America’s Status Has Weakened Under Obama

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. counterpart Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders Summit in Hangzhou on September 5, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. counterpart Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders Summit in Hangzhou on September 5, 2016.Credit: Alexei Druzhinin/AFP

United States President Barack Obama’s visit to Asia was rife with disagreements and even insults. First he was forced to exit Air Force One from a side door, after the Chinese would not attach the rolling stairs to the plane’s main exit. Later he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit, a session Obama described as “candid, blunt and businesslike,” but did not resolve the bilateral disagreements about the Syrian crisis. Obama also got a reprimand from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who explained that terror is terror, including that of the Syrian Kurds supported by the U.S.

But Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte topped them all when he called Obama a “son of a bitch” to reporters and told him not to intervene in internal Filipino affairs, in this case the wholesale killings of suspected drug dealers since recently taking office. That insult was too much for even Obama’s patience, and the meeting scheduled between the two presidents was canceled. The next day Duterte said he regretted that his remarks were understood as a direct insult of Obama, and declared that the two would meet at a later date.

The Filipino politician’s bluntness has been his style from the beginning and played a role in his electoral victory, but was perceived as totally unacceptable under the rules of international diplomacy. Beyond Duterte’s rude behavior, however, his remarks reflect a change in the global power structure and the place the U.S. under Obama plays in it. One would have thought the Philippine president would have been especially careful to preserve the dignity of his American counterpart. Since China has pledged to ignore the ruling of a United Nations-backed tribunal in a dispute between his country and China about an archipelago in the South China Sea, Manila needs American support more than ever.

The truth is, however, that Duterte can curse Obama as much as he wants. American considerations would not allow the U.S. president to abandon the country’s ally – and former colony – even if he wanted to. The reason for this is that the Philippine position on China’s claim to nearly the whole South China Sea is the same as that of other American allies in the region, particularly Japan (which pledged to lend Manila boats and spy planes to help cope with the Chinese threat), and the Americans are committed to supporting this position regardless of what was said in Manila’s presidential palace.

Duterte’s curses, however, reveal that he isn’t convinced that this firm American support will help him much with Beijing, and justifiably so. Both before and after the international arbitration ruling the Americans declared that unilateral Chinese moves in the South China Sea were unacceptable, and the U.S. even sent warships to the area in protest, but this accomplished nothing in terms of stopping China from building artificial islands on reefs and islets on the Spratlys archipelago, and it doesn’t look like anything will change.

The Philippine president may be rude, but he isn’t stupid, and he apparently believes his chances of reaching a solution in this dispute are better through direct talks with Beijing than by relying on American pressure.

Washington’s inability to dictate policy to other countries is not unique to Southeast Asia. The Syrian dispute has generated example after example of America’s limited influence. This includes an almost complete withdrawal of Washington’s earlier demands from Moscow regarding an agreement in Syria in order to achieve a limited cease-fire – backtracking that still didn’t result in an agreement – as well as the surprise Erdogan prepared for the Americans when the operation to remove the Islamic State from the Turkish border was revealed as being aimed at the Kurds as well.

It’s easy to blame Obama’s restrained, conciliatory approach for the deteriorating status of what was until a few years ago the world’s only great power. But China’s ascent has long been viewed as inevitable, and historians will argue plenty about how much the character of the U.S. president played a role in changing the power balance and whether a tougher leader might have been able to alter these trends.

But whether or not Obama could have stopped the deterioration, given his shaky international position the insult in Tagalog that the U.S. president had to absorb may not be the last before his term ends in a few months.

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