April 10, 2009 | Commentary on International Organizations, Terrorism

The Humbling of a Superpower

It is hard to imagine a bigger slight to the memory of the more than 100,000 American soldiers who died liberating Europe than the image of a U.S. president attacking the "arrogance" of his own country on French soil. President Obama's speech last week ahead of the NATO summit in Strasbourg, barely 500 miles from the beaches of Normandy, marked a low point in presidential speechmaking on foreign policy.

The largely French and German town hall audience cheered like ancient Romans in a packed Coliseum. This time, however, it was not Christians being fed to the lions but the symbolism of U.S. power, as the president lashed out at America's "failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world." Obama bemoaned that "instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive."

The Franco-German crowd also clapped mightily in approval and bayed for more when the president boasted of closing down the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, declaring that "without equivocation or exception that the United States of America does not and will not torture," as though his own country had been some sort of brutal tyranny that had suddenly seen the light with his election. It was a thoroughly distasteful attack on the previous administration's interrogation of extremely dangerous terror suspects, feeding into the very anti-Americanism that Obama had half-heartedly challenged earlier in his address.

This was a humiliating spectacle to behold as the leader of the most powerful nation on earth prostrated his country before a European audience that lapped up his message as though it was manna from heaven. Obama's actions represented the humbling of a superpower on the world stage, a defining moment for a new administration that is weakening American global leadership and taking every opportunity to engage with its enemies, such as Iran, or its strategic competitors, including Russia and China.

It was an approach that failed to reap any dividends on the president's European tour. If anything, this trip proved there is little to be gained from bending to the whims of European governments, who simply view it as weakness to be exploited and used to their own advantage. When Obama urged Europeans to play a bigger role in the NATO mission in Afghanistan, his words were met in the Strasbourg amphitheatre with an eerie silence, as though this was a ridiculous request and an affront to their delicate sensibilities.

Behind the scenes at the NATO summit, there was no evidence of goodwill towards the pleas of the rock star-like American president. Obama succeeded only in securing a weak-kneed pledge of 5,000 European trainers and military police to join the NATO-led International Security Force in Afghanistan, most of whom will remain in the country only until the elections in August. Great Britain was the only European nation to offer a significant number of additional combat troops -- 1,000 -- to be added to the 8,300 British forces already on the ground.

It is continental European leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who should be apologizing for the failure of their own countries to fight in Afghanistan, while American, British and Canadian troops are dying in large numbers on the battlefields. The brutal fact is that Obama achieved nothing at all at the NATO summit, and the war in Afghanistan remains overwhelmingly a conflict fought by a small group of English-speaking nations who continue to take 85 percent of the casualties in the fight against the Taliban, while most of Europe sits pathetically on the sidelines with cowardly indifference.

In world affairs, popularity rarely brings with it concrete results. Ronald Reagan was reviled in Europe but together with Margaret Thatcher brought down the might of the Soviet Empire. President Bush was burnt in effigy in almost every capital city across the European Union but succeeded in liberating sixty million Muslims from tyranny and kept the United States safe from terrorist attack in the years following 9/11.

It wasn't much better for Obama at the preceding G-20 summit in London, where European leaders made all the running. Obama may have stolen the limelight and the best photo-ops but shaped little of the policy. Eventually the United States signed up to a communiqué that pledged $750 billion for the IMF, a European-dominated highly ineffective organization, as well as laying the foundations of a new global regulatory architecture for the financial industry, that poses a huge threat to American national sovereignty and the freedom of American companies to operate in global markets.

As the Obama administration will gradually begin to realize, world leadership is not a popularity contest. Rather, it is about taking tough decisions and positions that will be met with hostility in many parts of the globe. It is about the assertive projection of American power, both to secure the homeland and to protect the free world. It is often a lonely and unenviable task that at times will require the use of maximum force against America's enemies and a willingness to face the scorn of countries whose glories are way behind them, or who lack the courage and conviction to do what is right.

Obama faces a world that in many ways is even more dangerous than the one that existed during the Cold War, with an array of rogue regimes close to developing offensive nuclear weapons capability, as well as a global terrorist network that seeks the very destruction of the United States and its allies. This is not the time for flower power speeches repenting for the so-called "arrogance" of the globe's only superpower, or pointless declarations about creating a "nuclear free world."

The president must deal with the world as it is now, not as he imagines it. This requires confronting the Mullahs of Tehran and tyrants such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il, and standing up to Russian aggression in its 'Near Abroad.' It also involves a determination to wage a global war, not an "Overseas Contingency Operation," against Islamist groups and networks in the form of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah and an array of other terrorist organizations. This will require significantly increased military spending not less, as well as the full implementation of a global missile defense system.

This is not a moment for faint hearts and 60s-style pacifism, but a time for America to project its might on the world stage and defeat its enemies. Europe can mock and jeer on the sidelines all it likes, but will quickly rediscover that its own security ultimately lies in supporting a United States that roars like a lion rather than bleats like a lamb.

Nile Gardiner is Director of the Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

About the Author

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D. Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First Appeared in Human Events