“Whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them”, remarked President Obama during a nuclear security summit in 2010. Four years on however, we are witnessing a worrying tendency in US foreign policy: the military superpower has turned into the rhetorical superpower. Its credibility and influence in the international sphere has been severely undermined by its actions (or rather lack of action) in Ukraine, Syria and even in its own backyard of Latin America.
Obama vs. Putin
The escalation of the situation in Crimea, following the attack of a Ukrainian military base in the city of Mariupol by pro-Russian forces, should have prompted further US reaction to Russian meddling in Ukraine. The summit held on Thursday 17th between Ukraine, Russia, the US and the EU has reached a promising agreement, with calls to disarm illegal groups and assurances by Kiev that public debate on the devolution of powers to cities will be launched. The US is also talking of further, tougher sanctions on Russia’s financial and energy sectors, should Moscow fail to upkeep its obligations.
Unfortunately, EU leaders have appeared far more reluctant to follow the US lead and stand up to the grizzly Russian bear. Since the EU and Russian economies are far more intertwined, stiff punishments on Moscow will constitute a blow to European countries in a period of fragile economic growth. Putin knows very well that, while the US can threaten sanctions all it likes, without the support of its EU partners the effects of such sanctions will be minimal on Russia’s economy.
US credibility and influence in the Ukrainian crisis is wafer thin. Starting with Obama’s failure to deliver “costs” following the Russian annexation of Crimea, it comes as no surprise that the continued use of such language bears little effect on the Kremlin, and it is unclear whether Russia will respect the Geneva agreement, or if it continues troop buildup on the border.
The “red line” failure
The Syrian debacle perfectly illustrates the limits of American commitments to human rights standards and even to its own rhetoric.
Like in Ukraine, Obama’s handling of the Assad regime was characterized by symbolic gestures and strongly worded warnings, none of which translated into substantive action. When asked in 2012 about the possibility of US military intervention in Syria, President Obama made clear that should the Syrian government cross the “red line”, described as the use of chemical weapons, there would be serious repercussions.
On August 21 2012, President Bashar al-Assad called Obama’s bluff, launching a chemical attack against his own population. The “red line” and Washington quickly became the subject of much derision and disappointment as the administration seemed to forget its own narrative of the moral stabilizing role of the US.
The Assad regime went unpunished for its crimes, with only President Putin demonstrating leadership skills by negotiating a deal for the disarmament of Syria. Rather than showing strength and resolve, Obama jumped at the opportunity, forcing him out of his uncomfortable situation and inability to act. With US credibility already faltered, Obama’s inaction in the Syria crisis illustrated to the world a sign of weakness, of a country claiming its moral obligations and yet failing to deliver when the time comes.
Indeed, Putin’s apparent lack of respect for American warnings stems in part from the historical lesson learned from Syria. The Kremlin seems to consider that, just like in Syria, there will be no “harsh consequences” for its actions in Ukraine. Indeed, the lack of a strong US response in the aftermath of the Crimea annexation, left the world flabbergasted.
Troubles close to home
And what about the credibility of US soft power closer to home? Through the Organization of American States, and more specifically within the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), the US aims to improve the human rights policies of Latin American countries. Over the past years, US credibility in the organization has come under attack from many of its members, with countries such as Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia claiming the US functions under double standards using its role in the IACHR as a tool for US influence.
President Correa, among others, has called for a wide range of reforms including equal funding for all rapporteurs, not just for the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, which currently receives excessive and unjustifiable funding from US. Proposed reforms also call for a relocation of the IACHR from Washington DC to a member country that is a signatory of the American Convention of Human Rights, also known as the San Jose Pact.
Despite the IACHR being located in Washington DC, the US is not a signatory of the San Jose Pact, essentially ensuring that the Commission has no jurisdiction on its land. This double standard undermines US credibility in governing the human rights policies of other countries, since Washington refuses to abide by its own standards.
This leaves us with a slight musing: Can the US really govern and judge the human rights policies of Latin American countries considering its hardly perfect human rights record at home?
If the US is to retain any of its credibility in the organisation, it would be wise to listen to the proposed reforms of its Latin American members. Similarly, outside of its own region and on the global sphere, US politicians should not simply speak of US moral obligation to intervene, without matching this rhetoric with real action and consequences. If they fail, the once-upon-a-time superpower will continue to see its credibility and influence wither away before its own eyes.