Words do not make it so: John Kerry’s denial of America’s retreat from the world

Secretary of State John Kerry has made a vigorous verbal argument at Davos that the U.S. is not in retreat around the world.

But words do not make it so. We all can make our own assessment of whether the United States has abandoned its historic role of leadership of the free nations of the world.

See Jill Treanor and Larry Elliott (in Davos), John Kerry defends US foreign policy against accusations of ‘standing down’; US engagement ‘as broad and deep as at any point in history’,” The Guardian,24 January 2014 (13.36 EST).

Trainir and Eliot report,

In a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Kerry said the US expected Iran to deliver on its nuclear proliferation pledges, demanded the departure from power of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and urged the Israelis and the Palestinians to reach agreement on a two-nation settlement.

He also said that the US was working for an agreement to end the violence in Ukraine, prevent North Korea from getting nuclear weapons and to secure new transatlantic and transpacific trade deals.

“I must say, I’m perplexed by claims I occasionally hear that somehow America is disengaging from the world – this myth that America is pulling back, or giving up or standing down,” Kerry said. “In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. This misperception appears to be based on the simplistic assumption that our only tool of influence is our military, and that if we don’t have a huge troop presence or aren’t brandishing an immediate threat of force, we are somehow absent from the arena.”

He added: “The most bewildering version of this disengagement myth is about a supposed US retreat from the Middle East. You can’t find another country, not one country, as proactively engaged, or that is partnering with so many Middle Eastern countries as constructively as we are, on so many high-stake fronts.”

While it is true that Kerry and the U.S. are often publicly telling other leaders what they should do, and (as one should expect) are engaged in the Middle East and elsewhere in active diplomacy with a number of countries, it is hard to see any but the softest of edges to the uses of American power. When Bashar al-Assad was leading the wide-scale commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity is Syria, with active Russian support and the latter’s veto of any action by the Security Council, for example, Obama pushed for and approved legislation granting Russia most-favored-nation treatment.

The U.S. has withdrawn from Iraq with results that can be seen from Fallujah to Bagdad. It is withdrawing from Afghanistan, as the forces sent in the time-limited surge are coming home. Amazingly, there is now talk of withdrawing even any residual force before 2017, fully in lockstep with the U.S. electoral calendar.

Kerry deserves credit within the Obama administration for seeking practical solutions to the horrendous problems that seem to be exploding around the world.

But he is crippled by the fact that he has not put his own team into place at State, relying instead on Hillary Clinton’s holdovers while leaving a number of key positions unfilled. For example, the position of State Department Legal Adviser has gone vacant for over a year, something that has not happened at least since before World War Ii, if indeed it ever has.

The Legal Adviser is the primary official responsible for advising the president and other government officials on questions involving international law, and also for articulating the international legal positions of the U.S. to the nations of the world, international organizations, and other international actors. Once, the United States led the world in efforts to build new international legal regimes and institutions to solve the world’s emerging problems. Today, it has completely withdrawn from that role.

Kerry exemplifies the Obama administration’s attempts to solve all the world’s problems with clever words, and by telling others what they should do.

To understand how the United States has withdrawn from the world, we need look no farther than Syria. Kerry said again today that Bashar al-Assad must go.

But in Syria, as in many countries of the world, mere words will not make it so.

The Trenchant Observer

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The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.