President Obama swept into office on a tide of extraordinary hopes and grand visions. The abolition of nuclear weapons, the end of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, a new relationship between the United States and the Muslim world based on American promotion of democracy, victory in the “good war” of Afghanistan, a reset with Russia, the restoration of relations of comity and trust with European allies, and a global climate treaty were among the goals the new President and his team sought to pursue.
These days, as the President heads into the homestretch of his time in office with his foreign policy reputation somewhat dented, his admirers and defenders have mounted a coordinated campaign to praise the modesty of his vision and the restraint of his means. He is no longer admired for transformational leadership in reshaping the world; he is praised for rejecting the sirens of global meliorism and for bringing America back home to a smaller and more realistic vision of its place in the world.
This shift in ground is not a sign of success. Most of the great initiatives of the President’s early, halcyon days in office failed. In retrospect, the Olympics fiasco—when the President flew out to Copenhagen, convinced that his global celebrity and irresistible charm would wrest the 2016 Olympics from Brazil and hand them to Chicago—was a better guide to his foreign policy fortunes than his triumphant visit to Oslo to collect the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Administration that was going to rebrand America and rebuild its relations with the Sunni Arab world is both more hated and less trusted by elite and mass audiences in the region than the Administration of George W. Bush. The war in Afghanistan is proceeding with diminishing support toward, at best, an incoherent conclusion, and even the President’s most fervent defenders shrink from the task of praising his record of deliberation and strategic choice in a war he once claimed was vital to American security. Close allies in Britain, Germany, and France openly speak of their lack of confidence and trust in the competence of their American counterparts. The global effort to stop climate change has steadily lost ground from the day President Obama landed in Copenhagen to join more than a hundred world leaders in what was then billed (not least by the U.S. Administration and its press acolytes) as the definitive moment in the move toward a global climate treaty.
When the President’s defenders now assemble in their serried ranks to hail the inspiring modesty of his foreign policy goals, one thinks of Winston Churchill’s remark that Clement Attlee was a modest man “with much to be modest about.” One lives in hope, but at the moment it appears that there will be even more to be modest about as the next three years grind on.
The national mood of introspection and retreat, however, reflects more than the painful encounter of one particular Administration with the harsh truths of foreign policy. For millions of Americans, the failures and disappointments of American leadership in the age of Obama follow the more dramatic disappointments of the George W. Bush era. When many Americans without any particular political bias look at the nation’s record in foreign affairs over the past two decades, they see a bipartisan record that is distinctly uninspiring.
At the same time they see a domestic economy and society under stress. The recession, of course, has a lot to do with the sour mood, especially among young people entering the job market in a difficult time. But a general sense that the pillars of American middle-class life are under threat and that the core systems on which we all depend—health care, education, retirement—are increasingly dysfunctional permeates the country. With activism abroad leading to such uninspiring results (except for those who can glory in the modesty of our leaders’ accomplishments), and the foundations of American middle class society in trouble, it is not surprising that the United States is passing through an introspective period.
If President Obama is scaling back his ambitions in foreign policy, many Americans are okay with that. The external dangers seem diffuse, the country’s track record in addressing them looks poor, and conditions at home are less than ideal. Why not kick back for a while and spend less time meddling in the lives of ungrateful foreigners and work a little harder on managing our affairs at home?
Moreover, many of the constituencies that historically have supported a more engaged foreign policy are less activist now. While the President’s Atlantic and Pacific trade initiatives have their supporters among Hamiltonian corporate executives and wonks, the success of the trade liberalization process in the past means that much of the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Meanwhile, the trade issues most likely to energize powerful American support meet so much foreign opposition that the chance of significant progress is low. France, for example, does not want to see any trade agreements that reduce protection for French films, farms, or aerospace firms. That is, France welcomes a free trade agreement with the United States that excludes America’s strongest industries.
Wilsonians are also in a less expansionist mood. The bitter disappointments of the Arab Spring have reminded many Americans that most revolutions fail and that democracy is a fragile transplant. Far better to draft angry dispatches to weak and poor African countries about their deplorable treatment of homosexuals than to overthrow Arab governments in the hope that something better will appear.
As long as President Obama occupies the White House, another group of historically outward-looking Americans is likely to hold its interventionist feelings in check. Jacksonians by and large simply do not trust this President to use force wisely or well. Jacksonians (whom the President once characterized as people who “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion”) are unlikely to respond to any calls to arms that come from this White House. The lack of response to President Obama’s call for the use of military force against Syria from traditionally hawkish elements of American public opinion reflected that lack of faith. Jacksonians tend to dislike both limited war and humanitarian interventions; they heard the President’s call for military action against Syria as an example of both, and what is normally a very warlike element of American public opinion decided that, with President Obama calling the shots, it was time to give peace a chance.
All this points to a lull in American activism, but the lull is likely to be temporary rather than long-term. The United States has historically sought to be a lazy hegemon. While some powers measure their success in foreign policy by their ability to insert themselves into a greater number of issues, Americans are often more interested in avoiding unnecessary risks and costs. Far from burning with resentment that the European Union goes about its business with little reference to American wishes, most Americans (including diplomats and politicians) are thrilled to see Europe setting about the task of building a prosperous and democratic continent without American leadership or underwriting.
In the absence of immediate threats, American foreign policy is entropic; it seeks the point of the greatest security and prosperity for the least expenditure of treasure, energy, and blood. It is not always successful in finding this sweet spot, but the tendency to hunt for it is deeply engrained.
Two factors in the 20th century drove the American Garbo toward the world spotlight. The first was the threatening international environment. As the British Empire declined and fell, the Pax Britannica (providing both stable security and economic environments) was succeeded by a period of economic and political upheaval and war. A single generation saw the United States drawn into two world wars, experience the worst depression in its history, and face a Cold War with a horrifying and nuclear Soviet Union. The United States did its best to avoid replacing Great Britain as the prime mover of international order, but in the end there was no way out. The other factor driving American involvement was the growth of American capacity—a rising population and an expanding economy made the country more capable of exercising leadership while extending the range and increasing the importance of its international interests.
Dim and obscure as our crystal balls may be, nevertheless as we peer into the future it appears that both of these conditions will hold in the 21st century as well. The global system will still be insecure, and America’s interest in and capacity for global policy will continue to grow. The U.S. population is both rising faster and staying younger than that of many other global leaders while the energy revolution demonstrates the continuing ability of American technology and economic flexibility to change the rules of the game. Over the long run, the United States is likely to maintain both the technological edge that underwrites its military supremacy and the wealth that has, since World War II, enabled the United States to devote between 2 and 6 percent of GDP to military spending without undue strain.
America may be on spring break, but this is an intermission, not the end of the show. Modesty has never been our defining national characteristic, and while the special circumstances of 2014 have led the current White House to embrace the rhetoric of lowered expectations, the larger forces of history seem likely to push future American Presidents down a more challenging trail.