The abrupt about-face on Syria, the global humiliation resulting from the U.S. government shutdown, the continuing fallout from revelations about National Security Agency activities, strong statements emanating from Riyadh that Saudi Arabia is re-evaluating its relationship with the United States—all of these have fed into a narrative that the United States is losing the ability to set the global agenda. The perception that President Barack Obama has been weakened led Forbes magazine to drop him to the No. 2 spot on the list of the world’s most powerful people, with Russia’s Vladimir Putin leapfrogging him to take the top position and China’s Xi Jinping ranked just behind at No. 3. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the events of the past two months, while embarrassing for the Obama administration, are in fact superficial wounds that can easily heal or indicators of more-permanent damage to America’s leadership of the community of nations.
One immediate signpost will be whether Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s state visit, nixed in the wake of spying revelations, is rescheduled or canceled outright—and alongside this, whether the bid by Boeing to sell fighter jets to the Brazilian air force, only a few months ago heralded as a sign of closer U.S.-Brazilian security ties, is permanently foreclosed. Another major indicator will be whether Germany, France or Spain publicly interrupt their intelligence cooperation with the United States. On that question, my colleague John Schindler has noted that while the media on both sides of the Atlantic has been playing up the scandal, “the heads of Germany’s intelligence services are now headed to Washington . . . for meetings with the White House and NSA to smooth over the scandal.” The outlook from Brazil is less encouraging: The Boeing bid is now “on hold,” and no date has been set for Rousseff to meet with Obama.
The next test for the Obama administration will be its ability to conclude a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan that would provide the legal status for U.S. forces to remain in that country after 2014. A key American demand is that U.S. military personnel enjoy immunity from Afghan law and, if charged with a crime, be tried in the United States—a demand that is continuing to face resistance from the Afghan side. Since a similar issue scuttled American plans to keep a residual force in Iraq after 2011, the ability of the Obama team to convince Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accept the deal is in doubt. The U.S. initially set Oct. 31 as the deadline for concluding the agreement, but has let that deadline lapse without setting a new one.