"I MUST SAY I am perplexed," John Kerry told grandees at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, "by claims … that somehow America is disengaging from the world — this myth that we are pulling back or giving up or standing down." The secretary of state, whose website keeps a running tally of the miles he has flown since taking the job (320,961 as of Friday), insisted that nothing could be further from the truth.
"The only person more surprised than I am by the myth of this disengagement," he said, "is the Air Force pilot who flies the secretary of state's plane."
I must say I would be perplexed if I thought Kerry were truly perplexed. For at the start of the sixth year of Barack Obama's presidency, the United States is indisputably less influential, less esteemed, and less assertive than it was on Jan. 20, 2009. America remains the world's great military and cultural superpower, but anyone can see that its profile on the international stage has been deliberately reduced.
Kerry is certainly a hard worker. He keeps busy; he racks up the miles. But busyness is not effectiveness. It is no myth that US foreign policy in recent years has been premised on the conviction that Washington must intervene less and be constrained more. The Obama administration may call this "leading from behind" or "pressing the reset button" or having "more flexibility." It may praise itself for recognizing that there are "Good Reasons to be Humble," as Princeton's Anne-Marie Slaughter — who would later be tapped by Obama as the State Department's director of policy planning — argued in a 2008 essay. The world sees it as retreat, and reacts accordingly.