America’s power has been so overwhelming for so long that many think it has survived George W. Bush’s presidency unscathed. That this is untrue is demonstrated by those, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez to Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who are exploiting America’s loss of standing and influence. This is no cause for schadenfreude . On the contrary, it is high time for friends of the United States, particularly in Europe, to realize that America’s weakness undermines their international influence as well.
The evidence of America’s weakness is clear enough. At the height of America’s power, Russia had resigned itself to the apparently unstoppable encroachment of NATO on the Soviet Union’s former sphere of influence. President Putin tolerated a US presence in Central Asia to assist in the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan and raised no serious objections when the US trashed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty prohibiting strategic missile defenses. America, eager to bring both Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, felt scant need to consider Russian concerns, convinced that the Kremlin would have no choice but to bow to the inevitable.
That was yesterday. Today, Putin seeks to regain the influence Russia lost in previous years. He is skillfully playing the anti-America card across Europe while putting pressure on the Baltic states, a clear warning not to extend Nato any further. In Ukraine, political forces resisting closer strategic links to the West have gained ground. And the Kremlin is aggressively portraying the planned establishment of a modest US missile defense installation in Poland and the Czech Republic as a threat to Russia’s vital security interests.
Or consider Iran, another power exploiting American weakness. Only a few years ago, Iran’s government seemed sufficiently in awe of the US to inch toward an agreement on its nuclear program that would have interrupted, and perhaps even halted, its enrichment activities. There was talk of possible bilateral contacts with the US, which, if successful, would have ended almost three decades of hostile relations. Today, Iran’s enrichment program is going ahead despite the United Nations Security Council’s warnings of new sanctions, while Iranian officials publicly ridicule threats of US military action.