Cliff May

Russian President Vladimir Putin has given lip service to such warm and fuzzy ideas. In an op-ed published by The New York Times last September, he appealed for “mutual trust,” endorsed “shared success” and laid out the steps the “international community” should take to keep “hope alive.” He added: “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”

Is it not now — at long last — clear that Mr. Putin was just spinning us? North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Syria’s Bashar Assad, China’s Xi Jinping, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, Cuba’s Raul Castro and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan also are among those who sometimes talk like Berkeley professors, but in truth practice raw, 19th-century machtpolitik.

In theory, the idea of a “post-American” world — a global order featuring “shared leadership” and even “shared sovereignty” — sounds lovely. In practice, it can only mean global disorder — a Hobbesian state of nature in which the most rapacious and brutal regimes do whatever is necessary to establish their hegemony over whichever regions they covet. Expansion stops only when one hegemon bumps up against another — and both decide that a balance of power, or a balance of terror — is preferable to fighting it out, at least in the short term.

In his 2009 address to the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Obama famously said, “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation.” Had he said, “No one nation should try to dominate another nation,” he would have sounded preachy and weak. However, the assertion that no nation “can try” to dominate another is patently false. Combining the two phrases conveyed a rhetorical benefit at the time. In hindsight, however — and with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the front pages — the statement reveals a flawed foundation on which to build foreign policies.

Gaze over the international landscape: Do you see the prospect of a success anywhere? Or is it likely that the Obama administration’s goal at this point is simply to avoid additional visible failures?

That will require prolonging negotiations with Iran’s rulers (granting significant concessions while making believe that the Iranians do, too); attempting to keep the Palestinian-Israel “peace process” alive (though no Palestinian leaders are currently prepared to make peace with the Jewish state); hoping against hope that Mr. Assad, Mr. Maduro and Mr. Kim fall (and that something better comes after them); and “pivoting” toward Asia, insisting that does not mean pivoting away from everywhere else (while still not providing meaningful support for Japan, the Philippines and other Asian allies).

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama continues to signal that he is “war-weary,” that he seeks to “end” wars (not necessarily on favorable terms) and, as noted, proposes to issue pink slips to America’s by-no-means-weary warriors. In doing so, he is violating one of history’s oldest and firmest rules: The stronger a nation appears, the less likely its strength will be tested. The corollary to this: Weakness is provocative.

No “international community” will respond to Mr. Putin’s aggression or any of the world’s other despot-caused disasters. Still, an alliance of free nations might begin to coalesce if we would acknowledge the fact that the United Nations has become a dictators’ club, and if we would accept the fact that there are responsibilities the United States must shoulder. If American leaders won’t lead, Mr. Putin, Ayatollah Khamenei and other tyrants are only too eager to rule. Let’s not pretend we don’t know that. Let’s not pretend we don’t know what that will mean over the years ahead.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.