Secretary of State John Kerry blamed the government shutdown that ended last week for fueling international doubts about America’s commitment to global leadership, eroding U.S. standing and influence.
Kerry spoke yesterday as some of America’s closest allies are criticizing U.S. electronic spying and questioning its resolve in confronting international crises. The discord risks undermining longtime alliances and support for the Obama administration’s pursuit of negotiations with Iran and Syria.
Leaders in Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two closest U.S. allies in the Mideast, are faulting American moves regarding Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s chemical arsenal. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European leaders are echoing angry complaints from Latin America about U.S. surveillance. Asian diplomats, with China in their backyard, are questioning America’s pledges to bolster their security after the U.S. backed away from a threatened military strike against Syria.
“It’s the perception that there’s an abandonment of a robust international agenda,” said Ian Brzezinski, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group. “In a world where America is seen as less engaged, our opponents will see more opportunity to assert their values.”
“It’s less likely to be conducive to the spread of democracy and rule of law,” said Brzezinski, a former Defense Department official under President George W. Bush. “It creates a less stable world.”
Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said complaints from overseas don’t reflect a weakening of American influence, describing such gripes about U.S. power as a cyclical occurrence.
“Some of this is the type of rhetoric that emerges from time to time,” Rhodes said. “There is no country in the world that is in any way seeking to or prepared to assume the type of leadership role that the United States plays. It’s not as if there’s some alternative model.”
Kerry, in a speech yesterday at the Center for American Progress, a Washington policy group, said other countries are watching U.S. actions.
“I have seen how our allies our partners and those who wish to challenge us and do us harm, they’re all sizing us up,” he said. The “self-inflicted wound” of the 16-day partial government shutdown “encouraged our enemies, emboldened our competitors, and it depressed our friends who look to us for steady leadership.”
Risks “may arise in a world that may see restrained or limited American leadership,” Kerry said.
Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said the shutdown had “permanent costs.” Few Americans “are aware of what Washington lost globally in the recent debt crisis,” Mahbubani wrote at the National Interest, a foreign policy website.
“The world is watching carefully the changing relative weights of America and China in the global system,” he wrote.
While some allies object to U.S. policy moves, Kerry has been circling the globe to press initiatives such as American-mediated peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Amid criticism from Israel and Saudi Arabia, Kerry has said the U.S. has an obligation to see if potential American military action can be averted by negotiations to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. He also has defended the U.S. decision to accept a Russian-mediated accord with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.
Some of those steps can be viewed as illustrative of more limited U.S. leadership in the Middle East, Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, wrote in an essay for the Washington policy group.
Obama “may well be the first president to preside over a shrinking U.S. role in the Middle East,” Miller wrote. “His actions on almost every issue -- getting out of old wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, avoiding new ones (Syria), avoiding interventions in lands visited by the Arab Spring, and resetting his relationship with Israel -- reflect a general attitude of risk aversion in the region.”
Other factors contribute to perceptions of declining U.S. power, said Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, a Washington policy group. Simes cited Obama’s cancellation of a trip this month to Asia, three days into the government shutdown, despite the administration’s policy of turning greater attention to the Pacific.
Spying by the National Security Agency on friendly world leaders and U.S. demands for Assad to leave office without an apparent plan for removing him, contribute to a perception “that this administration doesn’t have a serious foreign policy,” Simes said.
The most serious rift may be with Saudi Arabia, where officials told diplomats and others about the kingdom’s frustration with the U.S. administration even as Kerry was heading to Paris for talks with the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.
Saudi Arabia, pursuing its regional interests, has declared its intent to move away from U.S. policy on some issues. It has helped finance and arm radical Sunni elements of the Syrian opposition opposed by the U.S. and backed the military ouster of what had been an elected Egyptian government.
Saudi grievances include past U.S. support for the elected Muslim Brotherhood-backed Egyptian government; stepped-up nuclear negotiations with Saudi Arabia’s rival Iran; and limited U.S. military support for rebels fighting Assad.
Kerry told reporters Oct. 22 that the Saudis “were obviously disappointed” when Obama didn’t pursue air strikes against Assad’s forces “and have questions about some of the other things that may be happening in the region.”
The U.S. decision not to strike Syria was noted outside the Middle East. One diplomat from an Asian country allied with the U.S. said countries in the region interpreted the move as exposing Obama’s unwillingness to involved the U.S. in military action, especially as American voters are focused on the economy and domestic issues.
This diplomat, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about perceptions of the U.S. overseas, said China, a rising military power, probably read Obama’s decision against even limited strikes on Syria as a signal that the U.S. might hesitate to defend Taiwan against Chinese provocations or to take decisive action to back Asian allies in any military flare-up over maritime territorial disputes with China.
Israeli leaders also have raised questions about how tough Obama will be in dealing with Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly cautioned Kerry against accepting what he called a “partial deal” with Iran that falls short of effectively dismantling its entire nuclear infrastructure.
Kerry met Netanyahu for seven hours during a stop in Rome this week for talks that focused on Iran and the prospects for Kerry’s push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
The Israeli leader said that it would be a “tragic mistake” to ease sanctions before requiring Iran to meet several conditions, including ridding itself of fissile material stocks or underground nuclear facilities.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at firstname.lastname@example.org