Earlier today I attended the launch of the new Asia Society Policy Institute in New York. Among its speakers were two ambassadors to the U.S., a former Pakistani Prime Minister, several prominent foreign affairs scholars and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Several things were mentioned that provoked further thought but most important was a statement by Kissinger that struck me. He said the power the U.S. had in the 20th century can’t be repeated in the 21st century. One need only look at a newspaper today to see how right he is.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the U.S. and its allies faced off against the USSR and it set of allies while the majority of the world’s nations tried to stay out of the fray. Today the world is different. We don’t have an “enemy” as we did in the Cold War. No foreign sovereign nation today poses an immediate existential threat to us. The lines are blurred thanks to globalization and economics and today an enemy on one issue is a friend on another. Truth be told, the Soviet Union wasn’t an economic threat but solely a military threat. Today though, we are facing countries that aren’t solely military threats but economic threats as well. But these same countries, such as China aren’t true enemies of the type we squared off against just two and a half decades ago.

Now this isn’t to say we are in the clear. The world is different today and we are moving from a unipolar to a multipolar world. No single country will be able to exercise the power the U.S. did in the world following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. True, the U.S. itself will never be able to replicate its 20th century power in this century. Though this doesn’t mean we should become a nonentity and it’s this that I fear we are moving towards under the current administration.
If you want to believe that the Bush Administration damaged our world reputation, fine. Understand though that the Obama Administration is damaging our actual power in the world. Opponents of Obama will cite “leading from behind” in Libya as an example but it shouldn’t be. That was a UN mandated operation that if anything provided our allies such as France with leadership and combat experience and training for their military forces. The U.S. had no reason to be the absolute leader in military operations against Libya as other nations were far more vocal about involvement than we were.

If you want to see the true examples of the damage done by this administration in the realm of foreign policy, then look no further than Syria and the Ukraine. A foreign policy which sets limits, dictates lines for action, and then fails to follow up on them is dangerous. What’s of greater concern is that events in these two countries occurred just months apart, long enough for the Administration to learn from its mistakes. Obviously it didn’t. In either situation, it’s debatable just what the U.S. would’ve been capable of doing. What isn’t debatable is that establishing foolish limits and consequences were set that failed to be acted upon.

Strong words don’t make a strong foreign policy unless others see a country act upon their words. In Syria, the world saw us fail to live up to our threats and we repeated the same mistake just a month ago. This Administration has showed the world the limits of American resolve. Behind our bluster is a country that is losing its weight in the world. The U.S. can’t return to its position of power it held at the end of the 20th century. The world has changed and not only is it impossible but for various reasons we shouldn’t and should embrace shared power. But in no way does that imply that we should willingly surrender what power and recognition we have due to an Administration whose foreign policy is naïve, toothless, and foolishly idealistic.