Upon Air Force One’s landing in Hangzhou, China, for the G20 summit in early September – amid U.S.-China tensions and the general perception of U.S. decline – Chinese officials refused to roll out the red-carpet staircase for President Barack Obama. Instead, he had to, as one expert put it, leave through “the ass of the plane.” None of the other five leaders who touched down that morning in Hangzhou for the summit were denied a staircase, leading many to surmise that Obama – the leader of the free world on his final tour to Asia – was purposefully snubbed.
And how can anyone be surprised? China’s blatant disrespect comes at a time when tenets of American ideology – free markets, democracy, and human rights – have lost influence and status around the world. In fact, the incident in Hangzhou was not the only moment of the trip when foreign leaders ostentatiously disrespected Obama. The very next day, the president of the Philippines, Roderigo Duterte, called Obama a “son of a bitch.” For a foreign leader whose country depends on U.S. trade and security to curse at the president is absurd, and his justification for his statement illustrates the decline in American ideological influence:
“Washington has been so liberal about criticizing human rights, human rights and human rights. How about you? I have so many questions also about human rights to ask you. So … people who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others.”
The United States’ reputation has been greatly impacted by a series of major mistakes in areas that the United States had leadership over. The 2008 financial crisis, which many believe was created by U.S. greed and overconsumption, diminished global confidence in the free market – the economic model central to U.S. ideology. The Iraq War, also shaped by U.S. greed, completely disregarded human rights and the need for international support to establish legitimacy. So when Obama and U.S. diplomats travel the world lecturing foreign leaders on the importance of free markets, democracy, and human rights, the United States looks hypocritical and loses credibility.
Just look around – foreign leaders are annoyed and not hiding it. While Obama was taking a victory lap hailing the Iran-Nuclear deal, the Ayatollah conducted multiple nuclear-capable ballistic missile test launches. Just days after the deal was finalized, he tweeted, “Even with #IranDeal, our policies toward US Arrogant system will see no change.” And President Obama did nothing.
Putin annexes Crimea. Russian fighter jets buzz a U.S. ship in the Baltic Sea. Iran regularly harasses U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. When Iran actually captured a ship, took ten American soldiers prisoner, and forced them to kneel and put their hands above their heads to be broadcast on Iranian national TV, the United States thanked Iran for its good conduct. The message: flout America, no problem.
While many of these examples seem inconsequential, there are political repercussions of inaction on U.S. credibility. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against civilians in 2013, President Obama did not have the will to fulfill his threat of intervention if the Syrian government crossed this “red-line.” Even after Assad turned over a large portion of his chemical weapons stockpile, he continued to use chemical weapons multiple times. One day after Obama was in Estonia promising that NATO would protect the country from Russian aggression, Russian commandos raided a checkpoint on Estonia’s side of the border, abducting an Estonian Internal Security Officer on charges of espionage. He is still being held in a high security prison in Moscow. Add to that the $400 million in unmarked cash secretly delivered to Iran in an unmarked plane, which happened to occur on the same day that Iran released four American hostages and the nuclear deal was implemented. While the Obama Administration claimed that the timing was a coincidence, Iranian military commanders boasted about the huge ransom payment.
The red-lines are fading. Foreign leaders are treating the United States with less respect diplomatically and politically. U.S. citizens even see this decline in international esteem, with 61% agreeing with the statement that “the United States is respected less by other countries than it was 10 years ago.” Respect and credibility are especially important for effective coercive diplomacy, a staple foreign policy strategy that uses threats to scare opponents into standing down before military force is even necessary. However, for coercive diplomacy to work, the United States needs to show that it has the capacity and, more importantly, the will to follow through with a threat if the terms are violated. Right now, it does not seem as if the Obama administration has the will to make good on its promises.
Take the recent Russian hack on the Democratic National Committee that caused a stir in domestic politics and forced Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign, followed by another unauthorized release of DNC data and Colin Powell’s private emails scorning both Trump and Clinton. These breaches clearly indicate that Russia is attempting to interfere with the U.S. election. Two months before these incidents, Obama approved a policy detailing exactly how the government would respond to cyberattacks, but he has yet to use it. Obama needs to follow through on his word and implement the economic sanctions outlined in the executive order he signed, to make sure that Russia understands that any attempt to interfere with the U.S. democratic process will not be tolerated.