It is easy to forget this mutual concern for a world order of free governments and open commons of sea, air, space, and cyber. Institutional degradation makes it even easier. The former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. says the American people need to decide whether the organization is “worth it,” the French president calls NATO braindead, the German Constitutional Court rules the European Union’s bond buying program is illegal, the World Trade Organization is handicapped, and the American president pledges to halt funding for the World Health Organization.
No open steps have been taken to reclaim or rebuild these institutions, or to build new counter-institutions that could carry out their original functions. The U.S.-U.K. trade deal, which could be the cornerstone of a renewed transatlantic relationship, has been subordinated to the more pressing concerns of pandemic, recession, and protest. What characterizes international relations is conflict, antagonism, mistrust, disregard, and drift.
This is the sort of environment that demands the forward presence of American forces to reassure host governments of our commitment to international security and to deter opponents from hostile action. Everywhere you look, however, America is leaving. We want out of Syria, out of Afghanistan, out of Iraq, out of Africa, out of Germany. In the coming years we may want out of South Korea, and even out of Japan. One or even several of these moves might be reasonable in isolation. Together they communicate to the world a disinterest in fulfilling the role of guarantor that America has played in international politics for generations.