Edward Snowden is not a factor in the global retreat of the United States. His leaks could hardly have made so much noise without a previous re-evaluation of the US interests directed, whether he likes it or not, by Barack Obama.
It has been the president himself who has proclaimed a new scale of values of what is and isn't vital for Washington, which is receding from positions where it enjoyed superiority for decades. Obama recently stated that his country had no decisive influence in certain areas of the Middle East, a situation which must be extended de facto into Central Asia. It has been some years since the Pakistani military received training in the US, and it is these new and less Westernized crops of officers who now run the army. Though Washington is still using drones against Taliban targets near the border, the high rate of civilian casualties has strained relations with Islamabad. Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants to keep a US military presence in his country to at least contain the Taliban guerrillas, but the operative limitations that Kabul is trying to impose on the permanent contingent mean we cannot rule out a complete withdrawal by 2014 -- as occurred in Iraq in 2011, where at best the US now competes in influence with Iran. The Egyptian officers who overthrew the Muslim Brothers' President Morsi do not seem overly concerned about the suspension of the supply of helicopters and fighters, aware that this traffic will sooner or later be resumed -- because otherwise they could go to Russia, which would be glad to set foot in Egypt.
The mere existence of Snowden reflects a certain downsizing of the American presence in the world
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been unable to prevent a Russian-American agreement over the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, in exchange for which Obama has shelved any intention of bombing Syria, while tacitly admitting that the rebels are incapable of defeating Bashar al-Assad. And, worse yet for Israel, promising talks are underway with Iran on its nuclear program. The last time the US said no to Israel was when Eisenhower obliged it to withdraw from Sinai in 1957. And as a consequence of all the foregoing, the US capacity to influence Jerusalem is practically nil.
In support of this new reality the White House argues that no essential American interest is at stake in the region, save the maintenance of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks -- which, in view of what these amount to, doesn't seem like much. And lastly, Saudi Arabia has declined a Security Council seat in protest at US contacts with Iran, its rival for hegemony in the Gulf, and reacts peevishly to Washington's entreaties. So what has the US got left in the area? Just Jordan, because nobody wants Lebanon. All this is not even remotely compensated by the naval beef-up in the China Sea.
The US commentator Immanuel Wallerstein compares the current panorama with that of the 1950s. Washington was then spying just as eagerly as it is now, albeit in the relatively low-tech fashion possible at that time. In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, none of the US's allies would have talked back about the spying. But now Moscow offers asylum to the hacker, as he merrily offers Germany information on how the NSA does it. In view of all this, it seems that the US needs its friends and allies more than they need the US, keeping in mind that a prudent degree of anti-American noise is pleasing to public opinion in the affected countries. And the mere existence of Snowden reflects a certain downsizing of the American presence in the world, something unthinkable in the 1950s. The future, which is already part of the present, is not a new bipolarity such as that supposedly emerging with China, whose military budget is a fraction of Washington's. China is hard pressed to merely "contain" the US in the Pacific. So it's multipolarity or chaos.