There seems little doubt that 2014 will go down as a truly horrible year for American foreign policy. From the Russian seizure of Crimea and further irregular incursions into eastern Ukraine, to the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, to a worsening security problem in Afghanistan ahead of an anticipated U.S. drawdown, to the rise of fringe political parties in Europe, to Iran’s onward march to a nuclear capability, to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa—combined with an American public portrayed by pollsters as weary of the burdens of U.S. global leadership as well as a solidly bipartisan majority in Congress for sharply declining spending on national security—well, it’s been quite a pile-on for the “world’s sole superpower.”
Tragically but also comically, in the way of the world, the only good news of 2014 has been the absence of still more bad news. Fareed Zakaria, one of the Obama administration’s more tenacious sympathizers, took to his Washington Post column on August 7 to herald “Global Success Stories” in Indonesia and Mexico. He of course promoted it on Twitter to his half-million followers. That happened to be the very day the president was announcing a military strike on ISIS targets to prevent the slaughter of thousands of Iraqi Christians and Yazidis holed up on Mount Sinjar. The juxtaposition led Rosie Gray of BuzzFeed to weigh in with a classic put-down: Linking to Zakaria’s exercise in self-promotion—“Wherever you look the world seems on fire. But some of the most populous nations are making amazing progress”—she tweeted, “not now, Fareed.”
As a summary of the condition of world politics 2014, “amazing regress” would be more apt. This may not be our worst year since the fall of Saigon in 1975. There was 1979, after all, with the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, “boat people” fleeing Vietnam, and gas lines at home. Also, we had the 12 months in 1993-94 encompassing the “Black Hawk Down” debacle in Somalia, the further bloody deterioration of former Yugoslavia, and genocide in Rwanda. Or perhaps 2005-06, with Iraq spinning into full-scale civil war, Afghanistan looking to be falling apart due to insufficient international support against the resurgent Taliban, and the lingering effects of genocide in Darfur. But 2014 is certainly going to make any short-list of anni horribiles.
Three of the contenders cited above are instructive in more than just the ways of U.S. international misery, however. They also marked inflection points. The tumult of 1979 contributed to the defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980, and though a rebuilding of military power did begin under Carter after years of decline, Reagan would wed that new policy to a more confrontational stance toward the Soviet Union and a more assertive U.S. role internationally. For the Clinton administration, 1994 was the point after which policies and rhetoric based on a post-Cold War “peace dividend” and the ad-hoc stewardship (such as it was) of foreign policy under Secretary of State Warren Christopher gave way to a more robust view of the need for and value of U.S. leadership. Madeleine Albright encapsulated the transformation in her 1996 speech at Georgetown University calling the United States “the indispensable nation.” And in 2007, with Iraq slipping into chaos before his eyes, George W. Bush turned his back on the coalescing mainstream view in official Washington that the time had come to be done with it. Instead, he authorized the troop surge and the switch to a counterinsurgency strategy that would stabilize the country by the time he left office.
Of course the fall of Saigon in 1975 galvanized no such turnaround. The acute sense of limitation produced by military defeat, the debilitating effect of Nixon’s resignation on executive-branch power, and the view in the dominant “realist” policy circles of the day that the best the United States could do was manage decline through such policies as détente with the Soviet Union—all fed on each other to produce a long and deep period of U.S. retrenchment.
Which raises the question of where we stand in 2014. Are we heading toward another inflection point and a reassertion of U.S. leadership and influence, as in 1979, 1994, and 2006? Or are we at the beginning of what will turn out to be a protracted period of confusion, uncertainty, and decline, as in the years after 1975?