We can now see what happens when the United States retreats from global leadership: ISIS and Vladimir Putin. Aggressors challenge the status quo and try to change the world map. ISIS aims to unite the Muslim world in a global caliphate. Putin wants "self-determination" for ethnic Russians everywhere, which could lead to reconstitution of the old Czarist and Soviet empires.
U.S. retrenchment is leaving a vacuum. Aggressors are moving to take advantage of it. When President Harry Truman announced the Truman Doctrine in 1947, the U.S. abandoned its historic isolationism and became the principal guarantor of international order. Since World War II, whenever there has been a serious threat to world order, the rule has been that unless the United States responds, nothing will be done.
What would have happened if the United States failed to act after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990? Most likely, Kuwait would now be part of Iraq. Having acted decisively in Kuwait, the first President Bush left the crisis in Bosnia to the Europeans. The U.S. had no vital interests there. So what happened? The Europeans failed to act, and a new horror entered the world's vocabulary: "ethnic cleansing." Eventually, the U.S. felt morally compelled to step in and lead a coalition to end the brutality.
When atrocities occurred in Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo and Darfur, the whole world -- including the United States -- looked away. So nothing happened. The result was genocide. After he left office, President Clinton expressed regret for America's failure to act in Africa.
If the U.S. had not led an invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban would still be in power. The Taliban will very likely try to come back to power when the U.S. withdraws. It is unlikely that Muammar Qaddafi's murderous reprisals could have been stopped in Libya if the U.S. had not played a crucial role. It is hard to imagine a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians that would not be guaranteed by the United States.
Since World War II, the U.S. has acknowledged international interests as well as national interests. That's what President Clinton meant when he called the U.S. "the world's indispensable nation": we protect world order and international values. President Obama acknowledged our international interests when he said in 2009, "The plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms."
A year ago, during the debate over whether to strike Syria, President Obama's deputy national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes told The New York Times,
"One thing for Congress to consider is the message that this debate sends about U.S. leadership around the world-- that the U.S. for decades has played the role of undergirding the global security architecture and enforcing international norms. We do not want to send a message that the United States is getting out of that business in any way."
The problem is, that's exactly the message many Americans do want to send. A Pew poll taken for the Council on Foreign Relations in December 2013 found a majority of Americans (52 percent) endorsing the view that the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along as best they can on their own. That was the highest level of isolationism in 40 years.
This summer's crises may be producing a shift. In the Pew poll, the number of Americans who feel the U.S. does "too little" to solve world problems is up a bit, from 17 percent last November to 31 percent last month. Still, 39 percent continue to believe the U.S. is doing "too much."
President Obama's cautious, deliberative approach is driven by both domestic and international politics. Americans are exhausted after two wars, depleted by the recession and disinclined to support any new foreign entanglements. Moreover, the rest of the world responded with relief when the U.S. elected a President with no ambitious plans to reshape the world. They were so grateful, in fact, that they awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize, essentially for not being George W. Bush.
For decades, the United States has been the world's pre-eminent status quo power. The U.S. fought wars to reverse acts of aggression and restore the status quo in Kosovo and Kuwait. Now new aggressors believe they can threaten the status quo with impunity because the U.S. seems unwilling to stand up to them.
President Obama said last week, "What we are seeing is the old order not working but the new order not being born yet, and it is a rocky road and a dangerous time through that process." The question is, what role does the U.S. intend to play in that new world order? The President added that U.S. leadership "has never been more necessary." Or, many observers feel, less in evidence.