When it comes to foreign policy, 2013 was a great year for autocrats and radical Islamists. For democracies and would-be democrats, the last 12 months were pretty grim.
Mercifully, there are no global wars on the horizon. But in 2013 we began to see more clearly the shape of a world in which America leads from behind. The view isn't pretty.
China, Russia, and Iran rushed to fill the power vacuum, with intentions that challenge U.S. values and long-term interests. Al-Qaeda founded a new emirate in Syria; the hopes of Arab Spring democrats were crushed and the borders of the post-World War I Middle East began to crumble. The democratic model, once so popular around the globe, lost most of its remaining shine as the world watched Congress self-destruct, and massive NSA spying gave the Statue of Liberty a bad name.
Struggling economically, many in the United States are weary of, and wary of, foreign involvement. That's understandable. But four seminal events of 2013 should make the White House rethink the costs of an overeager rush to turn inward as it considers our foreign policy direction in 2014:
First. The deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria. Far from advancing diplomacy, the deal conveyed U.S. weakness and undercut the prospects for diplomacy in 2014.
How so? In September, President Obama endorsed a limited strike on Syrian military targets after the country's regime crossed his "red line" by killing about 1,000 civilians with sarin gas. However, Obama, wary of Mideast entanglements, got cold feet and suddenly turned to Congress for approval, without warning France or Saudi Arabia (which had pledged support).
Then Moscow threw Obama a face-saver by proposing the chemical weapons deal. The Russians knew the deal would cement Bashar al-Assad's hold on power, giving him free rein to keep killing civilians by means other than chemicals.
The continued Syrian conflict has permitted al-Qaeda to build a new emirate on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border. The deal also convinced Russia, Iran, Israel, and probably China that Obama is unwilling to use force even after pledging to do so. This will affect Iran's negotiating posture on its nuclear program, along with Russian and Chinese thinking on America's willingness to stand by its allies.
Second. Beijing's declaration in November of a new air-defense zone over islands claimed by both China and Japan. Sensing U.S. weakness and withdrawal, China is testing whether it can establish primacy in the region and drive a wedge between Washington and its Asian partners.
China demanded that foreign military and civilian pilots file flight plans with Beijing before flying over the islands. U.S. and Japanese military planes flew through the zone without doing so, but the Federal Aviation Administration advised civilian flights to register.
China's risky move is a clear sign that, as it develops its blue-water navy, it will keep probing America's resolve to maintain its role in Asia and support its allies. Chinese pressure is already pushing Japan to rethink its pacifist constitution.
Third. Vladimir Putin's $15 billion bailout of Ukraine in December to keep the country inside Russia's sphere of influence. The largesse had two main goals: to undercut Ukrainian protests against a corrupt, Russia-oriented president, Viktor Yanukovych, and to reward the Ukrainian leader for turning down an association agreement with the European Union. The move displays Putin's yearning to reassert the influence of autocratic Russia in its neighborhood and beyond, at a time when he perceives America as weak.
Fourth. The Egyptian military's coup against elected President Mohamed Morsi, and its massive December crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood (which it declared a terrorist organization). Add to that the military's arrest of key leaders of the 2011 Tahrir Square revolt. Whatever the Brotherhood's flaws, I've yet to meet a reputable expert who believes the group is behind terrorist attacks in Egypt, which appear to be the work of Salafi groups. The military's efforts to crush any dissent from left or right are more likely to fuel violence than quell it.
Egypt's generals are leading the regional counterrevolution and restoring autocracy as the answer to radical Islam. This won't work. But no American advice is wanted or listened to anymore, and any talk of democracy is disdained.
What do these four events have in common? They are warning signs that Russia and China will test and take advantage of U.S. weakness to expand their regional ambitions. In this nonpolar world, Putin's drive to restore Russian greatness and China's push for regional hegemony could lead to dangerous miscalculations or even bloodshed.
Meanwhile, the Mideast will continue to implode, and jihadism will grow, as foes and allies alike assume that Washington has lost interest. Peace talks on Syria, on Iran's nuclear program, on Israel and Palestine, and on Afghanistan's security future have little chance if the participants don't believe America will put muscle behind them.
Obama can put his finger to the wind and follow the public's desire for America to unload its foreign burdens. But as these four events show, no matter how much we may wish otherwise, the world's problems won't leave us alone.