In the 2012 presidential election campaign, the debate between Governor Romney and President Obama on foreign policy was widely considered the least important of the three debates. But because of the Ukraine crisis, foreign policy is back at the center of our national conversation, and the WSJ’s Washington Bureau Chief Gerald Seib thinks it will stay there. The world is getting nastier, Seib argues, and domestic issues won’t be able to elbow out foreign policy anymore:
Syria is turning into an ungovernable mess, and a breeding ground for all manner of extremist groups. President Bashar al-Assad isn’t going away, thanks to an influx of help from his friends in Iran and Russia, but he isn’t reasserting control of his country, either.
[...] If tensions in the Middle East are rising because of weak governments there, they’re rising in Asia because rival governments are growing stronger. China’s arrival as an economic power and as an emerging military power has led to tensions with a newly assertive Japan in the East China Sea, and with a handful of American allies in the South China Sea. At a minimum, the tensions require attention and deployment of naval assets to reassure friends.
Iran’s nuclear program isn’t going away as an issue, regardless of the outcome of current international negotiations designed to rein it in.
As the domestic political debate over these crises heats up, we are seeing a classic American pattern in action. America’s success abroad breeds stupidity and hubris in U.S. foreign policy. This hubris and stupidity leads to bad choices and magical thinking. We begin to believe, for example, that the world can become safer and more democratic even as we scale back our involvement. These bad choices and bad ideas then lead to huge global challenges. Those challenges ultimately spark smarter, more purposeful American engagement, usually after we’ve tried a few unsuccessful gambits first. That engagement finally leads to American success, which leads back again to American stupidity and hubris. And so on.
Contrary to Jeffersonian legends, what drove increasing American engagement over the 20th century wasn’t the missionary itch of the Wilsonians, or corporatist, Hamiltonian plots to build spooky New World Orders to Bilderberger specifications. It was the reality that when Americans got foreign policy wrong or ignored the outside world, the consequences were so severe that we were continually forced back into the “game” of world politics. What Seib is gesturing to is the reappearance of this reality. A mix of poor foreign policy choices—under President Bush as well as President Obama—added to the consequences of a tentative American pivot away from global engagement have led to a sharp deterioration in the world situation. Accordingly there will be more momentum behind broader U.S. international involvement as global security continues to get worse.
Recently, those who support smaller U.S. presence abroad have had a moment. Provoked by exhaustion over our adventures in the Middle East, American discourse has shown some sympathy for politicians like Rand Paul who want to reduce our overseas commitments. But Seib’s piece suggests that the inchoate neo-isolationist moment may already be coming to an end. A newly attentive American public will pay closer attention to foreign policy during the next presidential election cycle than it did in the last one, and will be less likely now to give a pass to politicians who want to withdraw within U.S. borders.