President Barack Obama's political fortunes suffered a dramatic blow on Nov. 2. Since then, whether in domestic policy or the international arena, nations, as well as U.S. politicians, have raised their price for cooperating with him.
Despite a number of key successes – on health care policy, global nuclear WMD summitry and agreements and making the G20 a relatively strong global economic coordinating body – the world still doubts the ability of the United States and its relatively untested president to deliver on their objectives and promises. The Republican red tide that swept in has made the doubt about the Obama White House even greater.
This doubt is eroding global stability and undermining the trust that allies have in U.S. leadership. It is increasing the appetite of U.S. foes — including North Korea and Iran — to shake off constraints. It is also raising our allies' price for cooperation.
Obama's recent visit to Asia was designed, in part, to push U.S. economic interests, but also to assure Japan and South Korea that Washington would stand with them as they increasingly rubbed against China's growing global ego. But Obama brought little tangible back to the United States for his efforts.
In fact, incidents in the region since Obama returned home have illustrated that China and its "affiliates" have more ability to control events in the Asia Pacific than Washington and its allies.
China and Japan had only recently ended a high stakes stand-off, in which Japan arrested an aggressive Chinese boat captain who rammed Japan coast guard ships off of the disputed Senkaku Islands. This incident escalated to the highest levels – until Japan blinked and released the detained Chinese captain.
China scored a win – and was testing not just Japan but its chief sponsor, the United States.
Fast forward to North Korea's attack on a South Korea island that hosts both military personnel and civilians. In this case, a nation strongly dependent on China's economic and strategic support makes a strategic choice for China – testing both the United States and China's resolve.
North Korea might be viewed as almost "China's Israel" — though the comparison is less than complete since this is not a case of two democracies with common interests and there is no influential contingent of North Korean-Chinese in China, in the way that Israel is able to affect the U.S. political machinery. The foreign policy blogger and University of Michigan political scientist Daniel Drezner has also proposed this analogy.
Israel, in ways similar to North Korea's national profile, depends on Washington's guarantee of its key economic and strategic circumstances. But unlike North Korea, Israel is no longer the supplicant, and realizes that Washington has decided it must acquiesce to Israel's recalcitrance on Middle East peace, as well as the evolution of an increasing structural division of Palestinians from Israelis within its borders.
Israel is a democracy, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in no way similar to the dictators Kim Jong Il, but there is a similarly in the confidence both these leaders have that their chief international patrons will support them almost unconditionally. One looking at the situation from outer space would presume that Washington had the power and Israel was followed along. But, in fact, Israel seems to be calling its own shots and Washington is too paralyzed to use the power levers to control Israel's political leadership.
The same appears increasingly true of North Korea's relationship to China. North Korea knows that it can be a massive economic and geostrategic headache – worse if it collapses. So it seems to be smartly exploiting this disaster scenario to extort resources not just from China but also from the West.
Beijing seems willing to ignore a great deal of North Korean misbehavior — even attacks like the one recently — to preserve the status quo on the Korean peninsula. Beijing's latitude in controlling North Korea seems extremely limited — on par with Washington's frustrating lack of influence on Israel's behavior.
North Korea, like Iran, senses that the United States is militarily overstretched internationally and is on weak economic legs at home. It watched China prevail in a symbolic test of wills over Japan in the Senkakus and watched South Korea take away the prize Obama had expected of a free trade deal.
North Korea is moving its interests forward while it senses weakness from the combined front of South Korea, Japan and the US.
While Obama's post-election trip to Indonesia, India, Japan and South Korea was meant, in part, to signal Beijing that Washington could encircle it, would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with these countries in future competitions of power and could constrain China's options, North Korea decided to test that proposition – both on its own and China's behalf.
North Korea, at least thus far, has punctured the Obama bubble in Asia. Affairs in the Asian-Pacific are far less stable than they were before the president and many members of his Cabinet, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, invested so heavily in trying to convince the region that betting on the United States was a bet on stability.
Washington's global situation has become relatively weaker and it is likely to be tested repeatedly in zero sum challenges to its interests – particularly when its proxies, like Japan and South Korea, are there to be the punching bags.
To restore its options and its ability to shape the international system, Washington has to decide what it is going to be in the 21st century. Exactly what are its strategic goals? And what is it willing to gamble to achieve them?
No matter what course Washington chooses, it is going to have to replenish its stock of power, revitalize its economy and show that it can affect international change. Perhaps it can attain some low hanging fruit in the international system -- like normalizing relations with Cuba, or delivering on the New START Treaty with the Russians.
All these should be relatively doable, and would help give Washington some momentum again in its international game. But even these policies are paralyzed today by the divisiveness of U.S. politics and the perception of Obama's weakness.
Given that even the easy stuff looks nearly impossible right now, it's easy to understand why there is growing concern among America's key allies about the solvency of U.S. economic and strategic commitments. And why a country like North Korea feels it has little to lose by putting its neighbors -- and the world -- on edge.