Opinion | America Isn’t Leading the World

Opinion | America Isn’t Leading the World

Nor is the rest of the world flocking to America’s side. Most countries are casting a plague on both houses, finding fault in Russian aggression but also in the West’s response. Mr. Biden hasn’t helped matters. By couching the conflict as a “battle between democracy and autocracy” and making few visible efforts to seek peace through diplomacy, he has appeared to ask other countries to sign up for an endless struggle. Hardly any nations besides U.S. allies have imposed sanctions on Russia. Isolating China, if it attacked Taiwan, would be an even taller task. In Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, perceptions of Russia and China have actually improved since 2022.

The Gaza war came at the worst possible time, and Mr. Biden responded to this calamity by plunging in. He immediately pledged support for Israel’s merciless military campaign rather than condition U.S. aid on Israel finding a strategy that would protect civilians. Having chosen to follow, not lead, Mr. Biden was left to tut-tut about Israel’s behavior from the self-imposed sidelines. In a defining conflict, the United States has managed to be weak and oppressive at once. The costs to America’s reputation and security are only beginning to appear.

Not long ago, the United States tried to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians on terms both parties might accept. It used diplomacy to keep Iran from going nuclear and encouraged the Saudis to “share the neighborhood,” in Barack Obama’s words, with their Iranian rivals. As of now, the Biden administration apparently aspires to do little more than consolidate an anti-Iran bloc. In return for Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel, it seeks to commit, by treaty, to defend the Saudi kingdom with U.S. military force. This deal, if it happens, has a tiny chance of bringing peace and stability to the Middle East — and a large chance of further entangling the United States in regional violence.

Part of the problem is the president’s inclination to overidentify with U.S. partners. He has deferred to Ukraine on whether to pursue peace negotiations and has avoided contradicting its maximalist war aims. He fast-tracked aid to Israel even while publicly doubting its war plans. Mr. Biden also vowed four times to defend Taiwan, exceeding the official U.S. commitment to arm the island but not necessarily fight for it. His predecessors were not always so one-sided, maintaining “strategic ambiguity,” for example, over whether the United States would go to war over Taiwan.

Yet Mr. Biden’s instincts reflect a deeper error, decades in the making. Coming out of the Cold War, American policymakers conflated global leadership with military dominance. The United States had sure possession of both. It could safely widen its military reach without encountering deadly pushback from major nations. “The world is no longer divided into two hostile camps,” Bill Clinton declared in 1997, the year he championed NATO’s eastward enlargement. “Instead, now we are building bonds with nations that once were our adversaries.”

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