Why the US must adapt through embracing its Position, Not Fighting It

The beheading of a journalist by the Islamic State, the shooting down of MH17 and the invasion of Gaza by Israel are events that have all been widely commented on. What unites them is that they highlight the decreasing influence of the United States of America. Since the ending of the Cold War, we have seen two distinctive phases in American influence. Up until 2001, it was untouchable. Then, 9/11 shattered the façade. This was reinforced by the failure to implement post-conflict resolutions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Libya. Whilst it may be unfair to label the US as ‘declining’, it is undoubtedly not the domineering power it was 15 years ago. Nevertheless, it should adapt to this position, rather than fight its decline or, even worse, accelerate it.

The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have become scars on US foreign policy. More precisely, the approach of Bush Jnr., and its subsequent condemnation has caused the US to become more tentative in foreign affairs. The emphasis has shifted from a focus on possible benefits to an overwhelming assessment of what could go wrong. Two factors drive this further. Firstly, the US people are tired of foreign adventures. The body count of the last decade and an increasing loss of confidence in US exceptionalism following the financial crisis have aided this. Secondly, Obama is a reluctant leader. He seeks assurance from Europe and, despite not facing re-election, is wary of low ratings. This attitude of the isolationist left is, nonetheless, dangerous. If the US wants evidence of what happens when it leaves the global stage entirely, the courage of Russia and IS may offer a glimpse.

More concerning for those who believe in the power of the United States is that such an outlook may gain further support. In the primaries for the 2016 presidential election, candidates will be obliged to confront such issues. Hilary Clinton, as Sectary of State, demonstrated more steel than Obama in supporting limited involvement in Syria; however, she will not return the US to its status as the global policeman. For the GOP, Rand Paul, a US Senator, and possible Republican Candidate in 2016, is a staunch isolationist.

Aside from whether the US wants to seize the initiative in the international arena is the question of whether it now can. Numerous problems have no clear right answer, even if the US wanted to solve them. In Syria the choice between Assad and IS is unpalatable; Russia is an unpredictable beast with a leader whose will cannot be shifted by mere diplomacy; Israel is an ally whose actions can be hard to defend. Finally, the allegations against the NSA have made possible voices of support, notably Germany, even more unwilling than usual to stand by Obama’s side.

We are thus left with a ‘superpower’ that is no longer willing to play the role, or even able to interfere adequately if it did. Such a conclusion is possibly premature, but there is undoubtedly a steady movement in that direction. Perhaps the notion of ‘superpower’ is becomingly increasingly irrelevant in an evolving web of geopolitical challenges no one wants to tackle. Admittedly, Iraq demonstrates the problems of getting too involved – leaving unmanageable states that spiral out of control, and is then seized by jihadists bent on an all-together different form of terror. In the last week, air strikes have emboldened IS, showing that even if the US were willing, the solution would be arduous and unclear.

So, the US could retreat entirely and leave the world to the hands of local hegemonies such as China, Russia and Iran. It could, although unlikely, stand resolute, fulfil the wishes of those such as John McCain and fight IS and Russian advancement on the ground. Neither of these is the answer though. The US must embrace the position it finds itself in. A middle ground where it can neither change the world or afford to leave it alone. Thankfully, Obama seems to have understood this. It will be a while before those on the left and right agree with him though.