Not since the early years of the Second World War has Planet Earth been as bereft of American leadership as it is now. What the killings fields of Syria have brought most sharply into focus is a new world “disorder,” to use that last word in its two principal senses: that of chaos, disarray, and unchecked lawlessness; and that of ailment, malady, or sickness.
The present situation would lend itself to comedy were the cost of this disorder—and of this American decline—not so very astronomical. America’s foreign policy, it would appear, is in the hands of John Kerry and Dennis Rodman. And American strategic policy has been outsourced to Vladimir Putin: The Leader of the Free World (yes, we can still call President Obama that, as his title ex officio if for no other reason) has gifted the resolution of the Syrian tragedy to the Leader of the Unfree World. The Syrian regime’s protectors and enablers in Moscow are now to be its investigators and monitors. Welcome to the Global Theater of the Absurd.
What is the new disorder? It is the utter rudderlessness of the “decent world,” by which I mean the comity of nations that believes in partnership with other nations, not zero-sum relations; co-existence based on mutual respect; the resolution of disputes by resort to law and morality; the settling of land and maritime borders by negotiation, not force; and the belief that the United States, for all its overwhelming military and economic heft, is a force for global good.
This world has lost its bearings, thanks to an America that has volunteered itself for strategic vasectomy. Morally tormented, it is led by a Jesuitical president who believes in no “red lines,” and whose very essence recoils from the notion of American pre-eminence (so much so that he stated not once but twice, in his speech on Syria to the nation last Tuesday, that this country is not the “world’s policeman”). His administration makes foreign policy seemingly off the cuff. Witness John Kerry’s suggestion—described by his own spokeswoman as “rhetorical” and “hypothetical”—that the Assad regime could avert a punitive U.S. attack if it gave up its chemical arsenal. “Keystone” Kerry acted without White House imprimatur (if that is true, why does he still have a job?), and yet: that unmistakable moral wavering, that impromptu revelation of a chink in America’s armor, was all that Russia needed to wrest control of Syria from Washington’s limp wrist.
In his speech on Tuesday, September 10, Obama played the part of Putin’s accomplice. It was a nauseating abdication of leadership, made all the more emetic by the president’s eagerness to dress up the whole slapstick collapse as a victory for diplomacy. The New World Disorder is complete, with amoral Russia triumphant, its leader in full Cold War mode without even the fig leaf of an ideological alternative to America (at least the old lot intoned, however unconvincingly, that they were in business to help the workers of the world unite). All Putin’s Russia wants is more Russian sway, on a stage where Obama exits, pursued by a bear.
To complete the portrait of disorder, we have China, a nationalist-nihilist behemoth rampant in its bullying of its neighbors, rampant in its resource-mercantilism, irrepressible in its drive to turn all seas adjacent to its coastline into a Chinese lake—while a becalmed America looks on, the object of Beijing’s contempt (and, surely, bewilderment; a Chinese hegemon would not make itself willfully weak!). All this while America’s allies wither by the wayside, either sclerotic and dazed (the European Union), or confused (Israel), or unattractively transformed (Turkey), or apprehensively adrift in China’s back yard (Japan). This, all of this, is the product of an American moral desertion that does more than consign the Syrians to a hellish fate: It returns the world to a kind of Hobbesian “state of nature,” in which only the Chinese (and, to an extent, the Russians) will thrive.
Would you want them as the world’s policemen?
Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter research fellow in journalism at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. He is a former editor of Newsweek.