Yet Mr Obama has still made a difficult situation worse in two ways. First, he has broken the cardinal rule of superpower deterrence: you must keep your word. In Syria he drew “a red line”: he would punish Bashar Assad if he used chemical weapons. The Syrian dictator did, and Mr Obama did nothing. In response to Russia’s aggression, he threatened fierce sanctions, only to unveil underwhelming ones. He had his reasons: Britain let him down on Syria, Europe needs Russian gas, Congress is nervous. But the cumulative message is weakness.
Second, Mr Obama has been an inattentive friend. He has put his faith in diplomatic coalitions of willing, like-minded democracies to police the international system. That makes sense, but he has failed to build the coalitions. And using diplomacy to deal with the awkward squad, such as Iran and Russia, leads to concessions that worry America’s allies. Credibility is about reassurance as well as the use of force.
Credibility is also easily lost and hard to rebuild. On the plus side, the weakened West, as we dubbed it after the Syrian debacle, is still stronger than it thinks. America towers above all others in military spending and experience (see article). Unlike China and Russia, it has an unrivalled—and growing—network of alliances. In the past few years Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines have all moved towards it, seeking protection from China. And events can sway perceptions. Back in 1991 George Bush senior’s pounding of Saddam Hussein vanquished talk of America’s “Vietnam syndrome”.
But there will be no vanquishing as long as the West is so careless of what it is losing.