While in Paris this week someone asked me when the U.S. will take a leading role in helping to resolve any number of the world's ongoing crises - from Syria to Ukraine to the Central African Republic. My reply was that this will not happen for several reasons, including a reticence to become more engaged among the American people, limited financial resources, and above all, the debilitating political gridlock in Washington. If the U.S. Congress cannot marshal the political will to extend benefits to the long-term unemployed, how on earth can it be expected to find the common ground necessary to pass resolutions to address such global concerns?
Perhaps my questioner did not appreciate the depth of partisanship that has prevailed for many years in Washington. I added that I thought America's Founding Fathers would be spinning in their graves if they were able to see the depths Washington had descended to. The degree of self-interest and pettiness that prevails really is a sad commentary on the state of the nation, but the message it is sending to the rest of the world, and that constraints it places on the ability of the U.S. to lead on the global stage, is tragic. The worst part is that it is largely self-imposed.
President Obama noted in his West Point address last week that just because America has a big hammer doesn't mean every problem is a nail. That is the view of the person holding the hammer. The people holding the nails don't see it the same way. Despite the fact that we now live in a multi-polar, G-zero world, many nations still expect the U.S. to step up to the plate. They don't really care that it is China's century - what matters to them is that they have in the past been able to rely on America. Now that is not always the case.
Yes - the sands are shifting and it is only reasonable, from Washington's perspective, that the world get used to the new normal, but what replaces American leadership? Europe is too disparate to be able to find sufficient unity to address problems in its own backyard. China is too busy acquiring natural resources and getting its footing in the global arena. Russia is preoccupied with reestablishing, it its own mind, its former empire. So what's left? There remains only one U.S. Regrettably, diplomatically, and in terms of its ability to project its power in multiple places at one time, it is but a shadow of its former self.
Between the political gridlock and the limited use hammer approach to foreign affairs, it seems it is America that must also get used to no longer being able to more forcefully address the world's plethora of problems. In doing so, it is willingly relinquishing it leadership role, with a price for all to pay. Given that it seems unlikely that the next Congress and President will have either the ability or the will to magically transform the landscape, the world is going to have to get used to managing without American leadership. Sorry, Paris. Perhaps Brazil, Turkey or South Africa can help.