Secretary of State John Kerry disputed “the myth” that the U.S. is withdrawing from the world, responding to domestic critics and foreign officials who see a retreat by President Barack Obama.
Kerry used an address to international business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland yesterday to assert that the U.S. is “more engaged than ever” even if it is slower to turn to military options.
The top U.S. diplomat’s judgment that he needed to defend his nation’s global engagement -- even as he flies around the world to deal with Iran, Syria and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations -- underscored a recognition that what he called a “misperception” of American policy hangs over his efforts.
“My friend John Kerry has a lot of work to do” to make his case, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, the U.S. Senate’s most vocal critic of the administration’s response to the Syrian civil war, said during a panel discussion on American power hours earlier in the Swiss village.
“I travel all around the world and I hear unanimously that the United States is withdrawing and that the United States’ influence is on the wane and that bad things are going to happen,” said McCain. “And they are happening, and more bad things are going to happen when we have a president who does not believe in American exceptionalism.”
Kerry pointed to American efforts, from expanding trade to Asian security to achieving a cease-fire in South Sudan, to show the breadth of American action beyond his personal involvement in the Middle East.
“Far from disengaging, America is proud to be more engaged than ever, and, I believe, is playing as critical a role as ever in the pursuit of global peace, prosperity, and stability,” Kerry said. His 37-minute speech followed two hours of talks in Davos about the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Kerry says the misperception is based on the “simplistic assumption” that the only tool of influence is U.S. military power.
“After a decade that was uniquely -- and in many peoples’ view unfortunately -- excessively defined foremost by force and our use of force, we are entering an era of American diplomatic engagement that is as broad and as deep as any at any time in our history,” he said.
“The most bewildering version of this disengagement myth is about a supposed retreat by the United States from the Middle East,” he said.
Yet the administration’s actions in that region have perplexed leaders there and fed broader doubts.
Kerry has met repeatedly with Saudi leaders, including King Abdullah, in an effort to deal with their complaints about U.S. policies on Syria and Iran. The Saudis were unhappy that Obama didn’t follow through on his threat to take military action if Syria crossed his “red line” by using chemical weapons, and also looked with alarm on U.S. diplomatic talks with their regional foe, Iran.
The U.S. policy on Syria “has not been clear, and definitely the action has not been clear either,” Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence, said on the panel with McCain. “This disturbs Americas allies because we have grown to depend on the word of America.”
“It’s not just Iran and Syria,” said Prince Turki, who is chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. “It’s the sense of no direction.”
The doubts about U.S. steadfastness are also fed by evidence that Americans, after two wars and an economic downturn, want their country to curtail foreign entanglements.
U.S. public skepticism about international engagement has increased over the past eight years, according to a report last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Its polling during October and November found that 52 percent of Americans say the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” The poll of 2,003 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
For the first time in surveys dating back almost 40 years, a majority -- 53 percent -- said the U.S. plays a less important and powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago, according to the report.
The issue of “America’s troubled alliances” is cited at the top of global risks for this year by the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk research and consulting firm.
While the U.S. isn’t in economic decline, the group remarks on a “notable decline in U.S. foreign policy.”
In addition to “structural” forces -- such as a “distracted Europe” and an increasing willingness by Russia and China to challenge the U.S. -- the report says, “Some of it reflects changes in the U.S. domestic landscape: Voters now offer less support for an ambitious foreign policy, and growing income inequality persuades large numbers of Americans that they don’t benefit from U.S. engagement abroad.”
The report also cites issues “specific to the Obama administration, with a tactical and risk-averse approach to foreign policy” and what it called a “weak (and not well-trusted) second-term foreign policy team.”
This will have consequences for U.S. companies, which may find less support for trade initiatives and “a weakening of international standards as the U.S. is no longer seen as a credible driver of a single global market,” according to the Eurasia Group report.
Former California Democratic Representative Jane Harman, who heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said in Davos that the “toxic partisanship” in Washington and events such as last year’s government shutdown have hurt the international posture of the U.S. Harman said the U.S. should be looked at differently in a post-Cold War world, as an “indispensable partner” rather than the sole superpower.
“As you go around the world, the demand for American involvement has actually gone up tremendously in East Asia, in the Middle East,” Robert Kagan, a senior fellow in the Center on the United States and European Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said at the conference. At the same time, he said, the U.S. is experiencing a cycle in which the public wants less overseas involvement.
Kerry didn’t break any new policy ground in his remarks, as he recounted efforts to end the Syrian civil war, prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by negotiating the creation of a Palestinian state and security safeguards for Israel.
Alluding to his travels in pursuit of those goals, he said that “our engagement isn’t measured” in frequent-flier miles, but in the “breadth of our global commitments, their depth especially our commitments to our allies in every corner of the world.” Ultimately, he said, “it is measured by the results we are able to achieve.”