US & Canada

Davos 2014: Kerry insists America not in retreat

US Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 24 January 2014 Image copyright AFP

John Kerry has pushed back forcefully against critics of the Obama administration who argue the US is retreating from the world.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr Kerry insisted that "nothing could be further from the truth".

The US secretary of state spent 37 minutes enumerating the many ways in which the US was deeply engaged around the world, from trying to solve the crisis in Syria to pushing for a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, and negotiating with Iran about its nuclear programme.

He went beyond the Middle East as well to show the breadth of his focus, listing the work with China to deal with North Korea, efforts for a ceasefire in South Sudan and increased co-operation in the Western hemisphere.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also devoted some of her speeches to rejecting the notion that America was in retreat.

Critics will argue that when top American officials need to make the case that America is not in retreat, then perhaps it really is.

'On the wane'

Discussions about American power and decline are cyclical, but this latest instalment of the debate on American influence is shriller than more recent ones because of President Barack Obama's decision to call off missile strikes against Syria.

The move left American allies - like France - hanging, infuriated others like Saudi Arabia and comforted foes like the Syrian government and Iran, because it cast doubts over the US president's willingness to deploy force, beyond focused pinpricks such as drone strikes.

During a BBC World Debate at the Davos forum, Republican Senator John McCain said that the president's decision on Syria had "ricocheted around the world" and that America's allies felt they could "no longer depend on the United States".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The US decision against strikes in Syria raised doubts about its military role

"I travel all around the world and I hear unanimously that the United States is withdrawing and that the United States' influence is on the wane and that bad things are going to happen, and they are happening," said Mr McCain.

Mr Kerry's passionate speech in Davos was well received - but for the critics of the administration, it contrasts with what they see as President Barack Obama's more reticent approach to American power.

Mr McCain said his "friend'' John Kerry had a lot of work to do "as long as we have a president who does not believe in American exceptionalism".

Diplomatic engagement

Part of the debate is driven by different approaches to how power is defined and deployed.

Mr Kerry said the "misperception" that America was disengaging appeared 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 somewhere or we aren't brandishing an immediate threat of force, we are somehow absent from the arena."

But Washington's allies, including some who once decried American hubris and military interventions, have yet to adjust to this new approach.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption US relations with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani are being watched closely

"After a decade that was perhaps uniquely, and in many people's view, unfortunately, excessively defined foremost by force and our use of force, we are entering an era of American diplomatic engagement that is as broad and as deep as any at any time in our history," said Mr Kerry.

The Obama administration also defines its interests in a more narrow way that does not necessarily align with its allies' interests.

Washington sees a nuclear deal with Iran as a top priority on its national security agenda, one that could possibly allow it to modify its military posture in the region.

Allies such as Saudi Arabia fret about the upset this causes to the status quo in the region, and worry that any rapprochement between Iran and the US could undermine the kingdom's position in the region.

Eurasia Group, a political-risk research and consulting firm, lists "America's troubled alliances" as the number one global risk for 2014.

"US allies perceive a poorly defined and vastly reduced US role in the world," the firm said in its report.

"They question old assumptions about US commitments and worry about Washington's reluctance to deploy military, economic, and diplomatic capital."

Mr Kerry's forceful assurances that America is fully engaged diplomatically were applauded in Davos, but many of Washington's allies will argue that diplomacy only really works if it is backed by force.