An Upmarket Jimmy Carter: Repairing The Damage That Obama Is Doing Might Take Even Longer
14 June 2014
By Amir Taheri
Ever since the study of international politics began,
commentators have compared the world order at any
given time to an architectural structure designed by a
leading power that acts as guarantor of its stability.
Throughout history, different leading powers have
played that role: Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians,
Macedonians and Romans in the ancient world and, in
more recent times, the British.
After the Second World War, the US assumed that role.
It led the designing and building of the United
Nations, as it did the League of Nations after the
First World War. The US was also the principal author
of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the
power behind a wide range of international
organizations, including the International Monetary
Fund and the World Bank, not to mention UNESCO and
UNICEF. Thus, to a large extent, the international
system has been sustained by American leadership and
That system, in turn, has developed laws and
regulations that provide the framework for
international discussion on almost every subject, from
weights and measures to navigation rules for the seas,
the skies and, more recently, space.
In the past seven decades, the US has sponsored or led
the enactment of more than 15,000 international
treaties, on every imaginable subject.
The collapse of the Soviet empire as the chief
challenger, though at the same time partner, in the
world order only reinforced the role of the US as
The US fulfilled this mission on numerous occasions,
largely by leading diplomatic efforts or using its
economic and cultural power to generate stability.
Those efforts included the Marshall Plan in Europe and
the establishment of democratic systems in West
Germany, Italy and Japan. Often, as in the Suez
crisis, US diplomatic engagement was enough to contain
a crisis. A decade before Suez, the US had used its
diplomatic clout to stop Stalin from grabbing Greece
and swallowing Iran's northwestern region. In some
cases, for example when the US led efforts to break
the Soviet siege of Berlin, American power achieved
its goal without firing a bullet. The US did not
intervene in support of the uprisings in Poland,
Hungary and Czechoslovakia because of the concessions
granted to Moscow under the Yalta and Potsdam accords.
However, when necessary, the US did use military force
to protect the world order. In the Korean Peninsula,
the US led a UN force to prevent the Chinese from
annexing South Korea to Kim Il-sung's Communist
fiefdom in the North. US Marines intervened in dozens
of other places, including Jordan and Lebanon. More
recently, we witnessed US interventions in Grenada,
Panama, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Like it or not, it would be no exaggeration to speak
of a world order "Made in the USA." But what happens
when the leading guarantor of an existing world order
decides to abdicate?
That happened after the First World War, when the US—a
power not designed to play the role of imperial
guarantor—succumbed to one of its periodic fits of
isolationism. The crash of the world order led to
decades of chaos, naked land-grabbing by colonial
powers, numerous regional wars and, eventually, the
Second World War. The fact that the world at the time
was not as "globalized" as it is today helped limit
the effects of the crash.
A second period of US abdication came in the 1970s,
during Jimmy Carter's presidency. Exploiting Carter's
naïveté, opponents of the world order moved into high
gear to undermine it. The disasters that happened
while Carter was in the White House are too numerous
to list in full.
These included a dramatic expansion of Soviet
influence in Africa, the emergence of such
bloodthirsty regimes as Mengistu's in Ethiopia, the
Apartheid regime's decision to deprive millions of
black South Africans of citizenship, the genocide
organized by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the
annexation of Vietnamese territory by China, the
mushrooming of Stalinist guerrillas backed by Cuba in
Central America, the first oil price shock, the
Khomeinist seizure of power in Iran, the terrorist
attack on Mecca, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan,
and the decision by India and Pakistan to develop
nuclear arsenals, to cite but a few.
To be sure, US weakness was not the sole reason behind
those events. But it certainly contributed to the
creation of an atmosphere of uncertainty in which
opponents of world order believed they could chip at
its edges with impunity.
Six years ago, as Barack Obama headed for victory in
the US presidential election, some of us feared he
would be an upmarket version of Jimmy Carter. Today,
that fear has been realized. It is difficult to
ascertain why Obama is behaving as he does. Is he
motivated by a deep resentment of America inculcated
in him in his youth? Or is he handicapped by lack of
experience? Maybe he genuinely believes that by
abdicating leadership, the US will win love instead of
Whatever the reason, Obama's failures on a range of
issues, from global environment to trade talks with
the European Union to containing Russian ambitions in
Europe and Chinese ambitions in the Far East, have
already dented the world order. I have not even
mentioned his other failures—on the Middle East peace
process, Iran's nuclear ambitions, the Syrian tragedy,
and the effective prolongation of the war in
Afghanistan by fixing a date for US retreat.
It took a decade to repair part of the damage that
Carter's ineptitude did to the international order.
Repairing the damage that Obama is doing might take
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and
educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive
Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79).
In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday
Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the
Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI).
Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the
Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York
Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique
Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between
1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German
daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of
which have been translated into 20 languages. He has
been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987.
Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published
by Encounter Books in London and New York.