The United States is holding political prisoners

International security policy

Stephan Bierling

Prof. Dr. Stephan Bierling is Professor of International Politics with a special focus on transatlantic relations at the University of Regensburg. His main areas of work are German and American foreign policy, the transatlantic relationship, and domestic and economic policy in the USA. In 2013 he was voted "Professor of the Year" in a nationwide competition by UNICUM magazine.
Contact: [email protected]

The rise of new powers, long-term war missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, a severe economic crisis and party-political polarization have weakened the global leadership position of the USA. America's interest is increasingly focused on the Pacific region, while Europe and the Middle East are becoming less important. The Europeans will have to take on more security policy tasks in the future.

President Obama has just brought the US combat troops back from Iraq and Afghanistan, so he has to think about a new military operation against the terrorist organization Islamic State. Visit to the Bagram Airbase, the headquarters of the US armed forces in Afghanistan 2012. (& copy picture alliance / ZUMA Press / Pete Souza)

On May 28, 2014, US President Barack Obama, in office since 2009, gave a keynote address on foreign and security policy at the Military Academy in West Point. In it, he emphasized that the USA would continue to exercise its leading role in global politics, but would use military means much less frequently in the future and would act primarily through partners and international organizations. "Since World War II," said Obama, "some of our most costly mistakes have resulted not from our reluctance but from our willingness to embark on military adventures without thinking through the consequences." Twelve years earlier, his predecessor George W. Bush, who was in office from 2001 to 2009, had emphasized at the same point that the USA would wage a global "war on terror" in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, if necessary with preventive strikes and without the support of the international community. How did it come about that the USA, which was at the zenith of its power at the turn of the century, define its supremacy in the world so cautiously today?

Causes of restraint in world politics

The "unipolar moment" (according to US columnist Charles Krauthammer) that the US experienced after its victory in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union has come to an end. There are several reasons for this: the changed international environment, the foreign policy behavior of the USA after 9/11 and developments within America.

The changed international environment

Immediately after the end of the East-West conflict, all potential rivals of the USA for a leading role in international politics - the EU, China or Russia - were economically and / or militarily too weak to be able to counterbalance Washington. But due to the rapid economic development of many emerging countries, the USA's lead in power has diminished over time. The Chinese economy, for example, has grown at more than ten percent per year since the early 1990s, and after 2000 the growth rates of Russia, India and Brazil were also well above five percent. The increasing economic prosperity allowed these states to increase their defense budgets and to expand their international influence. At the same time, the US's old partners are less willing to follow Washington's leadership. During the Cold War, the US protected Western Europe militarily, and Western Europeans, in turn, supported Washington politically. This "deal" is only available to a limited extent today.

In addition, the smaller powers disciplined by the East-West conflict have been pursuing their foreign policy goals more aggressively since its end. Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Serbia has been trying to enforce its interests in the Balkans by force since 1991, North Korea is threatening South Korea and Japan with its nuclear weapons, and Iran is also pursuing nuclear ambitions. States with weapons of mass destruction can enforce their interests more ruthlessly because they can hardly be sanctioned. All of this calls into question the "pax americana", the peace order guaranteed by the USA.

After all, the rules of the game have also changed in the field of warfare since 1990. Islamist terrorists did not shy away from carrying out suicide bombings and, on September 11, 2001, with hijacked civil planes on the United States. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington and its allies had to find out what catastrophic attacks insurgents could carry out with hidden, self-made bombs, so-called improvised explosive devices (IED). In a new world of asymmetrical warfare by determined terrorists and guerrilla fighters, American superiority in arms spending and weapons technology was put into perspective.

Sooner or later, these developments would have undermined the unipolar position of the USA. In retrospect, it is more surprising how long American domination lasted and was not challenged. On the one hand, this had to do with the fact that unipolarity had arisen almost overnight when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 under the weight of its unsolved economic, social and political problems. In view of the overwhelming superiority of the USA, any coalition formation against it seemed hopeless. On the other hand, the United States appeared in the 1990s as a benevolent hegemon that acted multilaterally, strengthened alliances, pushed trade agreements forward, while taking the interests of other states into account. Potential rivals for power saw neither a chance of success nor a reason to oppose the USA.

The American answer to 9/11

That changed with the attacks by al-Qaeda terrorists on the World Trade Center in New York and the Department of Defense (Pentagon) in Washington on September 11, 2001. President Bush put an end to the period of US foreign policy restraint and led his country with full force Commitment back to the world stage. When the Taliban government, which had provided al-Qaeda shelter and training camps in Afghanistan, was driven out, the international community was still united behind Washington. However, when the Bush administration set its sights on Iraq in the course of its global "war on terror" in 2002 and intervened there militarily in 2003, this support fell apart. Many states, including Germany, France and Russia, viewed Washington’s unilateral military action as a violation of established norms of international cooperation.

The Iraq war turned into a fiasco for the USA: The war's rationale that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was working with al-Qaida turned out to be false; the US troops soon found themselves in a grueling guerrilla war after the swift conquest of the country. Iraq was on the verge of civil war; Human rights violations such as the Guantanamo detention center, the abuse of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison and torture practices such as waterboarding severely damaged the US image. The international "goodwill" that hit the United States after 9/11 has turned into its opposite. Since 2007, the Bush administration has succeeded in stabilizing Iraq by increasing its troops and changing its counterinsurgency strategy and negotiating an agreement on the withdrawal of American combat troops by the end of 2011. But at the same time, newly formed Taliban fighters have been attacking the western armed forces in Afghanistan with great vehemence since 2006. Bush's successor Obama tripled the number of US troops in Afghanistan to 130,000 in order to pacify the country and create the conditions for an end to the mission. However, this meant that the costs for the US continued to rise. At the end of the two wars, there were more than 6,800 fallen US soldiers, a military that was overworked by years of difficult missions, and almost four trillion US dollars in direct military expenditure and follow-up costs.

Developments within the USA

The long wars with their high costs eroded the domestic political consensus for an active foreign policy that had emerged from 9/11. At the end of 2013, popular support for the United States' global leadership role was lower than at any other point since the survey began in 1964. 52 percent of the US population believed that their country should take care of itself and let other states cope on their own. In 2002 only 30 percent were of this opinion. Not least, this had to do with the fact that a real estate bubble burst in the USA in 2008, the entire financial system began to shake and the country plunged into its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s. The unemployment rate and budget deficit shot up to ten percent in 2010. Economic and social policy issues moved to the center of the debates, while foreign and security policy lost its relevance. After all, the emergence of the fundamentalist Tea Party movement in the Republican Party since 2011 has crippled the political system and made the United States seem incapable of action.

Source text

Burden of a superpower

[...] The problem with Obama's foreign policy is that it grows out of a negative self-description. He set out not to repeat the mistakes of Bush who embroiled America in two long wars. In his last keynote address on foreign policy in May [2014], Obama implicitly described all those who called for America to have more leadership in the world as warmongers addicted to intervention. As if there were only two patterns of action in foreign policy - overreaction à la Bush in Iraq or largely staying out à la Obama - and nothing in between.

Anything that didn't fit into the government's narrative has been pushed aside. In 2011 Obama announced America's final withdrawal from Iraq with the words that it would leave a "sovereign, stable and independent country" with a "representative government".When the New York Times published an article in 2012 about rising casualties, the newspaper's Baghdad correspondent heard an angry denial from Vice President Joe Biden's office. Even when it became increasingly clear that the Shiite prime minister was cleaning up the military and administration of Sunnis, the US State Department did not want to hear about it. And when ISIS took Fallujah at the end of last year, the president downplayed the danger. IS is a youth team, he said contemptuously. In the meantime, even his defense minister considers this "junior team" to be the most dangerous terrorist group in the world. Such a denial of reality is reminiscent of Bush's Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who long after the invasion of Iraq maintained that everything was in order in the country. Dozens of people died every day in the clashes between Sunnis and Shiites.

The Obama administration has become an isolated island over the years. In the beginning it was different. There were personalities in the cabinet with their own views. Comparisons have even been made to Abraham Lincoln's famous "team of rivals". In the meantime, it has become a team of largely like-minded people. And even Obama-inclined commentators draw unfavorable comparisons with Bush. He made a lot of mistakes in his first term of office, but then at least corrected them with a new team and personal commitment. So far it is different with Obama. "It's hard to remember a recent president who has grown so little in office," said David Rothkopf, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine.

With the renewed military engagement in the Middle East, Obama is now tacitly saying goodbye to the Obama doctrine. It was based on the assumption that Bush was the fundamental problem of American engagement in the world. If America would only stand back and pursue a less aggressive foreign policy, it would be less offensive, experience less resistance to its policies and be able to find a balance with problematic actors in the world. An almost European misunderstanding.

Because the villains of this world - from Assad in Syria, Putin in Russia, the new Kim in North Korea to the Caliph of Mosul - have not attended any political seminars with soft-power guru Joseph Nye at Harvard, but continue to believe in them classic hard power. And when America cuts back on that part of its foreign policy instruments, they will test what is possible. Raising the out of joint order is usually more costly than early and constant commitment would have been. See Syria and Iraq.

Maintaining a liberal and stable world order requires constant effort to defend it against authoritarian and disorder-sowing actors. If America doesn't do that, no other country will either. It is part of the burden of a superpower to make mistakes in the process that are criticized and not even earn praise where one is playing a positive role. But who said the world was a fair event? Obama must now invest more in Iraq and Syria. Not because he would like it, but because it fits the role America has to play if it doesn't want to leave the field to other, less benign players.

Clemens Wergin, "America's Order", in: Die Welt, September 12, 2014



The consequences: withdrawal from world politics

Obama took into account the wear and tear of the USA through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and through the economic crisis by reducing foreign and security policy obligations. It is true that he was never a pacifist who opposed war on ethical grounds, as many of his supporters hoped. But he was skeptical of unilateral military interventions, especially if they did not target direct threats to US security. He therefore ended the Iraq war and in 2011 announced the withdrawal of all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. At the same time, he did not want to enter into any new military obligations.

With regard to Iran, Obama relied on a diplomatic solution to the nuclear conflict; in the Libyan civil war, he limited himself to helping France and Great Britain protect the civilian population; in Mali and the Central African Republic, he left France to work against Islamist rebels. The USA did not intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war either. Even when chemical weapons were used there in the summer of 2013, Obama held back, despite what he called the "red line" at the beginning of the conflict.

With the reduction of the military engagement in the world, which the US President decreed for his country, he found himself in harmony with his people. To a certain extent, there was no alternative to withdrawing - after the "imperial overstretch" in the war on terror and in view of the economic and socio-political problems, the USA needs a phase of reorganizing its foreign policy priorities and economic recovery. However, this military withdrawal also carries risks - for the US and the rest of the world.

There is growing skepticism among many allies as to whether Washington will rush to their aid in an emergency and comply with its duties of assistance. At the same time, the withdrawal encourages global and regional rivals of the USA to venture into the vacuum created and to test to what extent they can assert their interests. The fact that Obama often ignored his announcements and did not punish misconduct, as in the case of the Syrian use of poison gas or the Russian annexation policy, weakens confidence in the US government's willingness to act. In the Middle East, for example with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Sheikdoms, doubts are rising about Washington's pledges to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons by force of arms if necessary. In East Asia, where Beijing is increasingly aggressively defending its claims to disputed islands in the East and South China Seas, doubts are growing in Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia as to whether the USA will oppose Chinese efforts to expand its sphere of influence and domination.

(& copy Ingram Pinn / Financial Times of April 14, 2011; used under License from the Financial Times. All Rights Reserved.)
This means that not only the interests of longstanding allies and partners of the USA are at stake, but also the entire international order. Since the end of the Second World War, its main characteristic has been that the USA opposed a change in the status quo and thus guaranteed the security of its partners. Should these states lose their faith in Washington's protection commitments, they would inevitably have to look after their security interests independently. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by Japan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt would be a not unlikely scenario. This could call into question cornerstones of the international order such as the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, start new arms races and renationalise security policy. The world is becoming more chaotic and dangerous, according to popular belief. For Germany and the EU, which depend on stable sales markets and open trade routes and have little to oppose expansionist power politics militarily, such a development would have extremely negative consequences.

However, in the course of 2014 it became clear that the USA was again playing its role in global politics more actively. In view of Moscow's illegal annexation of Crimea and its military destabilization of Ukraine, Obama worked closely with Chancellor Angela Merkel to achieve a united reaction from the West. During his visit to Estonia in September 2014, he assured the Baltic states that the NATO guarantee of assistance would apply in full. When the terrorist organization Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, IS since June 2014) brought ever larger areas of Iraq under its control in mid-2014, the US President forged an international coalition of 59 states with the aim of promoting IS through political and / or push back and destroy military measures. The USA was the only power to come to the aid of the Kurds, besieged by IS in Kobane, Syria, with fighter planes. Washington also sent 1,500 soldiers to Iraq to advise and train its army in the fight against IS. Finally, Obama announced that even after the official end of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan in 2015, up to 10,800 US soldiers would remain in the country in order to train the Afghan security forces and, if necessary, to carry out counter-terrorism measures. All of this showed that after years of restraint in the face of massive security policy challenges, the USA began to become more involved in the world again.