The world’s superpower is stepping back.
As Russia menaces Ukraine, Syria seethes with violence and China flexes its might in Asia, President Barack Obama has avoided military options. He has struggled to rally international coalitions and to reassure allies that the U.S. will be there for them as it has in the past.
“We have less credibility as a leader in world affairs than we did in 2011,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, director of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff during the first two years of the Obama administration and now president of the New America Foundation, a policy-research group.
Yet even as Republicans such as Senator John McCain attack Obama for not doing more, Americans are apt to say the president is too involved in foreign crises. Public disaffection with overseas engagements is at its highest level in 50 years, according to a Pew Research Center poll released in December.
The tension between the public’s desire to go slow and the foreign policy establishment urging Obama to be more assertive hangs over decision-making at the White House. So far, Obama is more in line with the public, focusing on a domestic agenda for his second term that includes new climate change rules and a possible immigration law overhaul.
His approach is inviting talk from Washington to foreign capitals that the U.S. is in retreat. The scaled-back U.S. role raises the risk that regional conflicts will escalate and may undermine American companies as they compete with an emergent China to develop overseas oil, mineral and other natural resources, said Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Adviser to President George H.W. Bush.
Obama, who will offer his latest strategic outlook in a May 28 graduation speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, has avoided large-scale military involvement since 2011, when he joined with European allies to help topple Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Instead, he has focused on combating terrorism through small-footprint strikes with drones or special forces, such as the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed what Obama had said was a “red line” against using chemical weapons, the U.S. president pulled back from ordering air strikes in favor of a Russian-brokered agreement to destroy the weapons. Obama and the European Union have imposed limited financial sanctions on individuals and companies in response to Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and haven’t provided weapons to the government in Kiev.
While Obama vowed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, Israel and Persian Gulf allies such as Saudi Arabia have grown increasingly anxious ever since he failed to act militarily in Syria.
An impromptu defense the president made of his record at a press conference last month in the Philippines highlighted his skepticism about armed intervention and his sense that the sentiment is shared by voters.
“Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force,” he said. “Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?” He said his goal was to “steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”
Diplomats and foreign policy analysts quickly scrutinized his statement. A video of it was used as the starting point for a conference in Washington where experts declared it a bellwether of shifting U.S. ambitions.
Obama’s words suggested a president who has settled on modest goals abroad: “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” he said.
Even Republicans may be wavering in their commitment to greater military spending, with some party lawmakers embracing across-the-board cuts in the defense budget as prescribed in a 2011 deficit-reduction agreement.
U.S. voters are increasingly anti-interventionist. Forty-seven percent of Americans want their country doing less on the global stage, while only 19 percent favor more engagement, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month showed.
Fifty-two percent of Americans said the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally,” according to the Pew poll released in December.
When Obama asked for congressional authority to launch air strikes against Syria last September, “the calls coming into the office were about 90 to 10 against,” Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, told a conference at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on May 8.
Public support for unilateral military action is a casualty of “13 years of war” in Afghanistan and Iraq, Kaine said.
That provides fertile ground for politicians such as potential Republican presidential aspirant Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who would further curtail U.S. commitments abroad.
The current mood echoes periods of U.S. retrenchment that followed unpopular wars in Korea and Vietnam, said Stephen Sestanovich, an international diplomacy professor at Columbia University.
The U.S. was jarred out of President Dwight Eisenhower’s efforts to cut defense spending by the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite and by rising communist influence in the developing world.
After the post-Vietnam period, the country returned to a more assertive stance following the Soviet deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe and the invasion of Afghanistan, Sestanovich said.
The difference now is the U.S. no longer faces a clear adversary with global reach such as the Soviet Union. Nor is the case for overseas commitments anchored in a bipartisan strategy, such as containment during the Cold War.
“In both parties, you have a wide-open debate,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a State Department official in the George W. Bush administration. “There’s no consensus about U.S. interests and there’s no consensus about what we should be prepared to do on their behalf. It’s one more reason we have this rise of isolationism.”
Even in periods of disenchantment, the Cold War exerted a “discipline” on presidents and the public that prevented too great a retreat from foreign commitments, said Robert Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor Global Intelligence.
Current challenges to the U.S. such as China’s rise as an economic and military power don’t galvanize voters in the same way, said Kaplan.
“The Chinese threat to Asia is subtle, it’s elegant, it’s long-term,” Kaplan said. “It doesn’t translate into hard-news headlines.”
Scowcroft said public sentiment on national security issues can shift rapidly, so the danger of a period of retrenchment is “not terrible” at a time when there’s no rival power strong enough to supplant the U.S.
Unlike the backlash against the Vietnam War, national security institutions such as the military and intelligence agencies aren’t under public attack, Scowcroft said.
More so than on issues such as the economy, on which voters draw on direct experience to form impressions, Americans can have their views on foreign affairs swayed by political leaders, said Adam Berinsky, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
President George H.W. Bush rallied the public to intervene in Iraq, and Bill Clinton overcame public skepticism over the Balkans, said Berinsky. “These things come and go.”
While Americans are reluctant to get involved militarily overseas, their attitudes are conflicted: It’s also important to them that the president show resolve in dealing with other nations.
In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in which respondents sought a less-activist foreign policy, 55 percent said it was important that the U.S. project an “image of strength.” In the Pew poll in which a majority said the U.S. should mind its own business, 51 percent faulted Obama for not being “tough enough” in his global dealings.
The anti-interventionist mood, Scowcroft said, “isn’t necessarily very deep-seated or enduring.”