This “is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence.”
Thus spake Mirek Topolanek, former prime minister of the Czech Republic, upon hearing news that the Obama Administration was scrapping plans to continue building long-range missile defenses in Europe. “It puts us in a position where we are not firmly anchored in terms of partnership, security and alliance, and that’s a certain threat.”
This is a neat summary not only of the Czech Republic’s strategic position, but also that of all of America’s allies, be they in eastern or western Europe, the greater Middle East, South or East Asia. Ultimately, this is not about the utility of missile defenses, relations with Russia or Iran, but about the United States and its role as the guarantor of international security.
Nearly every day brings a new and chilling wind from the White House for our allies. Today it is felt in central Europe. Meanwhile, an agonized Obama cannot decide whether he’s really committed to winning “the Good War” in Afghanistan; the administration is eternally debating “first principles” rather than effective ways and means. Meanwhile, Pakistan is accelerating its nuclear program against the day when Washington turns its head. Meanwhile, Iraqi factions are jockeying for advantage after the Americans go; they already understand they’ve been forgotten. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration’s “strategic partnership” with India is on hold. Meanwhile, a new Japanese government contemplates life alone in the shadow of rising China and a defiant North Korea. Meanwhile, Australia begins to “hedge” against the ebbing of American power in the Pacific. Meanwhile, the Pentagon conducts a defense review asking not how much is enough, but how little can we get by on.
The Obama Administration is proving to be not a collection of foxy tacticians, but a collective hedgehog that knows one big thing: political capital spent exercising American power abroad is capital lost in reshaping American society at home. But the United States cannot preserve the liberal international order if it adopts an economy-of-force approach. Nor will that order – or the general peace, prosperity and growth of liberty that are its distinguishing features – long survive.
There is a pattern here. The individual data points add up. Each decision marks a seemingly small retreat. But the larger picture is increasingly clear, if not yet to us than to the rest of the world, friend and foe alike: America is tired, and turning inward.
Retreating in the face or Russian foot-stomping is especially telling. Consider, for a moment, how Chinese strategy treats Russia: the Chinese know Russia is a collapsing empire, a demographic nightmare, and soon to be a third-rate military power. The Chinese, confident of their “rise,” are patient. They’ve mostly stopped buying Russian weapons, beyond the occasional bargain-basement deal. They are most certainly not looking for the “reset” button. They look ahead, not backward.
To be sure, we have a larger and more immediate agenda with Moscow. But each item has become a measure of our weakness and weariness: the response to the invasion of Georgia, fear of further NATO expansion, access to Afghanistan, reneging on missile defenses and desperation to sign a new nuclear arms control treaty. As Russia declines, we’re trying to console it for its losses; China wonders how to feast on the remains.
This is not good news for free states, or for the larger cause of freedom and independence.
Tom Donnelly is the director of the Center for Defense Studies.