Public opinion reports on Americans’ attitudes toward foreign policy sketch a picture of retrenchment, war-weariness, and scepticism toward global engagement, even as there is also a growing concern that the world is increasingly becoming unstable and dangerous. Nothing about this picture is new or controversial. Some may worry about it more than others, but it is now commonly accepted that the US is downsizing its international role, and that the administration, the Congress, and the general public are more absorbed with domestic concerns than with foreign challenges or threats.
The fact that the US is turning inward in the aftermath of the Bush administration’s expansive foreign policy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is hardly surprising. The main message of Maximalist, Stephen Sestanovich’s new history of American foreign policy since the Truman era, is that the shift from a ‘maximalist’ policy to one of retrenchment and back again is par for the course. Eisenhower followed a policy of ‘scaling back from overextension’ after the Korean War, just as Nixon adopted a ‘retrenchment strategy that would enable the United States to regain its balance’ after Vietnam. Kennedy displayed a ‘confident readiness to act’ and to bear the burdens of leadership after what he called ‘eight years of drugged and fitful sleep, ‘just as Reagan ‘brought a new maximalist edge to the East-West competition’ following the malaise of the Carter years.
One important question the Americans face today, however, is whether the current policy of retrenchment is a standard correction after a period of maximalism, or something else. Sestanovich notes that for a number of reasons, ‘the retrenchment [currently] under way in American foreign policy may turn out to be different’ from those of the past. He writes that ‘the emblematic foreign policy choice’ of President Obama’s first term was his imposition of a time limit on the surge in Afghanistan in 2009, a move that ‘took a consensus in favour of incremental adjustments to America’s global role and pushed it toward a more thorough-going transformation.’ A similar message was sent when the president rejected a plan prepared by his top advisors to aid the Syrian opposition.
Pressures for a course adjustment are already building; a process that could be accelerated by the Russian intervention in Ukraine. But public attitudes and resource constraints will probably prevent any administration from swinging too far in the opposite direction. An expansive maximalist policy would risk making commitments that exceed America’s power and resources, and in any event it is not what is needed to achieve balance between realism’ meaning the defence of their critical national interests’ and idealism’ meaning the advance of democracy and freedom in the world. What’s needed to achieve such a balance is political will and strategic vision in meeting the three interrelated challenges of supporting freedom, defending the national security, and restoring America’s economic health.
The first challenge involves making it clear that America will do whatever it can to support people fighting for fundamental rights. For many reasons, democracy is seen to be on the defensive today. Authoritarian states are pushing back aggressively against groups working for greater democracy, the turmoil in the Middle East has destroyed the early promise of the Arab Spring, and China’s growing economic and military power has altered the balance of forces in the world at a time when the US and many European countries have entered a period of economic and political malaise.
In fact, though, the prospect for democracy in the world is actually much more promising than it appears, and there are opportunities for progress in the years ahead that could be encouraged by a more forward-leaning policy. Despite the recent problems, for instance, the much-anticipated reversal of the ‘third wave’ of democratic expansion of the 1980s and early 1990s has not occurred. The number of electoral democracies now stands at one hundred and twenty-two countries, just one below the high-water mark of one hundred and twenty-three reached in 2005 and four more than in 2012. It also appears that Tunisia could become the first Arab democracy, a beachhead in the region of the world most resistant to democratic change. In addition, movements for civic renewal have emerged in some of the grimmest political environments. In contrast to the hope for change that these movements embody, the violence and repression used against them expose the insecurity of authoritarian regimes.
The road ahead for such reform movements will be long and very difficult one, but they are a natural by-product of a world in which people have more access to information. The challenge for the United States is to help create the conditions that will allow such movements to survive and to grow. Institutions already exist to provide them with material and technical assistance. Today, American leadership must make it clearer than they have that supporting people fighting for democratic values is not an afterthought but a core element of America’s national policy; and that America will use diplomacy and other instruments of policy to protect democratic movements.
Committing to preserving US leadership in the world is, therefore, the second major challenge for the US policy-makers. This is not an expression of American arrogance or a reckless form of overreaching. Rather, it is the recognition of a fundamental geopolitical reality. ‘A world without US primacy,’ Samuel Huntington once wrote, ‘will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs.’ The urgent challenge now is for the US to exercise leadership in a convincing manner so that the vacuum is not filled by hostile powers or by chaos and violence.
But continued US primacy is simply not possible unless the US addresses a third critical challenge: to bring the spiralling US public debt under control. Over the last decade, the gross federal debt has nearly tripled to more than $17 trillion and now exceeds the total national GDP. While there are many reasons for the continuing surge in public debt, the principal factor has been the growth of entitlement spending, which has gone from less than one-third of the federal budget a half-century ago to more than two-thirds today. In the words of Robert J. Samuelson, ‘The welfare state is taking over government.’ Other priorities are steadily being squeezed, from investment in infrastructure and human capital to international programmes and even defence spending, which is expected to shrink by forty per cent over the next decade. Unless America can summon the political will and bipartisan consensus to reverse the domestic decline, no amount of strategic vision will enable the US to exercise the kind of leadership that it aspires to.
The challenge the US faces today is as great as any in American history. The national security of the US and the values the Americans cherish, in addition to the future of democracy in the world, rest on Americans’ ability to rise to this occasion.