The closing chapters of World War II took place in the spring and summer of 1945 with the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The United States became the dominant world power, with the world's largest economy producing a full 50 percent of world economic output at the time. Its army and the Soviet Union's Red Army were the two largest in the world.
However, as sole possessor of the atomic bomb, the United States stood at the top. Only the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), which obtained the bomb several years later, disputed American hegemony.
For half a century afterward, the United States played the role of the world's policeman, intervening in Korea, Vietnam, Africa, the Middle East, even the Caribbean, to thwart communist insurgencies, upstart dictatorships and other threats to peace and a balanced world order. By no means did America play this role perfectly, yet the free world did come to rely on the United States as the one power with the will and the might to extend itself in the cause of international justice.
Yet recent events show an America on the retreat, backpedaling, withdrawing and in general on the defensive. What has happened to the nation that most other countries have looked to for leadership in dangerous times? And what does it mean for the world?
"Leading from behind" leads to chaotic realignments ahead
Over the past decade, commentators across the world have noted this change. Past Good News articles have cited respected sources such as the British newsmagazine The Economist and the Financial Times, Germany's Der Spiegel and The Wall Street Journal, all of which have noted the seismic shift in America's willingness to involve herself globally.
Taking office in 2009, newly elected U.S. President Barack Obama lost no time in spelling out his new vision for America's role in the world.
The United States would no longer assert its authority abroad, he promised. America would play nicely in the sandbox of nations, not driving its own interests, and would rely increasingly on other nations to carry the burden of maintaining international order. "Leading from behind" was to become America's new role on the world stage.
Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski is just one of many who are sounding the alarm on America's retreat and its implications. In his 2013 book Strategic Vision, America and the Crisis of Global Power, Brzezinski argues that the eventual demise of the United States as the one global superpower would leave a fragmented world, one even more dangerous than the world today.
If this were to happen by, say, 2025, he says, "no single power will be ready by then to exercise the role that the world . . . expected the United States to play. More probable would be a protracted phase of rather inconclusive and somewhat chaotic realignments of both global and regional power, with no grand winners and many more losers, in a setting of international uncertainty and even of potentially fatal risks to global well-being" (p. 75).
Ongoing crises in Egypt, Syria and Iran
More than five years of this thinking and the actions—or inaction—flowing from it has had its consequences.
Nearly two years ago, a September 2012 Wall Street Journal article focused on American inability to guide and influence global events: "The Obama Presidency has been an era of slowly building tension and disorder that seems likely to flare into larger troubles and perhaps even military conflict" ("The New World Disorder," Sept. 13, 2012).
The article noted how little the United States was able to influence the events of the Arab Spring, how America's passive approach to that year's turmoil in Egypt resulted in the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, a long-time U.S. ally, and his replacement as president by a Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi. Since that time, Morsi has been deposed by the military, but Egypt remains a seething cauldron of unrest and instability.
Regrettably, the past two years have seen the situation only deteriorate.
After Syrian president Bashar al-Assad used poison gas to kill hundreds of Syrian civilians, a clear violation of international law, President Obama drew a "line in the sand," threatening U.S. intervention if such weapons were used again. Russia's Vladimir Putin shrewdly intervened to defuse the crisis, and Obama backed off. Now Assad has again used poison gas against his own people, and the world just yawns.
More than 160,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in Syria's continuing civil war, and the world seems powerless to stop the carnage.
Eschewing armed military intervention, the Obama administration has turned increasingly to economic sanctions, which it terms "the 21st-century use of force." No nation has felt the pressure of sanctions more than Iran, as America and the world seek to deter its open pursuit of its own nuclear capability. Sanctions have been in place for years, but how well have they worked?
In early May, veteran CBS newsman Steve Croft spent eight days in Iran, observing life in both urban and rural areas. "While we saw that the sanctions were causing considerable pain, we saw no evidence that the economy was on the verge of collapse," said Croft in his report.
Among those he interviewed were two Iranian businessmen, leaders in Iran's budding Internet industry. Asked what effect U.S. and worldwide sanctions were having on their nation, both assured him that although the sanctions were causing pain, they would merely slow down, not halt, Iran's nuclear progress.
Earlier this year Iran again beat the United States and other Western nations in the international shell game of "watch the weapons." Outflanking and outmaneuvering U.S.-led negotiators, Iran's hardline leaders gave up virtually nothing, but gained a lifting of the most effective sanctions against them, including the unfreezing of billions of dollars' worth of Iranian assets.
Iran's former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made no secret of the contempt Iran's leadership has for the United States and European Union, and their long-range plans to destroy them.
And despite Iran's new president Hassan Rouhani being seen as more moderate, the real power lies with the religious clerics, the chief of whom recently expressed again the desire to eliminate the United States ("‘Jihad Will Only End When Society Can Get Rid of America': Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in Chilling Threat Towards U.S.," Daily Mail, May 26, 2014).
Yet the Iranians would start with getting rid of Israel, which they consider to be the Middle Eastern outpost of their hated enemies.
Israel-PA peace negotiations unravel
The United States has long supported Israel, seen to be the only true democracy and reliable ally in the region. But for decades, one U.S. administration after the other has pressured Israel to make peace with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Those efforts seemed to be progressing until recently. Mahmoud Abbas, viewed as a moderate in spite of being a Holocaust denier, became president of the Palestinian Authority in 2004, replacing the hardline terrorist Yasser Arafat. Years of painstaking negotiations seemed to produce a breakthrough earlier this year in which the Palestinian Authority signed on to 15 international agreements that, among other things, require the PA to respect human rights and punish war criminals. Israel began to breathe easier —perhaps peace might come after all.
But in late April Abbas did a complete about-face, signing a unity deal with two genocidal terror groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both pledged to the destruction of Israel and the annihilation of the Jewish nation. Both groups have carried out decades of terrorist attacks against Israel, including the unrelenting firing of rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip. The international community considers leaders of both groups to be war criminals.
And where was U.S. leadership in all this? Writing for The Jerusalem Post, longtime Middle East observer Caroline Glick commented: "Abbas was only able to sign the Geneva Conventions on the one hand, and the unity deal with terrorist war criminals on the other, because he is utterly convinced that neither the US nor the European Union will hold him accountable for his actions. He is completely certain that neither the Americans nor the Europeans are serious about their professed commitments to upholding international law.
"Abbas is sure that for both the Obama administration and the EU, maintaining support for the PLO far outweighs any concern they have for abiding by the law of nations. He believes this because he has watched them make excuses for the PLO and its leaders for the past two decades" ("Time for Consequences," April 24, 2014).
She went on to explain: "The peace process is predicated on the notion that . . . if Israel would just surrender Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians, then . . . the Muslim world as a whole will cast aside their support for jihad and terrorism and everything will be fine. At least that is how Abbas analyzes the situation. And so far, the US has not disappointed him."
China flexes its muscles
As if worries over the Middle East were not enough, Asia and the Pacific Rim continue to supply more headaches for foreign policy advisors in Washington.
The People's Republic of China has astonished the world in the past 30 years with its vast, seemingly unstoppable economic growth. Chinese leaders are using their new strength to build up their military —to the dismay of both Japan and Taiwan. For decades, China has made it clear that it plans to reunite Nationalist China—the island of Taiwan—with the mainland, using force if necessary. Taiwanese leaders worry about the strength of U.S. commitment to their security in the event of a military strike by the People's Republic.
China has raised the tension level with Japan by recently claiming a vastly extended airspace. Its claimed new "air defense identification zone" covers most of the Sea of Japan and includes several small islands that Japan has long claimed as its own. When the United States raised protests in favor of Japan, a Chinese defense spokesman bluntly told America to "butt out."
American criticism of the air zone announcement is "completely unreasonable," Col. Yang Yujun, a Ministry of National Defense spokesman, said in late 2013 in response to a protest lodged by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The dispute, like so many in the world, remains unresolved, with the White House finding it can do little to influence the Chinese.
Recent months have witnessed a development in Europe not seen by the world since the late 1930s—the brazen takeover of part of a European nation by Russia.
Smarting from the recent rejection of its puppet, Victor Yanukovich, as president of Ukraine, Russia brazenly fomented discontent among the majority Russian-leaning citizens of the Ukrainian province of Crimea, then simply annexed the region.
European nations that share a common Russian border feel threatened, none more than the three former Soviet republics of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, which gained their independence from Russia following the collapse of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s.
Estonia, with its large Russian-speaking population, is clearly worried. As reported by Reuters in late March, Russia has signaled "concern" over supposed mistreatment of the Russian-speaking segment there, as it did earlier with the Russian speakers of Crimea. History remembers that Adolf Hitler also used concern for German-speaking Czechs to justify his takeover of the Czech Sudetenland in 1938.
As of mid-May the Ukrainian crisis was worsening, with Russian sympathizers in control of many government buildings in Eastern Ukraine. Increased economic sanctions by the United States and Europe were doing little to deter Russian actions.
In fact, on May 21, 2014, Russia announced that, after years of negotiations, it had signed a $400 billion, 30-year agreement to supply China with natural gas. The deal provides Russia with an enormous cash flow from an emerging economic and military giant and provides a strategic buffer against the loss of any of Russia's western European markets while providing China with needed energy resources to help fuel its economy.
With the West alienating Russia with threats of economic sanctions, it only succeeded in driving Russia into further embrace with the world's other great totalitarian, anti-Western regime. At the same time, elements of Russia's Pacific fleet were beginning joint naval drills with the Chinese navy, and both governments announced closer financial collaboration.
Return to the Cold War?
One hears increasing talk of a return to the Cold War of decades ago. A New York Times story earlier this year quoted Stephen Hadley, President George W. Bush's national security adviser, stating it would be harder to recover from this clash than in the past because Mr. Putin is effectively rejecting the international order established after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"He wants to rewrite the history that emerged at the end of the Cold War," Hadley said. "We have fundamentally different approaches to what Europe is going to be" (quoted by Peter Baker, "If Not a Cold War, a Return to a Chilly Rivalry," March 18, 2014).
Many centuries ago God thundered a prophetic warning to America and the other nations descended from ancient Israel: "I will break the pride of your power . . . And your strength shall be spent in vain" (Leviticus 26:19-20, emphasis added throughout).
Nowhere is this more apparent than in recent and current U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite more than a decade of warfare and more than a trillion dollars spent, Iraq is disintegrating into civil war. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces have announced a timetable for withdrawal, while Afghan President Hamid Karzai ignores America and even refused to meet with President Obama when he flew to Afghanistan on May 26, 2014.
Historians agree that the reason for the United States "winning" the Cold War in the early 1990s was its military and economic strength. Yet today we see that strength draining away. Though America still has the strongest military and the largest economy in the world, its enemies are catching up. The nation is steadily losing its advantages and ability to influence world events.
Where should we turn?
History does have a way of repeating itself. But what should be our attitude towards these events? In such a world, where is one left to turn?
The same God who said, "I will break the pride of your power" also commands His people to remain vigilant in a time of growing world crisis. "Watch therefore," Jesus Christ told His followers when they asked him about the future (Matthew 24:42).
That same command applies to us today. America's decline on the world scene will have tragic consequences. It is high time we open our eyes to what is going on in the world around us, as ancient prophecies begin to be fulfilled in our headlines.