President Obama's decision to cancel his planned trip to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin was the right thing to do in light of Russia's decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden. But it also illustrates problems of the president's own making.
One of Obama's chief aims upon assuming office was to remake the image of the United States in the world's eyes. And he has -- but not in the way he imagined.
Speaking in Cairo in 2009, Obama promised specifically a "new beginning" in American foreign policy. Many interpreted the speech to be merely a criticism of President George W. Bush's presidency and, particularly, the negative response to the war in Iraq among Arabs and others.
But the comments signaled something more troubling, a critique of America widely shared on the left: that we are a nation no better than others and should behave accordingly.
As the president famously said in 2009, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." This view is common on the left but would strike most conservatives -- and, I suspect, most Americans -- as wrong-headed.
This is not to say the president doesn't love America. Barack Obama and many others on the left love America; however, they don't love the America that is, but the America they believe they can create. If only America could become the country the left envisions -- egalitarian among our own citizens and deferential to the rest of the world -- everyone would love us, or so they believe.
Obama took the left's view a step further. He seemed to think his own personal charisma could overcome America's benighted reputation with friends and foes alike. Remember, this is the man who thought he could sit down with Kim Jong-il, Fidel Castro and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and they would change their ways.
But instead of embracing Barack Obama and the new America he was creating, friends and foes alike came to view America as increasingly weak.
Certainly Putin seems to. How else could he grant Snowden asylum while patronizingly asserting that he did so on the condition that the leaker stops "harming our American partners"?
Putin has no interest in protecting America's interests and certainly not if they conflict with his own vision of Russian self-interest. Putin's only goal is to protect Russia's interests.
Would that Obama were to act the same way when it comes to U.S. interests. Instead of behaving as president of the United States, he seems at times to fashion himself, as he has said on more than one occasion, "a citizen of the world."
A weaker America makes for a more dangerous world. America appeared weak after the failed Vietnam War, which opened the door to Soviet expansion in Asia, Latin America and Africa and to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran. In the 1990s, America was thriving as an economic force but seemed oblivious to the threats being directed at us by Osama bin Laden.
In both cases, American weakness provided openings for our enemies. The Ayatollah Khomeini took hostages at the American embassy in Tehran and held them for more than a year, and al-Qaida attacked the World Trade Center in 1993 and again in 2001, killing some 3,000 Americans.
It is difficult to predict what harm will come from our perceived weakness now. It already has allowed countries to ignore their duty to turn over a criminal like Snowden, but things could get much worse. The very least the president could do was snub Putin. It may not be much of a response, but it is better than nothing.
But like President Jimmy Carter's boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Obama's actions won't be enough to restore American standing in the world.