When US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Jerusalem last week to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, what will have gone through his mind when Netanyahu made him wait for an hour? Perhaps he felt that the prime minister did him a favour. By signalling the complete lack of trust between the two administrations, and by symbolizing the impotence of the highest representative of President Barack Obama, pressure was taken off Kerry’s shoulders to return home with, as he calls them, actual “positive outcomes”. Performing the obligatory ritual of negotiating peace in the Middle East has been a Sisyphean task during the best of times, but these days it is a particularly thankless job for the US State Department. This is not because peace is out of reach- ’twas always thus, and always thus will be- but because United States leadership has become a nuisance on the international stage. It is flapping its geopolitical arms around like a child who is no longer the centre of attention at the playground, and who is desperately trying to get his audience back with new, exciting ideas. And the other kids no longer care. Representing that child must be emotionally draining, even for someone as unflappable as John Kerry.
The White House under Barack Obama has continued its decline which began during the Bush presidency. It went from being an undisputed world leader to that of a powerful but slightly antiquated, uncomfortable and strangely irrelevant presence on the world stage. The United States remains a source of great influence and prestige. It is still unmatched scientifically and economically, and it is still the most important source of global culture and innovation. But its formal representative and voice to the outside world- the president and his administration- have become the child that no one wants to play with. The German kid has the moral high ground, the Russian kid the chutzpah and the Chinese kid the cool toys.
Obama knows it. First, he tried to scare the world into following him. There was the almost obligatory episode about Iran, in which Obama, just like every of his predecessors since 1979, tried to argue that Teheran’s nuclear programme is an existential threat to the world. And then there was the awkward and perplexing stand-off with North Korea. As the former cool kid you know when you are in trouble when you get into a shouting match with a toddler half your age. More recently, there has been the confused- and quickly rebuffed- hard-line towards Syria.
When the stick failed, the White House tried carrots. In the past weeks alone they have launched major international initiatives on non-proliferation, climate change, and Kerry’s doomed mission to kick-start a US led peace process in the Middle East. The first was shot down by Moscow in a matter of hours, the second lacks any credibility at home, and the third started off with their only true ally in the region arriving late and grumpy. It is quite a feat to be disliked by both the Israeli establishment as well as environmentalists in San Francisco.
Clearly, throwing initiatives at a wall and hoping that some of them stick is not working out for Obama. It can no longer distract the world’s attention from Washington’s political incompetence. Initiatives devoid of substance can no longer compete in an age in which Edward Snowden dominates the global psyche.
The world does not look to the United States for leadership anymore. Times have changed. The War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis, drone assassinations, Guantanamo Bay, and now the NSA wiretapping revelations have reduced the White House to near irrelevance as a source of guidance. Its leadership depended on credibility, on being the light on the hill that Americans like to portray themselves as. Bizarrely, Russia and China are quickly becoming more credible actors on the international stage. Not because they are a beacon of morality- they clearly are not- but because they do not pretend to be. Their influence comes from hard power, and they know it. Everyone knows it. Foreigners do not have to listen to sanctimonious and hypocritical speeches when doing business with them, and it is no wonder that as a result they are a hit in many parts of the world.
Susan Rice, the incoming national security adviser, said in response to the Snowden leaks that she thinks that “the United States of America is and will remain the most influential, powerful and important country in the world, the largest economy, and the largest military, [with] a network of alliances, values that are universally respected”. Only the last bit about universal values is relevant, and on that she is wrong: the US has lost its way in that one, crucial regard. US long-term influence never came from its military capabilities or even economic prowess. It was always based on something more intangible, something to do with purpose, with hope that human societies can grow and eventually prosper. The world was willing to forgive the United States its mistakes, as long as it provided such hope. The American nation was even allowed to throw a few tantrums, even damage its surroundings, as long as it was willing to learn and grow. It projected a sense of naive optimism that the old guard in Europe had lost long ago. Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, and destructive power games were fiercely criticised, but did not undermine that sense of universal hope. Their most important foreign policy was their national identity.
When Obama won the 2008 elections on a platform of hope and change, he tapped into that global thirst for leadership. Not one based on hard power or even diplomatic strong-arming, but based on representing a society that was essentially optimistic and well-intentioned. By not delivering that promise to return to a world based not on fear but on optimism, he put the nail in the coffin of his country’s position as main voice for the global community. His mandate was to change the vicious dynamics that were slowly undermining the White House’s leadership in a quagmire of complex Washington dynamics. Instead of being that moral beacon- Nobel Peace Prize endorsed, no less- he made the world see US political leadership as an obnoxious little kid with too many economic and military toys at its disposal. Nobody wants to play anymore, no matter how many games little Barack can think of.