Independence Day from Above the Wall

Steve Saideman reflects on the current standing of the United States in the world.

By: /
4 July, 2014
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

There are two holidays when an ex-pat American feels most out of place: Thanksgiving (the November one) and the Fourth of July. I have yet to experience the former, as I travel south every American Thanksgiving to be with my family, but this is the thirteenth consecutive Independence Day I have spent in Canada. It has been a long time since I have seen parades and fireworks on July 4. Each year, I do reflect a bit on the State of the Union—not the speech given by the President but where the United States stands.

To be honest, I spent my first few Independence Days in Canada in a state of frustration and embarrassment as the United States was preparing to engage in an ill-considered war that did much damage all around—to the America’s reputation in the world, to the U.S. economy, to the people of Iraq and to the soldiers and marines involved in the fighting.

Some might suggest that this is a similarly embarrassing time as the United States has been unable to return Crimea to Ukraine, produce a favourable outcome in Syria, or prevent the rise of the Islamic State (whatever it is called by the time this is published) in Iraq. Frustrating? Certainly, but the Obama administration has yet to find a magic wand that would allow it to impose its preferred reality on the existing situations in Ukraine and the Mideast.

Perhaps the brilliant performance by goalkeeper Tim Howard at the World Cup best illustrates the role of the United States in the world: defender of the status quo, doing its best to stop most shots with inevitably a few getting by. While Howard’s performance was most dramatic and made clear his brilliance while under fire from those pesky Belgians, we take for granted the stops the U.S. has actually made while castigating Washington for those they’ve missed.

That China has not engaged in a war with any of its neighbours is a non-event worth considering. We have seen China have minor military confrontations with Japan and the Philippines not escalate, despite the constant refrains this year of 1914 all over again. Indeed, the United States plays a vital role in Asia, pivot or not, as there is no NATO—no multilateral web of countries to serve as a deterrent and as a crisis manager. Japan and South Korea essentially hate each other, which means that someone else must be the glue that connects many of the countries in the region as they all individually encounter a rising and increasingly assertive China.

The United States also served a vital role during the 2008 financial crisis, which, alas had much to do with the American way of doing business. The system that the U.S. built essentially worked to contain the economic damage and prevent the Great Recession from becoming something far worse.

Regarding Russia, the United States is still leading in Europe, providing most of the military response and coordinating the sanctions effort against Russian officials. Perhaps Obama’s patented “give them enough rope to hang themselves” strategy is being applied here and working. The most vulnerable allies have been given reassurance, although we learned during the Cold War that those at risk tend not to feel at all confident.

Canada’s relations with the United States are also somewhat frosty these days, but that does not really embarrass this American in Canada. Unlike Harper, I understand that Obama has a base to worry about, so his hesitation does not worry me so much. It is kind of like Harper kicking the F-35 decision down the road potentially past the next election. Canada’s relations with the U.S. are not as bad as they seem and will get better once either the players change or the focus of the relationship moves on.

Of course, comparing the United States in the world to Tim Howard might be problematic since the United States is now out of the World Cup tournament after losing the big game. But the United States exceeded expectations in Brazil. In its international affairs, expectations about the United States always seem unrealistically high. Yes, Obama has made some poor decisions, and dithering is not always restraint. But the United States over its long run has managed to exceed expectations most of the time in spite of how high they are set. Perhaps with a little humility about what can be done in some difficult places and some appreciation of the less noisy successes, I can be proud American on this Independence Day.

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