Letting Go Of Global Hegemony


Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal poll on foreign policy made for a stark contrast with the growing consensus among the chattering classes about president Obama’s foreign policy. Here’s MoDo channeling the frustration of many and addressing herself directly to Obama:

You are the American president. And the American president should not perpetually use the word “eventually.” And he should not set a tone of resignation with references to this being a relay race and say he’s willing to take “a quarter of a loaf or half a loaf,” and muse that things may not come “to full fruition on your timetable.”

An American president should never say, as you did to the New Yorker editor, David Remnick, about presidents through history: “We’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.” Mr. President, I am just trying to get my paragraph right. You need to think bigger.

A great line. Until you ask yourself what exactly does she mean by thinking bigger. The closest MoDo comes is the following:

Especially now that we have this scary World War III vibe with the Russians, we expect the president, especially one who ran as Babe Ruth, to hit home runs.

Home-runs, please is not exactly a productive contribution to the discussion. What on earth would a “home-run” mean in Ukraine, for example? But this analysis misses one core fact: Americans, in polling, really do not want to be policing the world any more. Here’s one take-away from the WSJ poll:

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 5.17.17 PMThat’s a record 47 percent favoring a less active foreign policy than Obama has conducted. As for the “scary World War III vibe” MoDo wants reassurance on, only 5 percent of Americans want the US out front alone on Ukraine. A quarter want to delegate the issue to the EU. And almost half want action only in cooperation with other countries. The decidedly non-interventionist public also strongly opposed a strike in Syria; wanted withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan; and still prefer, in record numbers, for the US president to focus on domestic affairs. More to the point, this non-interventionist consensus crosses party lines. Obama has, on most issues, stayed in line with popular opinion. That’s one key reason why Rand Paul has traction. And it’s one reason Hillary Clinton will be vulnerable if she appears to want to return to neocon reflexes.

The paradox, it seems to me, is that Americans also miss the glory days. They both want withdrawal from the world but feel nostalgic for the heady post-Cold War days of easy hegemony, a budget surplus and a global reputation not stained by military occupations and torture. Robert Kagan had a shrewd column a month ago on this strange confluence of a president pursuing popular policies and becoming unpopular as a result. Here’s the poll of polls on foreign policy for Obama:

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The switch to disapproval happened about a year ago. Some of the subsequent shift may be due to the harsh criticism Obama received for not striking Syria after seeming to move toward it (even though the public wants to go to war in Syria like they want to abolish social security). Some of it may be due to Putin’s ugly machinations – prompting unreconstructed neocons like McCain to blame Obama for somehow encouraging it. The open wound of the Israel-Palestine question – where Obama has been very very active but without any progress at all – may also be a factor. But I suspect the bigger picture is that we’ve seen both an acceptance of a much more restrained America after the catastrophe of neocon governance and subsequent lingering unease about no longer being the sole superpower whose authoritah is always respected.

My view is that Obama has done about as good a job as possible in managing the core task of his presidency: letting self-defeating global hegemony go. That required a balancing act – of intervention where absolutely necessary and caution elsewhere. He prevented the world economy tipping into a second Great Depression, has maintained overwhelming military superiority and shored up Asian alliances even as he concedes, as we should, that China will be the dominant power in the region in the 21st Century. He rescued us from the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters, without chaos or immediate blowback. He’s successfully coordinating European responses to Russian aggression in Ukraine. It all adds up to the effective tending to a new era in which other countries and regions no longer accept American supremacy, and when US ideals – such as opposing torture – have been revealed as frauds.

This kind of pragmatic balancing act has none of the glory of the Cold War and a dispiriting (to some) element of retreat. But in many ways, this is inevitable. The staggering success of the West’s model in the last two decades is not one that can be sustained at the same pace. You don’t get to liberate Europe twice. And of course the biggest factors behind this new climate are the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They essentially revealed the US military as all-powerful on paper but inevitably insufficient to deal with sectarian hatred in the Muslim world, or running a “country” that cannot be run outside of a dictatorship or authoritarian figure. Even drones reached a point quite quickly at which their costs outweighed their benefits.

This is the essential context which makes sense of Obama’s pragmatic re-calibration of US foreign policy. What this picture reminds me of is the conventional wisdom about George H. W. Bush’s foreign policy at the time. In retrospect, his management of Soviet collapse was deeply under-rated, as was his decision not to invade Iraq. Like Obama, he saw China as a naturally emergent power to be coaxed rather than alienated. Like Obama, he tried and failed to move the Israelis out of their new project of Greater Israel. He was never going to be a Reagan, but in politics and world affairs, timing is everything. The difference, of course, is that Bush followed Reagan, whereas Obama followed the foreign policy equivalent of two terms of Jimmy Carter. So the bathos of pragmatism is all the more vivid this time around.

The one exception to this picture with respect to Obama is the overture to Iran. If he manages to resolve the nuclear issue in the next year, it will be a clear and revolutionary break from the past, as well as being the sanest approach to handling that poisonous but rational regime. But again, his success, if it occurs, will prompt more cat-calls from the neocons and loathing from the hard right. And it will not be greeted with the same relief as the end of the last Cold War, not least because the ayatollahs will remain in power, even if the landscape then shifts against them. Avoiding war is often not as popular as starting one. But it is what this country wants at this juncture in history, and it’s what the world needs. In the end, even queasy Americans may see the pragmatic sense in much of it. But they’ll keep it quiet if they do.

(Photo of Obama yesterday by Brendan Smialowski/Getty)