Strategic Gambles: The Diplomatic Stakes of American Retrenchment

Strategic Gambles: The Diplomatic Stakes of American Retrenchment

In early September, the U.S. executed a stunning volte-face in its declared policy on dealing with the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. Backing away from enforcing a self-imposed presidential “red line” with an already announced military intervention, Washington instead embraced a Russian-developed diplomatic plan that turns Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from a military target into an essential partner in ridding Syria of its WMD stockpiles. The reversal may not have marked “the worst day for U.S. and wider Western diplomacy since records began,” as one retired British diplomat saw it, but the shift definitely raised questions in world capitals about the reliability of U.S. statements and commitments.

Exactly one month later, another disturbing picture was released to the world: The official portrait of the Asia-Pacific Summit bleakly highlighted the fact that the U.S. president was absent to deal with a political crisis at home that had literally shut down the government and called into question America’s ability to pay its bills and meet its commitments. The absence of President Barack Obama allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping to take center stage, with the U.S. secretary of state relegated, quite literally, to the sidelines.

Together, these two events crystallized growing concerns that have been bubbling below the surface for the past several years: that, after 70 years of global leadership, U.S. influence in the world has begun to recede. As Steven Hurst of the Associated Press recently reported, diplomats are, behind closed doors, voicing greater concern:

An unmistakable sense of unease is growing in global capitals as the U.S. government from afar looks increasingly befuddled. America is shirking from a military confrontation in Syria, stymied at home by a gridlocked Congress and in danger of defaulting on sovereign debt, which could plunge the world's financial system into chaos. While each may be unrelated to the direct exercise of U.S. foreign policy, taken together they give some allies the sense that Washington is not as firm as it used to be in its resolve and its financial capacity, providing an opening for China or Russia to fill the void.

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