Can Obama Still Be ‘Leader of the Free World’?

Even Reagan might have a problem dominating the stage these days.

National Journal
Michael Hirsh
March 24, 2014, 6:15 p.m.

All of a sud­den, it seems the pres­id­ent who was eager to fo­cus on “na­tion-build­ing at home” is cast­ing him­self in a hoary role that many people thought went out with the Cold War: “lead­er of the free world.” The ques­tion is, can Barack Obama really play the part that Frank­lin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, or Ron­ald Re­agan once did on the world stage — even if he per­forms very deftly — or is that too much to ask of any U.S. pres­id­ent these days?

Obama’s own top aides have been rais­ing ex­pect­a­tions that he can stride con­fid­ently back in­to the geo­pol­it­ic­al lime­light and lead a uni­fied front against Vladi­mir Putin. “The stra­tegic im­port­ance of this ef­fort really can’t be over­stated,” said his na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser, Susan Rice, com­ment­ing on the series of sum­mit meet­ings that began in Hol­land on Monday not only with lead­ers of the retro-christened G-7 (good-bye Rus­sia), but with Chinese Pres­id­ent Xi Jin­peng in their first face-to-face since the G-20 last Septem­ber.

Obama goes in­to these meet­ings as a pres­id­ent who is seen by crit­ics to be in re­treat from the world, and tem­por­iz­ing some­what over Rus­sia’s ag­gres­sion. Can he come out of them with a re­newed im­age as a tough, stal­wart lead­er of the world’s only su­per­power — as the man who suc­cess­fully stared down “Amer­ica’s No. 1 geo­pol­it­ic­al foe”? It’s no sur­prise that the au­thor of that phrase, Mitt Rom­ney, has been all over the TV talk shows cri­ti­ciz­ing the pres­id­ent for fail­ing to agree with the GOP nom­in­ee’s tough as­sess­ment of Rus­sia in 2012 — not to men­tion care­fully lump­ing Obama to­geth­er with his first-term sec­ret­ary of State, Hil­lary Clin­ton, the pro­claimed Demo­crat­ic front-run­ner for 2016.

But if the threat from Rus­sia to parts of East­ern Europe today has echoes of the Cold War, a lot of oth­er things are dif­fer­ent, and they have little to do with Obama’s lead­er­ship. In re­cent years, as the G-7 meet­ings have been ec­lipsed by the more in­clus­ive and dy­nam­ic G-20 sum­mits, Amer­ica’s voice has grown faint­er in the crowd. The G-20 sum­mits and sub­sequent meet­ings came of age in an era of U.S. weak­ness and culp­ab­il­ity — with Wall Street seen as the cause of the 2008 fin­an­cial crisis — rather than Cold War strength. 

Hence, when U.S. of­fi­cials have tried to guide events, their pro­pos­als have of­ten seemed to eli­cit com­plaint, even con­tempt. At re­cent G-8 and G-20 meet­ings, the Ger­mans have seethed over U.S. in­ter­fer­ence in E.U. budget is­sues, while oth­er less­er powers like South Korea have simply slapped down Amer­ic­an ideas. “In the ‘90s, I al­ways thought that the per­suas­ive­ness of what I said was amp­li­fied by about 30 per­cent be­cause I was a U.S. of­fi­cial,” one of­fi­cial who served in both the Clin­ton and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions told me after the 2009 Seoul sum­mit. “This time around there was no amp­li­fic­a­tion factor at all. In fact, if you were in the [Obama] ad­min­is­tra­tion there might even have been a slight dis­count.”

A changed in­ter­na­tion­al en­vir­on­ment has also dra­mat­ic­ally re­duced U.S. lever­age abroad. Amer­ica’s share of the world eco­nomy has gradu­ally de­clined, and even its mighty and still dom­in­ant mil­it­ary has been some­what de­mys­ti­fied by the suc­cess of in­sur­gents in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan over the past dec­ade. Gone, too, is the mor­al and mil­it­ary au­thor­ity left over from World War II and the bulk of the Cold War, when be­ing a U.S. ally against So­viet power was not a choice but a ne­ces­sity for “free-world” na­tions. Nor did it help that the United States nev­er de­veloped a new strategy in the post-Cold War era to re­place con­tain­ment, in­stead pro­ject­ing an im­age of drift and in­tern­al dis­sent. Wash­ing­ton tried “demo­crat­ic en­large­ment” (Bill Clin­ton), “as­sert­ive mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism” (Madeleine Al­bright), “the Bush Doc­trine” (no one’s quite sure what it was), and more re­cently Obama’s “no-doc­trine” pres­id­ency, but none has won many ad­her­ents abroad. Al­lied fealty has not been helped by the Snowden rev­el­a­tions either; Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel is said to be still up­set by last year’s news that the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency was listen­ing in on her cell-phone calls.

Many Rus­sia ex­perts also be­lieve that the Krem­lin’s move in­to Crimea was not planned as a stra­tegic re­sponse to Wash­ing­ton, but was largely a tac­tic­al re­sponse to the sur­prise events of re­cent weeks, when pro-Rus­si­an Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych fled his coun­try in the face of protests in Kiev. And as former U.S. Am­bas­sad­or to Rus­sia Mi­chael Mc­Faul said Monday, few Amer­ic­an pres­id­ents have been able to stop Rus­si­an in­cur­sions in East­ern Europe go­ing back to the So­viet in­va­sion of Hun­gary in 1956. “When it comes to de­ter­ring Rus­si­an ag­gres­sion in East­ern Europe, the Amer­ic­an track re­cord is pretty poor,” he said in a con­fer­ence call with re­port­ers.

Non­ethe­less, the stakes are high, in­deed. Putin’s oc­cu­pa­tion of his­tor­ic­ally Rus­si­an-linked Crimea was seen as a last-ditch Krem­lin re­sponse to the per­ceived West­ern in­filt­ra­tion in­to the former So­viet sphere be­gin­ning with the over­throw of com­mun­ist re­gimes in the late 1980s, and European Uni­on and NATO ef­forts to bring those coun­tries un­der their um­brella. Obama, in oth­er words, is be­ing asked to an­swer for the policies of four pre­vi­ous Amer­ic­an pres­id­ents — be­gin­ning with Re­agan.

Thus, Amer­ica’s role as the se­cur­ity su­per­power is sud­denly very rel­ev­ant again, es­pe­cially in Europe. If Obama man­ages to emerge from this weeklong series of meet­ings trailed by pos­it­ive re­views in the over­seas me­dia, and Putin does not dare go fur­ther than his an­nex­a­tion of Crimea in re­sponse to the threat of ever-broad­er sanc­tions, it could be a de­cis­ive mo­ment for the U.S. pres­id­ent’s leg­acy — and for Amer­ica’s stature in the world. 

Obama’s re­sponse may also de­term­ine wheth­er the title “lead­er of the free world” still ex­ists. 

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