Vision and Reality — Future visions of US Foreign Policy
One of the criticisms of President Obama’s foreign policy is that he seems to lack what George H.W. Bush once called “The Vision Thing.” The argument is that rather than adopting and advocating a clear-cut direction for future US policy, the Obama administration seems to be fighting international fires around the world without any sense of end-goals for the international order, or America’s role in it.
Ian Bremmer examines this question in an interesting and even-handed piece in Time magazine that is a synopsis of the main ideas in his new book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World. He offers a simple (and admittedly simplistic) typology of that includes three potential choices for the future of US foreign policy. Those choices are: to view the U.S. as “Indispensable America,” which he paints as somewhat of a neoconservative activist approach to foreign affairs; to adopt a more minimalist and realist “Moneyball” approach that involves prudently involving the U.S. only in conflicts central to its interests; and an “Independent America” approach, which is essentially an America-first, quasi-isolationist, hands-off approach to events abroad.
His article includes a look at differences in the outlook of different American generations – with the trend being toward greater isolationism (Bremmer doesn’t really like that term, given its negative historical connotations) among younger generations. This accords with my experiences teaching students that were mostly born after the Cold War and increasingly can’t recall 9-11, but have lived most of their lives with the seemingly endless conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the end, Bremmer concludes that the “Independent America” approach is both a likely and desirable direction for future U.S. policy.
Another work that came out in the past year, The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder, by Peter Zeihan, similarly predicts a retreat of America from its global role, and offers detailed predictions of what a largely American-less world would look like. With the exception of a United States that is endowed with favorable geography, natural resources, and relatively favorable demographics, it’s not a pretty picture as other countries return to a world he depicts as a pre-WWII Hobbesian dogfight for resources and autarky.
Like many self-avowed libertarians (an outlook he suggests doesn’t influence his predictions, but clearly does), Zeihan invests himself in a future reality that is at best vaguely plausible rather than particularly likely. It does succeed, though, as a cautionary tale of what the world might look like without the U.S. led globalized world order.
What Zeihan and Bremmer underestimate, however, is the institutional inertia that, barring major catastrophe, keeps the trajectory of US foreign policy largely stable. Changes in the direction of US foreign policy are not likely to come about radically, even if, say a Rand Paul or Elizabeth Warren, were somehow to be elected President. The web of US commitments to other countries runs very deep, and there is now way to withdrawal from those obligations easily or without great, and visible costs – especially in the economic sphere.
Militarily speaking, things are not much different. Reducing military spending is a desirable goal, but, in the end, the US can either have a global military presence or not, there’s not a lot of room in-between. In other words, the US can have a 10 major aircraft carriers in the navy or 1-2, but it’s not likely we’re going to see a US navy half its size that’s only able to cover half the world.
Thus, both militarily and economically, the future US global role in only likely to change incrementally, and only up to a point, rather than radically.
To some degree, we have witnessed incremental change in the Obama administration’s tentativeness to deploy military forces in anything other than a support role in conflicts like those in Libya, against ISIS, and now in Afghanistan. However, what many would describe as a retreat from a vision of America as the indispensable nation, is really an attempt to shift away from international activism to the degree that it is feasible given how enmeshed the US with regional and local obligations and institutions.
The shift to a more “moneyball” foreign policy is about as much as would-be isolationists can hope for any time in the coming years. At the very least we can look for others to share our burdens and avoid making costly mistakes. However, the worst outlook would be to pretend that we can hide from the world, sheltered from the global economy and not lifting a finger to influence particular international events abroad when we have the resources, the costs of intervention are low, and the costs of not doing so high.
Whatever the news-of-the-week, the global system largely created and led by the United States has led to a world that is more stable and prosperous than any other time in human history. We shouldn’t, and are unlikely to, walk away from it any time soon.