SPEAKING FREELY America as a sidelined force
By Riccardo Dugulin
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The two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively ended the Second World War and led to a revolution in international relations and global strategic thinking. In addition, on August 6, 1945, the United States unknowingly took control of the course of history. In fact, through its successes and its downfalls, American foreign policy and defense decisions structured international relations since 1945.
At the end of the 1940s, the Marshal Plan provided economic stability and financial aid instrumental to reconstruct Western Europe and guaranteed its allegiance to the capitalist bloc. In the
next decade, the containment policy shaped the new concept of limited warfare and led the world into a tense but not overtly martial confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Through the 1960s, regional conflicts and technological challenges led the USSR increasingly to try to block American expansion while the US maintained freedom of action almost worldwide. In the 1970s, president Richard Nixon pushed the Soviets and Communist China to engage in far-reaching negotiations - to defuse nuclear tensions and cooperate on key subjects. This kept US presidential powers strong while the country was suffering from Vietnam's defeat.
In the 1980s, president Reagan effectively led the USSR into economic collapse by challenging it with one of Americas most daring arm races by overtly supporting insurgents fighting Moscow's forces in Afghanistan. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States remained the leading power throughout the 1990s by orienting the UN's direction and managing international crises according to US national interests and strategic necessities.
The Iraq war and the beginning of the 21st century kept on confirming this tendency. While most of the world opposed American policies in the Middle East, detractors were forced to react to the choices made by president George W Bush and by President Barack Obama during his first term. The US decision to lead from behind in Libya pushed its allies to adopt a more assertive policy in regional issues, while the Asia pivot may be considered an American challenge to Chinese growing power, an attempt to draw a second global containment policy.
While since 1945 the United States has been shaping the world through its decision making process, the Syrian crisis has underlined a revolutionary change on the international chessboard. After almost 70 years, in August 2013 America appeared to be reacting to other powers' decisions instead of actively taking control of world events. This incredible shift may be verified over two distinct examples.
The Russian ability to propose an internationally accepted plan to defuse the possibility of military action against the Syrian regime is the first point that needs to be addressed.
Since the creation of the United Nations, the Kremlin has used the international community as a mean to voice its opposition to American policies. From Khruschchev's shoe-banging to Vladimir Putin's use of his veto power, Russian leaders have used the UN in an obstructive fashion. While this was due to a multitude of economic and political factors, it did indicate the fact that Russia was not able effectively to draft an independent foreign policy, thus forcing it to react to its competitor's decisions. Putin's stance on Syria changed the reality.
Following the August chemical bombing of a Damascus suburb, the world was awaiting the US to lead its allies into a diplomatic and military campaign against President Bashar Al-Assad. However, President Putin shocked the international community by proposing a diplomatic semi-solution that forced the US to react and lose control of a situation that no longer depended on its decisions. The Putin plan effectively sidelined the US administration and imposed a diplomatic deal with Assad, something which was not considered to be a possibility, prior to August 2013, for the US administration.
The second point concerns the ability to appeal to the international community. Since 1945, the US mastered the art of delivering a clear and simple message which was at the base of their soft power capabilities. With his article in the New York Times on the Syrian chemical weapons issue, President Putin defeated the Obama administration on one of its strongest grounds: communication.
Barak Obama has always appeared as a well-spoken and intelligent president able to deliver clear and concise messages impacting international affairs.
With the Syrian crisis, the US lost its upper hand in regard to diplomatic and political communication. President Putin's message to the New York Times was well-structured and simple enough to put the Russian leader in the front seat and turn the projectors on his position. The point no longer was if Putin was right or wrong; he had already won by turning attention away from the American position.
Senator John McCain's response in the Russian newspaper Pravda was a prime example of the American political class reacting to forces it no longer controlled. The message McCain tried to push forward may not have been morally wrong or politically daring. However, the fact that it came after Putin's OpEd highlighted the fact that the United States were reacting after a Russian move.
These two points may be analyzed as incidental moments of uncertainty by the American leadership. However, they underline a more profound crisis facing he US political and diplomatic structure in regard to the standing of their country in the world. President Putin's argument about the non-exceptional character of the US might have fallen on deaf ears during the Cold War, but in September 2013 it is causing uneasiness among American decision makers as it points to an open wound.
The Syrian crisis and President Obama's unclear policy in regards to it have pushed the United States to react to the decisions of others, something that marks a clear rift in the way international relations have been structured for the past several decades, drawing further arguments over the American role \ in world politics.
Riccardo Dugulin holds a Master degree from the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) and is specialized in International Security. He is currently working in Paris for a Medical and Security Assistance Company. He has worked for a number of leading think tanks in Washington DC, Dubai and Beirut. His official website is www.riccardodugulin.com and official Facebook site is www.facebook.com/riccardodugulin.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.