Yves Herman/AP

Can Obama Still Be 'Leader of the Free World'?

Is being ‘leader of the free world’ too much to ask of any U.S. president these days? By Michael Hirsh

All of a sudden, it seems the president who was eager to focus on "nation-building at home" is casting himself in a hoary role that many people thought went out with the Cold War: "leader of the free world." The question is, can Barack Obama really play the part that Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan once did on the world stage—even if he performs very deftly—or is that too much to ask of any U.S. president these days?

Obama's own top aides have been raising expectations that he can stride confidently back into the geopolitical limelight and lead a unified front against Vladimir Putin. "The strategic importance of this effort really can't be overstated," said his national security adviser, Susan Rice, commenting on the series of summit meetings that began in Holland on Monday not only with leaders of the retro-christened G-7 (good-bye Russia), but with Chinese President Xi Jinpeng in their first face-to-face since the G-20 last September.

Obama goes into these meetings as a president who is seen by critics to be in retreat from the world, and temporizing somewhat over Russia's aggression. Can he come out of them with a renewed image as a tough, stalwart leader of the world's only superpower—as the man who successfully stared down "America's No. 1 geopolitical foe"? It's no surprise that the author of that phrase, Mitt Romney, has been all over the TV talk shows criticizing the president for failing to agree with the GOP nominee's tough assessment of Russia in 2012—not to mention carefully lumping Obama together with his first-term secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, the proclaimed Democratic front-runner for 2016.

But if the threat from Russia to parts of Eastern Europe today has echoes of the Cold War, a lot of other things are different, and they have little to do with Obama's leadership. In recent years, as the G-7 meetings have been eclipsed by the more inclusive and dynamic G-20 summits, America's voice has grown fainter in the crowd. The G-20 summits and subsequent meetings came of age in an era of U.S. weakness and culpability—with Wall Street seen as the cause of the 2008 financial crisis—rather than Cold War strength. 

(Related: Obama’s Stature Is on the Line This Week in European Trip)

Hence, when U.S. officials have tried to guide events, their proposals have often seemed to elicit complaint, even contempt. At recent G-8 and G-20 meetings, the Germans have seethed over U.S. interference in E.U. budget issues, while other lesser powers like South Korea have simply slapped down American ideas. "In the '90s, I always thought that the persuasiveness of what I said was amplified by about 30 percent because I was a U.S. official," one official who served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations told me after the 2009 Seoul summit. "This time around there was no amplification factor at all. In fact, if you were in the [Obama] administration there might even have been a slight discount."

A changed international environment has also dramatically reduced U.S. leverage abroad. America's share of the world economy has gradually declined, and even its mighty and still dominant military has been somewhat demystified by the success of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. Gone, too, is the moral and military authority left over from World War II and the bulk of the Cold War, when being a U.S. ally against Soviet power was not a choice but a necessity for "free-world" nations. Nor did it help that the United States never developed a new strategy in the post-Cold War era to replace containment, instead projecting an image of drift and internal dissent. Washington tried "democratic enlargement" (Bill Clinton), "assertive multilateralism" (Madeleine Albright), "the Bush Doctrine" (no one's quite sure what it was), and more recently Obama's "no-doctrine" presidency, but none has won many adherents abroad. Allied fealty has not been helped by the Snowden revelations either; German Chancellor Angela Merkel is said to be still upset by last year's news that the National Security Agency was listening in on her cell-phone calls.

Many Russia experts also believe that the Kremlin's move into Crimea was not planned as a strategic response to Washington, but was largely a tactical response to the surprise events of recent weeks, when pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled his country in the face of protests in Kiev. And as former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said Monday, few American presidents have been able to stop Russian incursions in Eastern Europe going back to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. "When it comes to deterring Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, the American track record is pretty poor," he said in a conference call with reporters.

Nonetheless, the stakes are high, indeed. Putin's occupation of historically Russian-linked Crimea was seen as a last-ditch Kremlin response to the perceived Western infiltration into the former Soviet sphere beginning with the overthrow of communist regimes in the late 1980s, and European Union and NATO efforts to bring those countries under their umbrella. Obama, in other words, is being asked to answer for the policies of four previous American presidents—beginning with Reagan.

Thus, America's role as the security superpower is suddenly very relevant again, especially in Europe. If Obama manages to emerge from this weeklong series of meetings trailed by positive reviews in the overseas media, and Putin does not dare go further than his annexation of Crimea in response to the threat of ever-broader sanctions, it could be a decisive moment for the U.S. president's legacy—and for America's stature in the world. 

Obama's response may also determine whether the title "leader of the free world" still exists.