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‘Leading from behind’ eventually leads nowhere

US Secretary of State John Kerry looked out at the Swiss Alps during a helicopter ride from Davos to Zurich Jan. 25.Reuters/

‘I must say I am perplexed,” John Kerry told grandees at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “by claims … that somehow America is disengaging from the world — this myth that we are pulling back or giving up or standing down.” The secretary of state, whose website keeps a running tally of the miles he has flown since taking the job (320,961 as of Friday), insisted that nothing could be further from the truth. “The only person more surprised than I am by the myth of this disengagement,” he said, “is the Air Force pilot who flies the secretary of state’s plane.”

I must say I would be perplexed if I thought Kerry were truly perplexed. For at the start of the sixth year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the United States is indisputably less influential, less esteemed, and less assertive than it was on Jan. 20, 2009. America remains the world’s great military and cultural superpower, but anyone can see that its profile on the international stage has been deliberately reduced.

Kerry is certainly a hard worker. He keeps busy; he racks up the miles. But busyness is not effectiveness. It is no myth that US foreign policy in recent years has been premised on the conviction that Washington must intervene less and be constrained more. The Obama administration may call this “leading from behind” or “pressing the reset button” or having “more flexibility.” It may praise itself for recognizing that there are “Good Reasons to be Humble,” as Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter — who would later be tapped by Obama as the State Department’s director of policy planning — argued in a 2008 essay. The world sees it as retreat, and reacts accordingly.

To be fair, this is what many Americans say they want. In a Pew opinion survey released in December, 52 percent of respondents endorsed the view that “the US should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Pew has been measuring public backing for that view since 1964. Never before has it commanded majority support.


But a more modest and deferential America has become a less respected America. Power, too, abhors a vacuum. As the United States has backed away from the world’s danger zones, its enemies have grown more brazen and aggressive. When Syrian dictator Bashar Assad crossed Obama’s explicit “red line” on chemical weapons last year, the president and his secretary of state issued fierce threats — and then didn’t carry them out. Damascus gloated at the time over a “historic American retreat.” Five months later, the Assad regime is more entrenched than it was, and has found fresh ways to slaughter and terrorize its victims.


Obama came to office promising to pull all US forces from Iraq — a promise he fulfilled with the assurance that it would “strengthen American leadership around the world.” But having failed to renegotiate a status-of-forces agreement that would allow at least some US troops to remain, Washington’s leverage in Iraq evaporated. Result? With America’s pacifying influence gone, Al Qaeda and its allies are resurgent, not only detonating car bombs and recapturing cities like Fallujah that the US “surge” helped liberate, but expanding their mayhem over Iraq’s borders into Syria and Lebanon as well.

What government worries more today about crossing the United States than it did in 2008? Russia under Vladimir Putin doesn’t, as it has demonstrated in numerous ways, from granting asylum to Edward Snowden to intimidating Ukraine. China doesn’t, to judge from its belligerent declaration of an air-defense identification zone over the East China Sea, or its crackdown on American journalists. Iran certainly doesn’t: In the wake of the interim nuclear deal that Obama and Kerry hail as such a breakthrough, Iran’s president cranked up anti-American demonstrations to their shrillest level in years, and calmly boasted on CNN that “not under any circumstances” will a single Iranian centrifuge be dismantled.


Friends and foes alike look at the United States today and see a powerful nation comfortable with its impotence and — so far, at least — willing to accept the new world disorder that such impotence leads to. We have been here before, and we have always had to learn the hard way that American retreat is not cost-free. Letting other countries “get along the best they can” may sound appealing in the abstract. In the real world, we invariably regret it.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.