Sorry, Washington: "Not Everything in the World Is about America"

"President Barack Obama’s foreign policy doesn’t impress. But not for lack of 'will' or 'credibility.'”

The foreign-policy meme is firmly fixed that President Barack Obama is weak and virtually every ill around the globe is a result thereof. The Chinese, Egyptians, Iranians, Russians, Syrians and assorted terrorists are all running wild and committing violent misdeeds because the administration exhibited a lack of resolve and failed to enforce U.S. dictates. The world would be quiescent if only Sen. John McCain had won in 2008 and since then had been sending American bombers hither and yon to suppress the slightest resistance to America’s will.

It’s hard for the denizens of Washington to accept, but not everything in the world is about America. People elsewhere around the globe have interests, aspirations, ambitions, and dreams. And like the obstreperous British colonists in North America more than two centuries ago, other peoples are willing to take big risks, undertake enormous sacrifices, and defy major powers in order to achieve their ends. What the U.S. president says often isn’t of much interest to foreigners, other than to antagonize and inflame.

Government and guerrilla leaders may worry more about what Washington thinks, but they judge the likelihood that American leaders will follow through on the latter’s promises and threats. And that is based far more on a perception of U.S. interests and relative costs and benefits than abstract “credibility” derived from past behavior in dissimilar circumstances.

Washington routinely promotes human rights, endorses democratic elections, advances free trade, urges religious liberty and more. In no case has America ever gone to war to enforce such pronouncements. The United States rarely settles even more serious geopolitical controversies with war. Absent a McCainesque president prepared to bomb anyone for any reason, nothing would have changed had President Obama, for instance, launched military strikes in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. No other country would have feared military attack for completely different reasons.

More actively backing Syrian rebels would not have caused Russia’s Vladimir Putin to treat Ukraine with loving kindness. What happens to the Damascus government matters to Moscow, but not enough to confront America. In contrast, what happens to Ukraine matters to Washington, but not enough to confront Russia, for which the issue is considered an essential matter of security. The United States might be willing to attack another largely helpless Middle Eastern state for peripheral stakes, but it won’t react the same way against a nuclear-armed great power.

The problem is not just that Washington routinely attempts to impose its will where American interests are modest at best—the Balkans, Ukraine and Syria, for instance. None of these conflicts seriously affect U.S. security and all should be dealt with most directly by Washington’s allies and friends. But top American officials are so used to cantering about the globe representing the “hyperpower,” the “indispensable nation,” the country that “stands taller and sees further,” that they unnecessarily put U.S. credibility at stake by routinely issuing proclamations better left to second-tier desk officers at the State Department.

For instance, the Obama administration organized an international spectacle with its African summit. In the midst of discussions over the future of the continent, Washington whined that the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila, might run for reelection.

Kabila’s no U.S.-style democrat, but he’s better than his father, the guerrilla leader who ousted the notorious Mobutu Sese-Seko. Kabila is serving his second term and is thought ready to alter his nation’s constitutional two-term limit. Both Secretary of State John Kerry and departmental Special Advisor Russell Feingold spoke to Kabila, but, worried Feingold, “I did not hear any assurances from them” that Kabila would not run again. America considers the restriction irrevocable, added Feingold.

Since when is it Washington’s job to micromanage the DRC’s political system? How would American politicians react if foreign leaders insisted that the United States impose term limits on Congress or lobbied against proposals to reform the Electoral College?