
Many world leaders note that the US and Russia both signed a pact with Ukraine in 1994 to honor its sovereignty and territorial integrity if it gave up its Soviet-era nuclear stockpile. Russia broke the agreement in March with its grab of Crimea, triggering some US sanctions. But top Ukrainian leaders say the US did not do enough to honor the pact’s moral commitment. A few even want to restore Ukraine’s nuclear capability and back out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a pact designed with incentives for nonnuclear nations to avoid joining the nuclear club.
During a March trip to Japan and South Korea, Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that the US needs to make sure those Asian allies “don’t feel so threatened that they move towards nuclearization in self-help.”
In other words, Obama’s foreign-policy goal of a world without weapons could now be further out of reach unless he continues to beef up America’s security commitments.
The moral leadership that the US took on after World War II – in defense of many democracies or against gross human rights violations – still comes at a price. Despite the president’s attempts to roll back defense spending or push allies to boost their militaries, he still refers to the US as an “exceptional” nation. These latest crises are showing just how exceptional the US is. And how much it still needs to prove it.