America’s allies are nervous. With Russia grabbing territory, China bullying its neighbours and Syria murdering its people, many are asking: where is Globocop? Under what circumstances will America act to deter troublemakers? What, ultimately, would America fight for?
The answer to this question matters. Rogue states will behave more roguishly if they doubt America’s will to stop them. As a former head of Saudi intelligence recently said of Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Ukraine: “While the wolf is eating the sheep, there is no shepherd to come to the rescue.”
Small wonder that Barack Obama was asked, at every stop during his just-completed four-country swing through Asia, how exactly he plans to wield American power. How would the president respond if China sought to expand its maritime borders by force? How might he curb North Korea’s nuclear provocations? At every press conference he was also quizzed about Ukraine, for world news follows an American president everywhere.
When it came to formal pledges of reassurance, Mr Obama did not stint. In Tokyo he offered fresh guarantees that the defence treaty between Japan and America covers all Japanese-administered territory, including the Senkaku islands, which China also claims. While visiting some of the 28,000 American troops stationed in South Korea, he vowed that his government would not hesitate to use “military might to defend our allies”. In the Philippines Mr Obama signed a new, ten-year agreement to give American forces greater access to local bases.
While Mr Obama was in Asia on April 28th American officials unveiled new sanctions against Russia: visa bans and asset freezes for Putin cronies such as Igor Sechin, the boss of Rosneft, a big state oil firm. On the same day a final detachment of American paratroopers arrived in Estonia, bringing to about 600 the number of American soldiers now on exercises in Poland and the three Baltic countries (all of which fear Russia). Whereas Russia tried to mask its deeds in Ukraine by deploying troops with no insignia, the whole point of America’s action was to show off the Stars and Stripes on the uniforms.
Yet even as he did his duties as planetary peacekeeper, Mr Obama could not help pondering the limits of American power, out loud. There are “no guarantees” that sanctions will change Mr Putin’s thinking over Ukraine, he mused on April 25th. He said it would be in Mr Putin’s interests to behave better, but he might not.
In recent years, Mr Obama went on, people have taken to thinking that hard foreign-policy problems may actually have a definitive answer, typically involving the use of force. Mr Obama disagrees. “Very rarely have I seen the exercise of military power providing a definitive answer,” he told an audience in Seoul.
In the Philippines he was asked whether his handling of crises from Ukraine to Syria might have emboldened America’s enemies. He retorted that his tactics “may not always be sexy”, but have strengthened America’s global position. Many of his hawkish critics, he said, were the same people who supported the “disastrous” war in Iraq and who “haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade.”
Such sentiments may appeal to war-weary voters back home. Most Americans say that defending the security of allies is “very important”, but just 6% would use force over Ukraine, says a Pew poll, and huge majorities oppose action in Syria. For countries that rely on American protection, this is troubling. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for example, feel exposed (see Charlemagne). Like Ukraine, they were once part of the Soviet Union, have Russophone minorities and doubt that Mr Putin respects their borders.
For Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the president of Estonia, the legal order preserving Europe’s borders changed utterly when Russia invaded Crimea. The European Union’s meek response has made it a laughing stock. “There is nothing left to hold on to,” declares Mr Ilves.
Except NATO. Unlike Ukraine, the Balts are members of the NATO military alliance, under whose founding treaty an armed attack on any member is considered an attack on all. This means America is committed to protecting its European allies. And for now, they believe it will. “I do believe that the borders of NATO are a red line. I have faith in that,” declares President Ilves. If any NATO ally tried to block a response to an armed attack, NATO would, in effect, cease to exist, he says.
In recent years, Mr Obama has scaled back plans for missile defence in Europe and reduced America’s military presence there to two brigade combat teams. But Russia’s aggression has had the unintended consequence of giving NATO a renewed sense of purpose: hence those American paratroopers in Poland.
François Heisbourg, of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique in Paris, reckons America would still fight to defend the Baltic states: “The moment a Russian tank crosses the bridge at Narva [on Estonia’s border with Russia] it will be zapped.” But America’s commitment to defend Europe is undermined by the Europeans’ tendency to freeload, which American taxpayers resent. Few allies except Britain meet the NATO target to maintain military spending at 2% of GDP.
In the short term there are two military concerns. One is that the Baltic states are difficult to defend. Their airspace is entirely covered by Russian missiles. A greater worry is that Russia’s aggression might be stealthy, as in Ukraine. “Mr Putin does not do frontal attack; he does judo,” says Mr Heisbourg. What would America and NATO do if Russia starts to undermine the Balts by stirring unrest among ethnic Russians there and deploying mysterious armed men? NATO was not designed for such contingencies.
Middle Eastern gloom
Nowhere is the perception of growing American timidity so strong as in the Middle East. Eleven years ago America conquered Iraq in a matter of weeks. Yet when Mr Obama pulled America’s last troops out in 2011, there was little to show for all the lives lost and billions spent. The regime America has left behind in Baghdad is barely friendly.
In the rest of the region the story is not much cheerier. The new government in Egypt ignores American finger-wagging about human rights and buys lots of Russian weapons. In Syria President Bashar Assad was caught red-handed last year gassing his own people, an act that Mr Obama had specifically warned would trigger American punishment. Yet this “red line” was crossed almost with impunity.
There were sound arguments for all these apparent American retreats. Yet the widespread impression in the Middle East is that the lion has turned into a pussycat. Its foes rejoice; its allies bewail their perceived abandonment.
Iraq’s leader, Nuri al-Maliki, is chummier with Iran than America. Iran jauntily backs militias and political parties in Iraq. It sends bullets and “advisers” to Syria via Iraqi airspace. It sponsors Iraqi Shia volunteers to fight American-supplied Sunni rebels in Syria.
Of late, America has sometimes taken a back seat to other countries, as with France’s intervention in Mali and NATO’s in Libya. Or it has simply shied from doing anything much, as in Syria.
Yet reports of the death of American influence in the Middle East are exaggerated. Mr Obama can claim some successes: oil prices are stable, Israel has never been so prosperous or secure and Iran has agreed (under intense pressure) to curb its nuclear ambitions somewhat. Terrorism now poses far more danger within the Middle East than to the rest of the world.
America’s regional military bootprint has shrunk, but only from the inflated dimensions of the Bush-era “surge” in Iraq. A constellation of American military bases dots the region, from the 5th Fleet’s headquarters in Bahrain to Central Command’s massive base in Qatar, to secret airstrips sending drones into the skies of Yemen. No outside power can plausibly replace America there. The Gulf monarchies still rely on American protection, as do Jordan and (to a lesser extent than before) Israel.
The perception of American timidity has yet to do serious damage to American interests in the Middle East. It has, however, spurred allies to look out for themselves. Israel has cultivated military and economic ties with China and India. Gulf states are arming themselves: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have all recently ordered huge arsenals.
Moving to Asia, America has been fighting in Afghanistan for more than a decade now. This year Mr Obama plans to bring home almost all of the more than 30,000 American troops there. It may yet be all of them. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, has refused to sign an agreement that would allow 5,000-10,000 or so to stay on in non-combat roles. But both candidates in the run-off election to succeed him are supporters of the agreement.
So American boots will still be on the ground, providing targets for insurgents. Even if a broader civil war is avoided, America may find itself an unwilling party to bloodshed. If the American-backed government in Kabul finds itself unable to control swathes of the country, al-Qaeda or other groups with global terrorist ambitions might regroup there, as they might in the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan. Should they succeed in staging an attack on mainland America, the cycle might start again: experience shows that to avenge the victims of murder at home, America will fight.
It seems far-fetched to think that America would go to war over the islands known to Japan as the Senkakus and to China as the Diaoyus. Nestling in the East China Sea between the two countries, they are tiny, barren and uninhabited save for hundreds of goats and the elusive “Senkaku mole” (a critter, not a double agent). When America administered the islands from 1945-72, it used them for bombing practice.
Yet Mr Obama has put American military credibility on the line over the Senkakus (even if he did not explicitly promise that the 50,000 American troops stationed in Japan would help fight for them). For more than two years now China has been buzzing the islands by air and sea to challenge Japan’s claim of control, and last November included them in an “Air Defence Identification Zone”. There is a real risk that an accidental clash might escalate. So these desolate rocks may pose the most immediate test of Mr Obama’s “pivot” towards Asia.
The South China Sea sets others. Five countries have claims there that overlap with China’s. The Philippines’ dispute is the most active. In 1995 China evicted it from one reef, and two years ago from another. America takes no position on sovereignty, but backs Manila’s efforts to contest Beijing’s claims under international law.
In South Korea 28,000 American troops sit near the border to deter the North Korean regime. Few expect that regime to last for ever (see Banyan). Should it collapse, China, fearing the abrupt arrival of a unified Korea on its borders that is America’s ally and stuffed with American armour, might intervene. Loth to upset its erratic ally, China refuses to co-ordinate contingency plans for a North Korean implosion with America.
Both big powers hope that Taiwan’s deepening economic ties with mainland China will dampen the island’s enthusiasm for formal independence. But as Yan Xuetong, a Chinese scholar, has noted, at least 70% of people on Taiwan still see themselves as “Taiwanese” first, “Chinese” second. One day Beijing’s impatience at Taiwan’s failure to submit may force America into very difficult choices. A 1979 law binds America’s government to deem any attempt at forcible reunification “as a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific Area and of grave concern to the United States”.
Would America really go to war with China? China plainly seeks to become the dominant power in Asia. Many Asians doubt that America is reconciled to being number two. That said, many Asians also doubt that America would risk a shooting war with a nuclear power. They point to American silence when China seized the Scarborough shoal from the Philippines in 2012; and to its advice to American airlines late last year to comply with China’s air-defence zone over the Senkakus.
In Asia, as elsewhere, America’s allies are boosting their armed forces. Some suspect that America’s security umbrella has holes in it. Sotto voce, a Japanese diplomat says Japan has never relied on it–though what he perhaps means is that it no longer does.
Under its pacifist constitution, imposed by America after the second world war, Japan is barred from “collective self-defence”, even if it means shooting down a North Korean missile on its way to Hawaii. Its current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, wants to change this. The aim, as one scholar puts it, is to become a “normal” ally, like a NATO member, partly to encourage America to keep defending it, and partly because it is not sure it will.
Mr Obama’s hands-off approach dismays the foreign-policy establishment back home. Democrats and Republicans alike chide him for leaving a security vacuum for enemies to fill. Yet others note that he does not want to be the American president who failed to honour a treaty. He chose to deploy ground forces to the Baltics and Poland, when he could have sent only a few ships or planes.
A defender of the president, Ivo Daalder, American ambassador to NATO from 2009-13, suggests that if NATO allies suffered provocations short of an invasion (eg, Russian passports being distributed to Russian-speakers, challenges to Baltic frontiers) more troops, ships and warplanes would be deployed, making America’s commitment to collective security ever-more visible. It was also under Mr Obama that NATO finally drew up contingency plans to cover threats to all members.
Kurt Volker, George W. Bush’s final NATO ambassador and Mr Obama’s first, suggests that–despite Mr Obama’s distrust of military force–he would still act if there were a loud enough “domestic outcry.” An outright invasion of a NATO ally would trigger such an outcry, Mr Volker says, as would a serious attack on Israel. But short of that, Mr Volker worries that other countries see within Team Obama “a creeping willingness to let things go”.
A senior former defence official says that Mr Obama acted slowly in sending reinforcements to NATO members, and would do so again. “I think Mr Putin is going to keep coming until someone stands up to him,” says this source. In the case of Russian adventurism inside NATO’s borders, he predicts that Team Obama would respond: “I would worry that it would be late. Not too late, but late, and that would send a message around the world.”
America’s obligations in Asia are “nuanced”, says another senior figure. Where American troops are stationed in large numbers–in South Korea, or on the main islands of Japan–the security commitment is “absolute”. Under Mr Obama, American forces have pushed back (somewhat) against Chinese sabre-rattling in disputed seas. Should China threaten Taiwan, America would feel a “moral obligation” to send ships or planes to serve as a referee.
Yet during previous crises, as in 1996, when China tested missiles before a Taiwanese election and America sent warships to the area, even hawkishly pro-Taiwan members of Congress privately told officials “you’d sure as hell better not get us into a war with the Chinese”, this source recalls.
A skirmish over the Senkakus would trigger help of some sort, says another veteran of many crises: perhaps early-warning planes to patrol the skies for Japan, and warships to show the American flag. But the American public “would not be excited to go to war over a bunch of rocks”.
So much for America’s formal commitments. When it comes to other countries and regions, insiders worry that Mr Obama sees the world as a jungle full of thugs, forever causing crises that America cannot fix. His failure to enforce his own “red line” over chemical weapons in Syria gravely damaged his credibility.
Team Obama is divided, with an unhappy State Department under John Kerry desperate to see more help for anti-Assad forces in Syria, while the Pentagon has spent months explaining why extra weapons shipments cannot work. Meanwhile, Mr Obama is described as analysing every option to exhaustion before concluding that inaction is the prudent course.
In a few areas, a toughening of current policies is possible. Mr Obama’s guiding principle is to avoid new wars. Because a nuclear-armed Iran might start a war which drags in America, he treats Iranian talks with great seriousness.
There are few overt hawks in Congress: the Republican Party of the Bush era, with its dreams of creating democracies across the world, is a distant memory. But some senators are pushing Mr Obama to take tougher, faster action against Russia. On a visit to Ukraine on April 25th Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for harsher sanctions on Russian banks and energy interests.
Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, grumbles that the Russian stockmarket actually rose after the latest American sanctions were announced, suggesting those sanctions are weaker than the world expected. Mr Corker says several senators want the government to examine the pros and cons of permanently stationing American NATO forces in such countries as the Baltic republics. Russia maintains that any such move would breach understandings reached with NATO in the 1990s. But Mr Obama will be under pressure to declare that the world has changed, and ignore Russian complaints.
Some will celebrate the decline of America’s ability to deter. But wherever they live, they may find that whatever replaces the old order is much worse. American power is not half as scary as its absence would be.
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