President Obama encountered setbacks to two of his most cherished foreign-policy projects on [April 24], as he failed to achieve a trade deal that undergirds his strategic pivot to Asia and the Middle East peace process suffered a potentially irreparable breakdown.

Mr. Obama had hoped to use his visit here to announce an agreement under which Japan would open its markets in rice, beef, poultry and pork, a critical step toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed regional trade pact. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not able to overcome entrenched resistance from Japan’s farmers in time for the president’s visit…

The setbacks, though worlds apart in geography and history, speak to the common challenge Mr. Obama has had in translating his ideas and ambitions into enduring policies. He has watched outside forces unravel his best-laid plans, from resetting relations with Russia to managing the epochal political change in the Arab world.

***

America’s allies are nervous. With Russia grabbing territory, China bullying its neighbours and Syria murdering its people, many are asking: where is Globocop? Under what circumstances will America act to deter troublemakers? What, ultimately, would America fight for?

The answer to this question matters. Rogue states will behave more roguishly if they doubt America’s will to stop them. As a former head of Saudi intelligence recently said of Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Ukraine: “While the wolf is eating the sheep, there is no shepherd to come to the rescue.”…

So much for America’s formal commitments. When it comes to other countries and regions, insiders worry that Mr Obama sees the world as a jungle full of thugs, forever causing crises that America cannot fix. His failure to enforce his own “red line” over chemical weapons in Syria gravely damaged his credibility.

Team Obama is divided, with an unhappy State Department under John Kerry desperate to see more help for anti-Assad forces in Syria, while the Pentagon has spent months explaining why extra weapons shipments cannot work. Meanwhile, Mr Obama is described as analysing every option to exhaustion before concluding that inaction is the prudent course.

***

[T]he U.S. often finds itself with an uncomfortable choice: Either it must back off its declared goals, which makes America look weak and encourages widespread defiance, or it has to make good on its aims, which requires enormous investments in blood, treasure and time.

The Obama administration has largely opted for the former, i.e., feckless approach. The most egregious case is Syria, where the president and others declared that “Assad must go” only to do little to bring about his departure…

Meanwhile, large areas of Libya are increasingly out of government control and under the authority of militias and terrorists. Egypt is polarized and characterized by mounting violence. Much the same is true in Iraq, now the second-most-turbulent country in the region, where the U.S. finds itself with little influence despite a costly decade of occupation. Terrorists now have more of a foothold in the region than ever before…

The challenge for the Obama administration is not just to ensure American strength and continued internationalism in the face of growing isolationist sentiment. It is also a case of sending the right message to others. We are witnessing an accelerated movement toward a post-American world where governments make decisions and take actions with reduced regard for U.S. preferences. Such a world promises to be even messier, and less palatable for U.S. interests, than it is today.

***

But it has now become equally puzzling why he has not become more sure-footed in foreign affairs. He is one of the brightest men ever to occupy the office, and yet his learning curve has been among the flattest. Talking to players on the world stage — most of whom still want him to succeed — one finds them genuinely rattled, worried about a lack of national will and operational competence…

Most Americans still want him to succeed, but when television executives put him on the air, audiences often melt away. Even before the midterms, voters are looking over his shoulder at who comes next. “Waiting for Hillary” is a bigger story than “What Happened to Obama?” And there are few prospects for home runs overseas…

The world needs strong, effective American leadership as well; for all our mistakes like Iraq, the U.S. is the one nation that still has the power to keep world order. But in the twinkle of an eye, we have gone from being indispensable to indisposed.

There is no obvious game plan for Obama to bounce back.

***

Sometime in late 2013 Barack Obama seemed to sense that his foreign policy had failed, and that in almost every area of the globe things were more dangerous than when he entered office — and scarier because of his own initiatives.

And what now? Blaming Bush had a shelf life of four years, proved nihilistic, and can’t be continued for the next three. No one abroad cares that Obama is either leftwing or the first African-American president or that he speaks well from a teleprompter. Hope and change have become a sort of embarrassment. Another Cairo speech would earn guffaws. More loud reaching out to Turkey, Cuba, and Venezuela would earn eye-rolling. China has heard it all before. Iran is calibrating how to time its nuclear acquisition with the ending of Obama’s second term. Israel is politely tuning out. Putin is wondering: Can all these gifts be for real, or might there still be some elaborate ruse?

But mostly, our enemies now are ready to test us, and our friends will soon consider distancing themselves from us. So much so that even Obama’s occasional wise initiatives, like a trade deal with Japan, will go nowhere, given that there is no upside in supporting America, and no downside in opposing it.

We had a bad foreign policy and now we have no foreign policy — and sadly, we can only hope that is an improvement.

***

I’ve been at the White House when it has been taking a pounding from all sides. The inner circle gets smaller, and the rest of the staff tries to either put on a brave face or acknowledge the problems and quietly point fingers. Democratic insiders tell me the Obama inner circle now only consists of the president, Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough — and not everyone agrees on McDonough. Whether or not the president takes any criticism to heart and tries to change course seems unlikely based on what we have observed so far.

Every president experiences periods when he is unpopular or facing difficult decisions. But I don’t remember another president in my lifetime who has reached such a diminished state with so much time left in his term. We have more than two and a half years left under President Obama. We have to realize we will pay a price for this president’s lack of leadership. No one knows what the headlines will be next week, next month or next year, but nothing this president does seems to be shaping the world in a way that makes America stronger.

***

We understand that it’s frustrating. You’re dealing with some really evil guys and some really nutty pols, and the problems roiling the world now are brutally hard. As the Republican strategist Mike Murphy says, it’s not like the campaign because you have “bigger problems than a will.i.am song can fix.”

But that being said, you are the American president. And the American president should not perpetually use the word “eventually.” And he should not set a tone of resignation with references to this being a relay race and say he’s willing to take “a quarter of a loaf or half a loaf,” and muse that things may not come “to full fruition on your timetable.”…

An American president should never say, as you did Monday in Manila when you got frustrated in a press conference with the Philippine president: “You hit singles; you hit doubles. Every once in a while, we may be able to hit a home run.”

Especially now that we have this scary World War III vibe with the Russians, we expect the president, especially one who ran as Babe Ruth, to hit home runs.

***

Obama’s impatience with history has left him patient with evil. It is not a pretty sight; but his broken foreign policy is riddled with such ironies. Here is another one: Baker reports that the president has elected to revise his Russia policy into “an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.” How twentieth century! Never mind that containment was a policy with many interpretations, and not quite the formula for moving on that Obama is seeking. The grim fact is that Obama’s containment is not containing Putin, whose “green men” and “peoples’ republics” and Big Lies and Russophilic incitement and covert operations and military deployments are undeterred by it. While Obama pitches the “off-ramp,” Putin revels in the on-ramp. Geneva is now the world capital of failure. The only country that American containment is containing is America

But the richest of the ironies about Obama’s foreign policy is this: the world that in his view wanted to be rid of American salience now longs for it. It turns out that Obama’s Iraq-based view of America’s role in the world, according to which American preeminence is bad for the world and bad for America, is not shared by societies and movements in many regions. They need, and deserve, support in their struggles. (In Syria, for example, the tyrant enjoys the significant support of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, the Islamist rebels enjoy the significant support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the moderate secular rebels enjoy the significant support of nobody.) There are many places in the world where we are despised not for taking action but for not taking action. Our allies do not trust us. Our enemies do not fear us. What if American preeminence is good for the world and good for America? Let’s talk about that.

***

Obama’s woes are complicated by a sense — denied by the White House — of American disengagement. “The perception of American withdrawal is palpable,” says Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser to George W. Bush.

“The Europeans and the Gulf states think that we’re leaving,” says Bill Cohen, who served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton. “The Asian countries think we’re not coming.”

Moreover, the president is caught in a contradictory, and unfair, squeeze. On issues such as Syria and Russia, he’s depicted as insufficiently aggressive or tough. At the same time, the American public, turned off by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, wants no part of more aggressive foreign entanglements. Even some Republicans are taking cues from Senator Rand Paul’s quasi-isolationists stance.

***

Let me start by asking a question I’ve asked about other countries: Is American foreign policy today the way it is because Obama is the way he is (cerebral, cautious, dispassionate) or is Obama the way Obama is on foreign policy because America is the way America is today (burned by two failed wars and weakened by a great recession) and because the world is the way the world is (increasingly full of failed states and enfeebled U.S. allies)?…

I’d argue that a lot of what makes America less active in the world today is a product first of all of our own diminished leverage because of actions taken by previous administrations. The decisions by the Bush I and Clinton teams to expand NATO laid the seeds of resentment that helped to create Putin and Putinism. The Bush II team not only presided over two unsuccessful wars, but totally broke with American tradition and cut taxes instead of raising them to pay for those wars, weakening our balance sheet. The planning for both wars was abysmal, their execution worse and too many of our “allies” proved to be corrupt or used our presence to prosecute old feuds…

Most presidents make their name in foreign policy by taking on strong enemies; but most of what threatens global stability today are crumbling states. Exactly how many can we rescue at one time? I’d love to help Ukrainian reformers build a functioning democracy, but the reason that is so daunting a task is because their own politicians wasted two decades looting their own country, so the leverage required to foster change — $30 billion in bailout funds — is now massive.

***

The problem is that even though the public clearly thinks the United States is slipping under weak, disengaged leadership, it too is disengaged from foreign affairs and holds very conflicted views on the subject, especially regarding what to do about world trouble spots. This is not only true for the public at large, but for the rank-and-file Republicans who are so critical of Obama…

Most notably, the same public that criticizes Obama’s lack of assertiveness is now saying in record numbers that the United States should mind its own business and let other countries get along as best they can. A 52 percent majority of Americans subscribes to that view, up from 30 percent in 2004. And the same Republicans who fault Obama for global disengagement increasingly come to the view that the United States should focus on domestic policy (71 percent) rather than foreign affairs (14 percent)…

So now we see the problem: The GOP’s difficulty with exploiting public discontent with Obama’s handling of foreign policy is that the president’s unwillingness to be more assertive in Syria or Ukraine reflects the public’s mood—including Republicans.

***

But as foreign policy scholar Robert Kagan noted recently, there’s a paradox in those polls: The same public that wants to stay out of foreign entanglements also thinks the president isn’t doing a very good job on international affairs. A recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that only 38% of those surveyed approved of Obama’s handling of foreign policy; that was fewer than approved of his handling of the economy…

I think the explanation is a little simpler: Yes, Americans want to stay out of foreign messes, but they also want to see their country’s foreign policy succeed. And at the moment, Obama is suffering from a shortage of successes. Whatever he’s doing, it isn’t working. Russia is still threatening Ukraine. Syria is still mired in bloodshed. Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s thankless mediation between Israelis and Palestinians seems doomed…

This is a president who used to say we could swing for the fences. We could repair America’s relationships with its allies, enjoy a “reset” with Russia, embrace the Muslim world and make peace just about everywhere.

The failures call to mind the question a famous Alaskan foreign policy analyst once asked: “How’s that hopey-changey thing working out for ya?”