New threats rose as U.S. apathy became policy

April 4, 2016
Members of the Chinese team take part in the Open Water competition for pontoon bridge units as part of the International Army Games-2015 in the town of Murom, Russia, August 8, 2015. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev - RTX1NLEB

Members of the Chinese team take part in the Open Water competition for pontoon bridge units as part of the International Army Games 2015, in the town of Murom, Russia, August 8, 2015. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

The 21st century has been marked by two complementary trends in global security: the rise of new and unexpected threats and the return of old ones. Terrorist organizations have adapted modern technology to deadly purpose and paired it with global ambition. Nineteen well-trained individuals killed more Americans on 9/11 than the entire Japanese fleet killed in Pearl Harbor. Our ubiquitous smartphones and social networks turned out to be agnostic tools, serving both good and evil. They are boons for economic empowerment and cultural exchange, but also allow terror movements to recruit internationally, creating a homegrown terror threat that no border wall or refugee ban will prevent.

The old menaces of the 20th century have reappeared in updated forms. Communism as a political ideology is as bankrupt as ever, but the aggressive despotism that enforced it for decades before the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union has returned to the world stage, due largely to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The United States, a global hegemon alternately over-eager or reluctant, has reacted in dramatically inconsistent ways to the new threats while mostly ignoring the resurgence of the old ones.

The checks and balances that frustrate every president domestically do little to prevent the commander-in-chief from wielding the power of life and death all over the world. The overwhelming military might of the United States is inherently agnostic as well. It can be used to attack or to defend, to protect innocent lives or to take them, to remove dictatorships or to support them.

The use of this fearsome power is guided by the American constitution and the founding American values of democracy and freedom. But it is up to the occupant of the White House to follow the Constitution and to live up to those values. The executive has found countless ways to evade checks on his authority, from signing “agreements” instead of treaties, to escalating foreign “police actions” instead of declaring war. American values have been applied selectively as well, as decades of relative unity in containing the Communist threat has given way to a neo-isolationist trend in both major American political parties. Instead of debating how the U.S. should act on the world stage, today’s presidential candidates are arguing about whether or not the U.S. should act at all. The specter of the 2003 Iraq War looms over every potential American action.

Such reflection is commendable, but in the seven years of the Obama administration we have seen that inaction can also have the gravest consequences. Inaction can fracture alliances. Inaction can empower dictators and provoke terrorists and enflame regional conflicts. Inaction can slaughter innocent people and create millions of refugees. We have the horrific proof in Syria, where Barack Obama’s infamous “red line” has been painted over in blood.

Leadership in a crisis is essential because collective response is nearly always a collective disaster. Social psychology documented the “bystander apathy effect” in the 1960s, a phenomenon in which the more people who witness a crisis together, the less likely any one of them is to help. Studies showed that while 70 percent of people alone will help a stranger in distress, the number drops to 40 percent when other people are in the room. Inaction is not only deadly, it’s contagious, and it applies to nations as well as to individuals.

The solution to this sort of paralysis on a nation-state level is to have strong global institutions and treaties that are binding and clear. For example, an agreement between countries to guarantee mutual defense or an organization that is bound to intervene to stop a genocide. In theory, contractual commitments and shared moral obligations will override the bystander effect. In practice, the fear of taking action is so strong that the leaders of the free world find excuse after excuse to ignore their commitments and their values.

These excuses range from feigned ignorance to legalistic pedantry to rhetorically reducing the national and international interests that must be protected. Hundreds of thousands slaughtered in Rwanda? We didn’t know. The Budapest Memorandum guarantees Ukrainian territorial integrity? Check the fine print, we’re technically not bound to defend them. Russian jets are crossing into Turkish territory? The North Atlantic Treaty Organization begs member nation Turkey not to invoke the mutual defense clause. Iraq and Syria are exploding into civil war? It’s a Middle Eastern problem. The civil wars are churning out terrorist groups and refugees reaching the West? It’s a European problem. Islamic State sympathizers killed 14 people in San Bernardino, the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11? Our anti-IS strategy is the right one.

Obama and his fellow neo-isolationists are well aware that few are condemned and fewer are convicted of having the power to prevent a tragedy but refusing to do so, while a single death resulting from intervention will be denounced. A quarter-million deaths, a dozen terror attacks, a million refugees, these are politically acceptable consequences of inaction, but a single casualty from action, even attempting to prevent those horrors, is considered politically unacceptable. That is the ghastly arithmetic of appeasement in the 21st century.

Knowingly declining to prevent a murder, or a genocide, cannot carry the same moral charge as committing one, but it is nonetheless a crime. When America, the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, is content to play the role of a just another apathetic bystander, it is a crime with a powerful ripple effect. Recently, Freedom House released its latest Freedom in the World report, finding “an overall drop in freedom for the ninth consecutive year.” It is no coincidence that this has happened as history’s greatest defender of freedom, the United States, has abdicated that role.

I reject the tired premise of whether or not the United States should be the “global policeman.” Global leadership is what is required, not a cop on patrol who occasionally shoots — or carpet bombs — a few bad guys. Leadership means inspiring, aiding, and influencing — using force only when necessary. A robust American foreign policy depends on constantly reinforcing alliances, on deterring dictators and protecting their victims, and on targeting terrorists and their supporters at the source. It requires institutions that will promote democracy and liberty and pressure friends and foes alike to adopt these values. It must be a strategy that will last for decades, not change with the wind. You can’t be America First unless you have a global strategy that is built to last.

14 comments

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He speaks the truth.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

Isn’t saying “It’s America’s responsibility.” just another way of being a bystander?

Posted by brownland | Report as abusive

We have Iran fighting ISIS in the desert on the other side of the world, and we get to eat popcorn and watch.

And this writer thinks the only thing better is if we sent our kids there to die too? For what?

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Leadership does not mean ding all of the work. As the Us backed off of sending troops and arms, the author indicates that no leadership is being exhibited. The reality is that leadership is all about influence. Influence has two parties, – those that influence and those who are willing to be influenced. In the Middle East, the countries and the people do not want to be influenced by western ideas and culture. Yet they continue to kill and destroy their own societies even as they reject western influence. This is not a problem with western leadership.

Posted by bandylaube | Report as abusive

Obama wasn’t asleep at the switch, he was purposefully taking down America a notch. Our Post-american president.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

If we’re willing to make deals with the devil, which we are (think Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Chilean dictators of the 70’s) in the name of “security”, then similar deals should be struck with Russia, China, Iran etc.

Strong bad guys make better friends than enemies. And you have to spend less to police them.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Pakistan built-up 100+ nuclear bombs while we’re busy with Afghanistan and kept giving $3-7B/year – mostly, deal made by Mrs.Clinton.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Neither Donald the corrupter, Hillary the corrupted, Ted the nattering nabob of negativity or Bernie the advocate for a bankrupt socialist ideology will restore trust America’s word or make America great again.

Dear primary voters, please vote for John Kasich.

Posted by JohnSmithP | Report as abusive

How many civilian deaths are attributed to the US occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan?
How do the surviving youth of these countries who have seen so much death feel about the US?
What actions have scattered terrorist cells across the globe?

How would US citizens view armed foreign troop invaders/the bombing of our cities and the death of innocents
“for the greater good”?

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

A superb defense of an activist American foreign policy. It disabuses one of the simplistic belief that if the U.S. only stays on the bench and doesn’t take to the field, these problems will work themselves out. And how did this strategy work in Syria? Intervention has costs, non-intervention has consequences. And as Kasparov points out, those consequences are increasingly mind numbing in the number of mass casualities, the genocide, and the social disorder left in its wake. Only the U.S. has the capability to orchestrate some semblance of order, some diplomatic solutions, to the growing dysfunction. Yet American leadership has been irresolute and timid, and will be more so if Trump or Sanders ends up in the White House.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

Enough of the warmongering. We can’t fix Syria. We can’t fix Iraq. We can’t fix Afghanistan. We can’t fix Pakistan. What we need to do is contain their instability.

So keep sending drones to do precision dirty work instead of thousands of American soldiers. And keep helping the Iraqi military and Syrian moderates fight against ISIS. The terrorists are losing ground, the coalition IS working.

Remember Obama’s red line? Convenient how all his detractors forget Assad actually gave up his chemical weapons shortly after the confrontation.

We don’t want to start another stupid useless war that will deplete our resources and sour American willingness to fight…the exact thing that happened under the previous administration. Instead check aggression with pragmatic effective counter measures like sanctions (plus low oil prices) to push Russia’s economy into a recession. Ignore China’s blustering and cruise the China Sea at will, while at the same time strengthen ties with the other regional nations to effectively counter China’s aggression.

Obama was dealt international weakness by the Bush administration. Thank goodness he has navigated global instability without embroiling us in a military confrontation without hope of winning in the long-run.

Posted by distancematters | Report as abusive

I reject this simplistic, unrealistic view of the world, and the role of dictator Kasparaov demands the US take. Might does not make right, and neither does outsized self importance.

Posted by Hermes.the.Goat | Report as abusive

Muslim civil wars = muslim problem.

Not America’s problem.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The puppet wrote an article.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive