Watching the twists and turns of American foreign policy while reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is an unnerving experience.
Clark’s history, unlike many on the outbreak of World War I, starts not with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, but a dozen or so years earlier. He examines the muddled internal politics behind the foreign policies of major and minor powers — and how often they were incomprehensible to each other.
He also shows how different powers formed shifting and sometimes unlikely alliances, with fateful consequences. Britain ended her longtime enmity with France in the 1904 entente cordiale and broke with the Ottoman Empire to join her “Great Game” rival Russia.
Have we been watching something similar in our own time? Barack Obama brought to the presidency a different approach than the post-Cold War stances of his two predecessors.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, in different ways, maintained support for America’s longstanding allies while gingerly seeking rapprochement with former enemies Russia and China.
With China they established strong trade and financial ties, while discouraging Chinese military aggressiveness. When China shelled the waters off Taiwan in 1996, Clinton sent in the Sixth Fleet.
Clinton cooperated with Boris Yeltsin until he flamed out in 1999. Bush found that his initial faith in Vladimir Putin was ill-founded.
Barack Obama has put a radically different stamp on American foreign policy. Conservative critics perhaps exaggerate, but are on to something, when they characterize him as disrespecting America’s traditional friends and truckling to longtime enemies.
The pattern has become more pronounced in Obama’s second term. He is making good on his promise to Putin to have "more flexibility.”
In his first term he blindsided allies by canceling missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic to appease Putin. In this term he didn't lift a finger when Putin’s successfully blocked Ukraine from establishing closer economic ties with the European Union.
In his first term he one-upped the Palestinians by demanding that Israel stop building settlements (including additions on houses) in East Jerusalem. More recently he supported the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt as a step toward democracy until it was toppled by the military.
In his first term he called for the ouster of Syria’s Assad regime and said that its use of chemical weapons would be crossing a “red line.” In his second term he let the red line be crossed and allowed Putin to stage-manage Syria’s agreement to relinquish the weapons.
In the process the United States has abandoned attempts to depose Assad and now depends on his good faith to locate the weapons—a victory for Putin and Assad’s allies in Iran.
Obama’s sharp reversals on Syria have been echoed by contradictory responses to China’s declaration of an expanded Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, covering the Senkaku Islands owned by Japan but claimed by China.
Obama promptly ordered B-52s to fly through the ADIZ without notifying China. But the Federal Aviation Administration also told U.S. airlines to inform China when flying through this airspace. Japan and South Korea took a contrary stance.
Vice President Joe Biden, visiting China last week, expressed deep concern about the ADIZ and warned against armed clashes that could result. But he did not demand it be scrapped.
The November agreement with Iran, concluded after months of undisclosed U.S.-Iran negotiations, suspended sanctions for six months but did not require the dismemberment of centrifuges demanded in previous United Nations resolutions.
America’s traditional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia have made no secret of their opposition to this agreement. They fear a nuclear Iran dominating their region.
The American Interest’s Walter Russell Mead sees the emergence of an unlikely Israeli-Saudi alliance against Iran, Russia and China, which he calls the “Central Powers”—the term used for Germany’s allies in World War I.
Today’s Central Powers, he writes, are seeking to diminish U.S. power in the Middle East and East Asia, with some success. The U.S. is abandoning friends in the hope of reducing hostility from enemies.
Sudden reversals of policy, shifting alliances, secret negotiations—these are reminiscent of Christopher Clark’s statesmen who sleepwalked into World War I. Let’s hope that clashes over Asian islets or Iranian centrifuges don’t have the kind of consequences as that terrorist murder in Sarajevo did 99 years ago.