A Canary in the Coal Mine for U.S. Global Leadership?

October 28, 2013

As recently as the 1980s, coal miners would carry a canary with them as they dug their quarries deep in the earth.  Canaries are sensitive to toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and methane; the birds therefore became a kind of early warning system.  When a canary started to show signs of distress, miners knew that they were entering a danger zone.

The Obama administration appears to have dodged a bullet with respect to two critical issues:  intervening in Syria and budgetary default.  However, as the dust starts to settle, real questions are emerging abroad as to whether the canary is croaking for U.S. global leadership.

The people of the United States have lost their appetite for interventions in complex wars in the Middle East.  So from Washington’s perspective, avoiding an intervention in Syria is a “win.”  But the view from abroad is considerably more worrying.  Cuts to defense spending through sequestration and perceived American legislative dysfunction are exacerbating Allied concerns about whether the U.S. will really put its money where its mouth is.  This, in turn, leads to questions about the future of U.S. global leadership.  If left unaddressed, these issues will become serious strategic challenges for the United States.

I have worked on transatlantic security issues for most of my career, and have just returned from interviewing defense professionals in Australia, Japan and New Zealand.  The impression I consistently get from interacting with Allies and partners: it’s hard to overestimate how carefully our Allies watch what’s going on in the United States.  This is because they rely on the U.S. for security guarantees in the event of a major threat to their own territory or security interests.  And on balance, it’s a two-way street; the U.S. secures access to foreign bases and support for military coalitions, among other things.   Because many Allies are looking to the United States as the strategic equivalent of an insurance policy, questions left unanswered regarding U.S. capability and credibility remain particularly concerning.  Unfortunately, the U.S. is currently faring poorly on both counts.

Somewhat paradoxically, despite the fact that the U.S. is the world’s largest military power, questions are emerging about the capability of the U.S. to respond in the event of an attack on Allies.  This is due to the disastrous impact that sequestration—the meat cleaver approach to defense cost cutting—is having on American readiness. As Christine Fox, former director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, recently argued, “With military units unable to maintain a high level of combat proficiency, we are effectively gambling that a major operation against a capable adversary will not occur over the next three to four years.”

This argument has been confirmed by several military service chiefs.  General Ray Odierno, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, recently testified that if sequestration continues, 85% of our active and reserve brigades will not be prepared for contingency requirements. Furthermore, the military aspects of the “pivot” to Asia have already been slowed down as a result. , Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert testified in July that the U.S. is unlikely to meet its goal to reposition 60 percent of its ships in the Pacific by 2020 because of budget constraints.  This is understandably disconcerting to U.S. allies, particularly in Asia.

Legislative dysfunction is a well-known problem in democracies, and America is clearly no exception.  Not a day goes by without the Republicans and Democrats pillorying each other. Partisan dysfunction is hardly unique to the United States—just look at Italy or Belgium. Yet the Obama administration’s decision to submit the question of a Syria intervention to Congressional approval has caused disquiet in capitals around the world.

Yes, Congress is the only authority in the United States Government that can declare war.  But Congressional approval takes time and in a crisis, decisive action is usually required.  This was the impetus for the War Powers Resolution of 1973.  The resolution specifies the President can deploy forces for limited purposes and for a limited duration; after 60 days, Congress must authorize continued operations or declare war.

With respect to Syria, President Obama was proposing limited, surgical strikes against military targets without the use of ground forces or other aerial support.  It was a slightly more elaborate version of Clinton’s tomahawk strikes in the late 1990s against Sudan and Afghanistan.  These are actions that are covered under the War Powers Resolution.  Many Allies are therefore wondering why the President felt it necessary to secure legislative approval for a strike he already had the authority to conduct in the first place.  More importantly, they are wondering whether future presidents will feel compelled to ask an increasingly dysfunctional Congress for approval before responding to a crisis? Allies relying on the United States for security guarantees are growing concerned about what the debate on Syria indicates about U.S. willingness to use force to counter threats in their respective regions.

So, put bluntly, many allies are increasingly asking the question: can – and will – the U.S. deliver on its promises in the future?  We may already be seeing evidence of allied doubts.  Japan’s Prime Minister Abe recently declared that Japan will take a more active security role in the region to counter China – a move that will undoubtedly raise tensions across Asia.  Saudi Arabia, frustrated with U.S. policy towards Syria, has stated its intention to limit its intelligence cooperation with the United States.

Defense budget cuts and legislative dysfunction are translating into serious questions about U.S. credibility.  These are questions that both Congress and the White House should take very seriously.  The future of U.S. leadership could very well depend upon it.


Kathleen J. McInnis is an MPhil/PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and a Research Consultant at Chatham House.  She served as a Pentagon strategist from 2006-2009.  The views expressed are her own.


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