Long live a new era of America's halting involvement in a world not of its own making.
- By Emile SimpsonEmile Simpson is a research fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He was formerly a British Army officer.
As ISIS forces sweep through Sunni Iraq, whether or not the United States will help Baghdad to bring back its provinces has overtaken "bring back our girls" in Nigeria as the central public concern of U.S. foreign policy.
The contrast matters because it marks not the end, but potentially the start, of an era of American exceptionalism.
The masterful performance through which Michelle Obama galvanized global opinion on the Nigerian schoolgirls might have been seen at the time, only a month ago, as an affirmation of a U.S. belief in its global destiny: That the schoolgirls really were, for the first lady, and for that intangible sense of U.S. mission and responsibility to the rest of the world, "ours."
From the end of World War II, the world’s destiny has been America’s destiny. Although the U.S. market-based economic model has been imitated globally more than its democratic political institutions, the basic structures of international order have been underpinned by America’s economic, military, and cultural influence. From 1945, to subscribe to the idea of the West, or at least to the economic and cultural aspects of that contested concept, has been to subscribe to a U.S.-led international order. That has been the case for better and for worse, as we are respectively reminded, on the one hand, by the U.S. victory in the Cold War, and on the other by the near collapse of the U.S.-centered international financial system in 2008.
The Western world order is no longer a post-1945 platitude, but a distinctly fragile proposition, the reality of which people across the world need actively to be persuaded of to believe in, as President Barack Obama attempted to do in his recent foreign-policy speech at West Point.
Superficially, the president appeared to amplify the first lady’s message of America’s global responsibilities: America was the "indispensable nation," so when "schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria… it is America that the world looks to for help."
But the underlying effect of the president’s speech was to bookmark the end of an era of American intervention; it closed the chapter starting from 2001, and perhaps even the volume from 1945.
"Bring back our girls" may have inoculated the United States against claims that it was not upholding the global rights of young women to an education, and implicitly shifted the burden of proving whose world order gave the better deal to young women across to Boko Haram — which threatened to sell the girls into slavery — and Islamic jihadists worldwide. The Twitter campaign isolated a clear-cut case of right and wrong, and was heard across the world, loud and clear.
But sometimes silence speaks louder than words. The world is virtually silent about the genocide going on this very day in the Central African Republic (CAR). There is no global Twitter campaign about schoolgirls there. They aren’t ours.
As if to amplify the silent point in the West Point speech that an era of U.S. intervention is effectively over, CAR even dropped out of the rhetorical consciousness of the speech itself from one paragraph to the next:
"Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve. And not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing challenges here at home, that view is shared by many Americans.
A different view from interventionists from the left and right says that we ignore these conflicts at our own peril; that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future."
If the responsibility to protect 276 abducted schoolgirls is alive and well, what’s clear from Syria to the CAR is that the "responsibility to protect" whole populations as a doctrine of international policy is dead in the water; it’s the language of the last era, and to suggest otherwise in the face of one of the biggest humanitarian catastrophes in history in Syria is surely untenable.
ISIS in Iraq is in a completely different league of complexity and geopolitical significance than the Nigerian schoolgirls. Given that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is most to blame for the chaos, having systematically marginalized the Sunni population since 2010, should Washington back Baghdad at all? Given the risk of making an enemy of all of Iraq’s Sunnis, whose reconciliation with U.S. forces and Baghdad was the prime achievement of the 2008 surge, should the United States strike ISIS? Given that Maliki has shown no competence to be able to retake the Sunni provinces, militarily or politically, if the United States does engage in limited strikes, given the risk of being drawn into an open-ended commitment to back up Baghdad, where does that effort end? Should the United States try to keep Iraq together at all, or is this the moment to cut losses and avoid being drawn into a quagmire of sectarian violence, and see Iraq split up?
And how should Washington understand ISIS: Should it accept Maliki’s self-interested argument that they are the same al Qaeda "terrorists" of 9/11, that this is the same fight against common enemies? Or should the United States refrain from grouping together all jihadists as "the terrorists," thus exploiting the various groups’ principal vulnerability — that they fight endlessly with each other, as ISIS’s break with al Qaeda testifies? If it’s the latter, then ISIS is not part of the war the Obama administration refuses to call the war on terror — despite still relying on the 2001 post-9/11 Congressional Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF). And if the 2001 AUMF is not going to be used to fight ISIS, is the administration going to rely on the 2003 Iraq War AUMF, and thus re-open the war? Or will the White House stand back while ISIS takes control of the Sunni provinces?
It is worth remembering in all this that, barely a month ago, resolving the kidnap of the Nigerian schoolgirls was "one of the highest priorities of the U.S. Government," according to the U.S. State Department.
In the context of far more serious and more morally complicated contemporary security problems today, it still bears looking at the fixation on the Nigerian schoolgirls last month. This was hardly an affirmation of international ambition so much as an example of a relatively small and morally clear-cut case that marked the limits of U.S. interventionism in a new era. The reticence to be drawn beyond those limits is clear from the Obama administration’s agony over whether or not to intervene in Iraq.
The transition from one era to the next marked by the West Point speech could not be better captured than by the now-anachronistic competition among commentators to be the most outraged about why the United States had taken so long to declare Boko Haram a terrorist group, or the delay to put pressure on the Nigerian government to bring back our girls. If there is one lesson from the post-2001 wars, it’s that perhaps we should not rush in to complex conflicts that very quickly move away from being clear-cut cases of right and wrong, to entanglement in intractable age-old tribal fights, with no clear boundary between enemy and civilian.
The anachronism of the commentators’ outrage at the delay in intervention in Nigeria — the knee-jerk desire to intervene everywhere and fi
ght every jihadist under the sun — was nonetheless echoed in parts of the president’s speech. The speech worked where it looked forward, and set out the new and critical distinction between the potentially unilateral use of force "when our core interests demand it," but offered a higher bar for using force in relation to broader issues of "global concern that do not pose a direct threat to the United States." The speech failed where it blurred this new and important distinction by rehearsing the language and motifs of the last era, motifs that now sounded tired, and out of tune with U.S. public opinion.
We heard that "America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism — it is a matter of national security," because "democracies are our closest friends and are far less likely to go to war," and that "respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror." That doesn’t fit with the small print: "In countries like Egypt, we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests."
We heard that the test of any U.S. drone strike was whether "[we] create more enemies than we take off the battlefield." But the idea of a global battlefield against terrorist enemies is seriously out of date, at least since we worked out that the original Taliban and Saddam Hussein actually had very little to do with al Qaeda. Indeed, the irrational durability of the idea of the world as a battlefield is as anachronistic as Guantanamo Bay.
Paradoxically, the speech itself acknowledged that al Qaeda was decentralized, with many affiliates and extremists having "agendas focused in countries where they operate." But if that is true, why then are they the enemy of the United States? Was the Nairobi Westgate Mall attack, mentioned as an example of a "less defensible target," really an attack against the United States? Five U.S. citizens were wounded, among hundreds of other nationalities. But if that is the threshold for identifying a terrorist group as an enemy of the United States, then Obama’s new distinction is so porous as to be of little practical utility.
The vague and permissive concept of the terrorist enemy that punctuated certain parts of the speech was contradicted by the main direction of the speech, which was about limiting U.S. exposure to open-ended conflicts, not being drawn into other people’s fights and tribal-sectarian wars. Eras of U.S. intervention come and go. Vietnam closed the last one, and Afghanistan will close this one. There will be new eras of U.S. intervention in future, and the closing of the 2001 chapter is not remarkable in the long view, as permanent war is plainly unsustainable. The United States remains the global military superpower, and claims of the end of its military dominance are exaggerated.
If that were the case, why would the speech potentially be closing not just a chapter from 2001 but a volume from 1945?
Consider for a moment President Harry Truman’s inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1949. As cultural historian Nick Cullather has written, by re-framing what would previously have been perceived as colonial intrusion as "development," Truman, as Fortune magazine put it at the time, "hit the jackpot of the world’s political emotions." Cullather notes how leaders of then newly independent states, such as Zahir Shah of Afghanistan and Jawaharlal Nehru of India, accepted these terms, merging their own governmental mandates into the stream of nations moving toward modernity. Development was not only the best, but the only course. As Nehru stated, "There is only one-way traffic in time."
President Obama mentioned the importance of development in the speech, and how American assistance aimed, for example, "to double access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa so people are connected to the promise of the global economy." A noble thought perhaps, but this is a world away from Truman. The developing states of 1949 are now powerful economies, and they hardly see themselves as little Americas. Westernization in 1949 meant Americanization; now it doesn’t.
The very success of the United States in the Cold War and in the brief period of post-1991 global hegemony was to mold the world in its own image, with the effect that Westernization — at least its economic and cultural dimension — is now so universally accepted in varying forms that it changes the meaning of what being Westernized is: Even ISIS probably uses iPhones.
In this new context, despite sympathy with the humanitarian ambition of bringing electricity to sub-Saharan Africa, the very discourse of international development as something Western states engage in seems at best dated: a vexed idea drifting away from its post-colonial moorings towards the post-post-colonial waters in which it has no clear anchor points.
President Obama said that America remains the "indispensable nation." He’s right; it is. But he was wrong to use the examples of "when a typhoon hits the Philippines, or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine, it is America that the world looks to for help." That is to attach the meaning of America’s role in this new era to being a first responder for a fragmented set of events that don’t fit into a clear narrative. Moreover, most of the world does not want America as a bull in a china shop, rushing to create new terrorist enemies or to chase Joseph Kony around jungles, changing foreign policy in accordance with the latest YouTube or Twitter sensations.
America does not need to seek sensation, precisely because it remains the world’s great democratic nation.
The rest of the liberal world’s relationship with America is not one of love but one of faith. America is the indispensable nation not just to its allies, but to individuals and families around the world who rely on it to uphold some kind of liberal world order: the educated Afghanis whose families will be killed if the Taliban take control again; the Saudi woman who might hope to drive a car one day; the students in Tehran arrested just for singing "Happy;" or any number of others, from Kiev, through Cairo, to Baghdad.
This faith is not the demonstrative faith of the zealot, but the quiet contemplation that, despite America’s moral failures — be it torture or mass surveillance — recognizes that the United States remains the great liberal power. There are still a huge number of people anxious not to see on their horizon a U.S. carrier group replaced with a Chinese one.
Unlike the sensational reaction desired from rescuing schoolgirls, or capturing Kony, the United States can’t expect any thanks or applause for its routine foreign policy from its faithful across the globe. To be effective, Washington needs to be tough and sometimes make ugly compromises, like backing a corrupt regime in Kabul to stop a worse fate for the Afghan people, or the equivalent in Iraq now. No one is going to cheer that, even if they agree with it.
What is remarkable is not the enduring faith of those around the world in the United States, but the enduring faith of the U.S. public in a U.S.-led international order that is massively expensive and for which they receive little thanks.
The idea of a special global destiny is a fragile idea. Britain used to be the indispensable nation; that ended a long time ago. When Britain announced its famous decision to withdraw "East of Suez" in 1967, Dean Rusk, then U.S. secretary of state, said to a colleague how he could not believe that the British viewed that "free aspirin and false teeth were more important than Britain’s role in the world." That shock would be banal today; the welfare state has permanently replaced the warfare state. The idea of Britain’s global destiny, within a generation, has become ancient history.
But the United States still believes in its unique global destiny: "I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being," the president said. The truth, however, is that America has not been the exceptional nation since 1945 because of the extent to which the rest of the world has copied it.
America has lost control of what is means to be Western, as a result of its very success in spreading the idea across the globe since 1945. Perhaps the new era that we are entering will see America attempting to re-claim the legacy of the West as its own, for example by working with, not against, the international institutions it set up after World War II. On the other hand, we might see America assume a more genuinely exceptional path, allowing itself to see a different destiny to that of the West, or perhaps more accurately, Western-ism.
The president’s speech undoubtedly marked the end of one era and the first steps into another. Whether and how Baghdad gets its provinces back will be a more accurate signpost of the direction of American exceptionalism in the twenty-first century than the sorry fate of the Nigerian schoolgirls.