REVIEW: Article

Permanent Interests, Enduring Values and a Changing World: American Leadership in 2014

Around midnight on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was breached. Within hours, East Germans streamed to the West as strong arms wielding pick axes and sledge hammers brought the Cold War—with its familiar perils and uncertainties—to an abrupt and exhilarating end. Today, a quarter of a century later, we confront a viper’s nest of newer dangers in a world where no wall separates much and ideological disputes are less fearsome than the perils brought on by national, religious, and tribal passions. Forces unleashed since the Cold War’s sunset have roiled large chunks of the globe without settling into a conventional pattern; there exists neither a clearly defined match-up of rival power blocs, nor a decisive triumph of any one system. Instead of the feared clash of civilizations, we are witness to a spectacle far more complex: a transitional era—in which a host of state and non-state actors contend feverishly for often elusive goals. This turbulence has produced an array of tests for American diplomacy.

Despite the accelerating pace of change, our fundamental interests—the defense of our citizens, territory, prosperity, and values—do not change. The threats to those interests, however, are indeed evolving and so must our tactics. Flexibility is essential. Depending on the circumstances, we will respond to challenges urgently or patiently, with force or diplomacy, by moving forward alone or with others. We may forge partnerships with the United Nations, our allies in Europe or Asia, a regional body, an ad hoc coalition, the leaders of civil society, or the private sector. Our imperative is to safeguard our citizens from attacks, from the disruptive impacts of strife, and from the grave risks posed by the further spread of nuclear, chemical and biological arms. Our ambition is to help build a world in which grievances are more likely to be resolved peacefully, human rights are respected, the rule of law is observed, and global problems are confronted, not ducked. To our advantage, we are able to operate from a position of strength. The American military is by far the world’s finest; our economy is recovering; our budget deficits are shrinking; our dependence on foreign energy sources is diminishing; and our scientists and engineers have positioned us at the cutting edge of next generation technologies. When emergencies arise, it is to the United States—far more than to any other country—that people turn to for inspiration, guidance and help.

In Europe, we are supporting Ukraine’s democratic government as it seeks to survive a blatant scheme—conceived and orchestrated by Moscow—to undermine the country’s sovereignty. Working closely with our allies, we imposed significant sanctions against Russia, condemned Russian-armed separatists for the reckless shoot down of a commercial airliner, and supported timely international financing to help the leaders in Kyiv exercise their rightful authority. We have also reassured allies in Central and Northern Europe of our firm commitment to their defense. Although the situation in Ukraine is still very difficult, we are working to help the country emerge from this crisis stronger and more cohesive, and to do so in a Europe where NATO is reinvigorated and leaders in the Kremlin have paid a high price for their bullying.

In the Middle East, widespread strife has exposed the rawness of national and confessional fault lines more vividly than at any time since the region’s borders were redrawn after World War I. In that era, the measures imposed by imperial powers laid the groundwork for future unrest by producing, in David Fromkin’s phrase, “a peace to end all peace.” There can be no repetition of that sad history. Outsiders can advise, assist, warn and nudge; but fundamental decisions about government in the Middle East must reflect local imperatives and be shaped by local leaders. America’s primary interests in the region are to counter the threat posed by terrorists who are hostile to us; prevent the proliferation of advanced arms; and stop firefights in one place from igniting tinder in the next. 

Foremost among the incendiary forces in the Middle East is the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a terrorist network intent on erasing the 376-mile long Syria-Iraq border and imposing its rule on as wide an area as possible. The United States firmly supports the territorial integrity of both Syria and Iraq. 

In Syria, ISIL’s emergence has altered the character of the civil war. Moderates there are now confronted by a brutal government on one side and by violent extremist groups, including ISIL’s ruthless operatives, on the other. Although the United States has stepped up aid to the moderate armed opposition, a military solution to the crisis appears unlikely. The conflict has fractured Syria’s population in ways that wider strife can only exacerbate. Because of the atrocities President Assad has perpetrated, the country cannot re-unite until he agrees—or is compelled—to yield power. At the same time, the interna­tional community must cut off all sources of support to ISIL and al-Qaeda. Though past diplomatic initiatives have stalled, the most desirable outcome is a negotiated political transition to a new and broadly representative government. That is the best way to address all di­men­sions of the conflict: to marginalize the terrorists, purge the country of foreign fighters, make it possible for refugees to return home, and begin to reconcile the Syrian factions.

Iraq’s future has also been put at risk by ISIL’s effort to impose its rigid and cruel ideology on others. The organization’s inroads are attributable, at least in part, to the past failure of Iraq’s leadership to govern in an inclusive fashion. However, in accordance with their constitution, Iraqi officials are assembling a new government that has the potential to attract broad backing. Beginning in early August, President Obama authorized carefully targeted air strikes against ISIL to protect American interests. We are continuing to work with our Iraqi partners to enhance security and foster a united front against terrorism. Although Iraqis must determine their own destiny, much depends on whether their country’s neighbors cooperate in countering extremism and doing everything possible to end sectarian bloodshed. No one gains when the ancient lands of Syria and Iraq are used as battlegrounds to settle centuries-old ethnic and religious grievances. In a region as troubled and diverse as the Middle East, identity-based triumphalism can only spell disaster. 

For similar reasons, we continue to believe in the importance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a solution based on secure borders and real peace. Those who claim to see a viable long term alternative to such an outcome have yet to make a con­vinc­ing case. The obstacles to a comprehensive agreement cannot be overstated—as the latest round of Gaza-centered violence attests. However, those hurdles will become more, rather than less, imposing with the further passage of time. After a year of intense negotiations, the diplomatic process has paused, affording each side yet another chance to weigh the risks of a potential deal against the grim costs of business as usual. The United States lacks the ability to impose peace, but we will always be prepared—if asked—to facilitate steps in that direction. 

President Obama has pledged that Iran will not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. Since late last year, I have been leading the US negotiating team that is testing whether a diplomatic path to that goal can be identified. The talks, which have been extended through November 24, have made considerable progress but had not—at the time of this writing—yet reached a satisfactory consensus on all critical questions. As deliberations continue, Iran’s potential avenues to a nuclear weapon are blocked by mutual agreement, with its nuclear program essentially frozen. The quest for a comprehensive long term plan is arduous and the outcome of the negotiations impossible to foresee; but the effort is vital because a properly designed agreement would enhance security throughout the region and because the blame for failure, should that occur, must be—and be seen to be—Iran’s alone.

The Middle East’s multiple dramas have not diverted our attention from the dynamic East Asia and Pacific region. Based on President Obama’s strategic commitment, we have modernized our alliances, strengthened our partnerships with emerging powers, and assisted the movement toward democracy in Burma. A key element of our policy has been building a positive relationship with China that supports its peaceful rise in a manner compatible with international law and respectful of the rights of its neighbors. Disputes involving territorial claims and related maritime jurisdiction should be managed peacefully and in accordance with international law, regardless of the relative size and power of the parties. The United States remains committed to the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and urges North Korea to choose the path of negotiations to achieve that goal. In late July, Secretary Kerry traveled to India to continue a strategic dialogue between the world’s oldest and largest democracies.   

Worldwide, the most dangerous threat to US citizens and territory stems from terrorist groups either affiliated with ISIL or al-Qaeda or sharing those organizations’ reprehensible tactics and goals. In an effort to deny these groups the space to operate, President Obama recently asked Congress to establish a $5 billion fund to assist in building the counterterrorism capacity of partners in the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and South and Central Asia. We are also supporting missions by the African Union and United Nations to shield civilians from violence in half a dozen African countries, including Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan.

Even though the globe seems at times to be awash in catastrophes, the truth is that many international vital signs today are positive. Worldwide, extreme poverty is down and so is child mortality. More babies are being born healthy; more boys—and girls—are attending and staying in school; and with US contributions leading the way, we are making welcome progress in protecting the vulnerable from HIV/AIDS. At their historic Summit this past August, President Obama and 50 African leaders pledged cooperation in stimulating investment, training young leaders, building food security, and empowering women. The Administration’s Connecting the Americas Initiative is working toward the goal of universal access to electricity over the next decade for people in the Western Hemisphere. To build prosperity, we are implementing new job-creating trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, and are pursuing broader trade agreements with friends across the Atlantic and in the Asia Pacific. To secure global lifelines, we are coordinating international efforts to prevent cyber abuse and to promote an open, reliable and interoperable Internet. 

Leading by example, the Administration recently announced a plan to reduce carbon pollution from US power plants by 30 percent compared to 2005 levels; and we are working intensively to encourage responsible actions by other major emitters of green­house gases. Secretary Kerry has used his “power to convene” to raise global awareness about the need for urgent action to save endangered ocean resources. Meanwhile, President Obama’s Open Government Partnership has grown from eight countries to 64, and is dedicated to strengthening accountable and transparent governance. Further, each day in diplomatic outposts across the globe, America’s representatives make known the high value our people place on democratic institutions, religious liberty, human rights, and the freedoms of speech and press.

When the Berlin Wall fell, there were those who suggested that we Americans could relax because our ideas had prevailed and our enemy had vanished—but there is a difference between a turning point and a finish line. Under President Obama, we are striving to forge a new framework of power, principle and purpose that will keep our country strong, defend against new and emerging threats, and enable our children to grow up in a more peaceful and broadly prosperous world. Scanning the horizon from Donetsk and Damascus to Pyongyang and Juba, we are under no illusions about how difficult that task will be. Setbacks along the way are inevitable. Engagement on all fronts will be required. There are no guarantees. But we draw strength from our democratic ideals, in­spiration from the example of our predecessors, and courage from the conviction that the values guiding us are the right ones. In an era of uncertainty, one thing remains beyond question: America will continue to lead.

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Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs