Bret Stephens: The post-Pax Americana world

In 2008 Fareed Zakaria wrote an influential book titled “The Post-American World.” It was, mercifully, not another lament about American decline. Instead, the book described “the rise of the rest”—China, Brazil, Turkey and other supposedly emerging powers—and made the case that the U.S. had to learn how to accommodate itself to a world in which its primacy was no longer incontestable.

I admire the book, but the title was missing a word. It turns out that we are not in a post-American world of diminishing U.S. influence. We are in a post-Pax Americana world of collapsing U.S. will. Britain, it was once said, gained her empire “in a fit of absence of mind.” Now Barack Obama is relinquishing U.S. dominance with about the same degree of mindfulness, and Americans seem content to go along with it.

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Remember Crimea? Remember Syria’s Bashar Assad, and how he had to “step aside”? Remember Afghanistan, which Mr. Obama once called “the war that has to be won”? Remember him talking about core al Qaeda being “on a path to defeat”? Remember him celebrating Iraq as “stable and self-reliant”?

Whatever. All this seems to blow past Mr. Obama’s field of vision like some infomercial in Bulgarian—it means little in its own language and even less in ours. “The world is less violent than it has ever been,” the president told Tumblr users last month, a day or so after Mosul fell into the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “Terrible things happen around the world every single day, but the trend lines of progress are unmistakable.”

Who needs a foreign policy when the arc of history is bending your way?

Here’s a strange world. It’s not post-American, in the sense that the countries that were supposed to have “emerged” by now are mired in their own unhappiness. Does any serious person still think—as the serious people at the Economist did back in 2008—that Brazil is the economic superpower of the future? Or that Turkey is on the cusp of neo-Ottoman splendor, a point argued by former U.S. diplomat Nicholas Burns as recently as 2012? Or that the European Union is the world’s de facto second superpower? Or that the Chinese economy is going to power right through a burst housing bubble?

All of this post-American boosterism now seems quaint. Yet here’s something else that’s strange: American pre-eminence isn’t being challenged by emerging powers. The challenge comes from an axis of weakness. Russia is a declining power. China is an insecure one. Groups like ISIS and other al Qaeda offshoots are technologically primitive and comparatively weak. Iran is a Third World country trying to master 70-year old technology.

Where does their confidence come from? It isn’t the objective correlation of forces. The GDP of New York City alone is nearly three times the size of Iran’s. Some demographers predict that Russia’s population will fall to as low as 52 million before the century is out. The anticorruption campaign being carried out by Xi Jinping in China smacks of similar efforts by Mikhail Gorbachev and suggests an equal amount of internal rot. A contingent of French Foreign Legionnaires easily turned back an ISIS-like challenge in Mali last year.

But upstart countries and movements don’t operate according to objective criteria—if they did, they wouldn’t operate at all. Rather, they act on an intuition about their adversaries, a sense of their psychology, a nose for their weaknesses. “When tens of your soldiers were killed in the streets of Mogadishu,” wrote Osama bin Laden in his 1996 fatwa declaring war on the U.S., “you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation and your dead with you.” This was not an indictment of the excess of American power. It was mockery of its timidity.

So it is now. The U.S. could have long ago dispatched Assad with targeted airstrikes. Fearing unforeseen consequences we did not, and so we got the foreseeable consequence that is Syria and Iraq today. The U.S. could use Apache gunships to blunt the offensive of ISIS and kill a lot of jihadists. Fearing entanglement we do not, and so we risk acceding to the creation of an Islamic caliphate. The U.S. could have destroyed Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in a week-long bombing campaign, or crippled its economy with additional targeted sanctions. Fearing another Iraq-like war we will not, meaning Iran will get a bomb when the timing suits it best.

Mr. Obama may imagine his red lines are still credible, but our enemies know otherwise. They get what the dwindling number of the president’s courtiers—namely, Tom Friedman and some New Republic editorial assistants—don’t: There’s no spine in this president’s speech.

Ours is still an American world, but it is presided over by a president who doesn’t believe in American power. The best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity—and a sense that the moment is theirs to seize. We know how that story ended.