Throughout contemporary history US foreign policy has been subject to the domestic electoral cycle. All presidential contenders have contrasted their own hawkishness with the alleged weaknesses of the incumbent. That is what Eisenhower did to Truman, Kennedy to Eisenhower, and Reagan to Carter. When the Republicans finally alight upon Obama’s opponent, they will traduce the president for, at best, negligence towards America’s national security, or at worst, a sinister desire to wind down the US’s role as sole global hegemon. The president will become the Manchurian Candidate.
In reality, Obama is playing a hard game to beat. In addition to killing Osama bin Laden last May, and dozens of lesser terrorists each week, he has decided to emulate Eisenhower by disengaging US combat forces from the two wars he inherited from Bush. The fact is that 56 per cent of Americans want their troops out of Afghanistan immediately. Republicans can huff and puff about “retreat” as much as they like, but this is what most voters care about, not whether Afghan girls go to school.
There has been much uninformed chatter about a US reversion to “isolationism”, a relatively recent epithet rather than a coherent strategy. It means maximum diplomatic flexibility and non-interventionism rather than acting like a hermit crab. Rejection of entangling alliances, especially with the old European powers, was in the DNA of the Republic for most of the 19th century. So was a reluctance to go forth in search of putative monsters to destroy, the vivid 1821 metaphor of John Quincy Adams, the Secretary of State I most admire. In more recent times, Republican “isolationists” were often Christian “China-firsters” who, weary of Europe’s interminable strife, thought that China could become an Asian-Protestant America with limitless economic potential. The last Republican candidate with such views was Taft, though Ron Paul taps into the tradition in a more erratic fashion.
There seems to be much anxiety about Obama’s military dispositions, which in reality are part of the usual process of reculer pour mieux sauter. There is nothing unusual in Obama’s desire for a more streamlined US military, a gambit Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan used to win the presidency too. It would be more worrying if he — and teams of experts — did not try to fit horses for courses in a rapidly changing world.
The US army and marines have had a good run for the taxpayers’ money in recent decades with their armed social work; now it is the turn of the air force and navy, especially since Obama has decided that the US is in the Pacific for the long haul. You don’t need paratroops and tanks — or indeed armed social workers — to take on the Chinese, but sophisticated cyberweapons of the kind they are developing. Obama should revisit the US military presence in Europe, and make the locals pay for their own defence after freeloading on the US since 1945. Containment of Iran’s ballistic missile threat could be done better from Saudi Arabia or Turkey than from the Czech Republic or Poland, and without undermining the Russians’ own nuclear deterrent. US oil and natural gas self-sufficiency is also likely to lead to a radical reconsideration of US involvements in the Middle East, where it gets precious little thanks.
Obama is also correct in emphasising the need to repair the US economy and education system, the priority of the 2010 National Security Strategy document. For the US is only “declining” in the sense that others are swiftly rising. China will probably become the world’s major economy by 2016-18 and its defence spending will surpass that of the US by 2025. The problem is how to entice China outside its own northern Pacific sphere of influence to assume global burdens commensurate with its responsibilities and size. That role may be forced upon Beijing, judging by the swift evacuation of 35,000 oil workers from Libya late last year. What happens if Chinese workers are roughed up in Zambia?
Obama has also acknowledged altered economic realities by making the G20 the main forum of global decision-making instead of the defunct G8. In the post Cold War world, Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey really count. Ironically, the demise of a cosy Western club is likely to see the emergence of much more cautious diplomatic initiatives, which will be favoured by Western voters weary of the “piratical” unilateral interventionism (the phrase is Sir Vidia Naipaul’s) of Bush and Blair. The world that has emerged — an approximate reversion to what it looked like in about 1890 — is what the majority of people seem to want. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.