[This article is cross-posted from the author’s blog, On Washington and the World.]
Over the past several years American leaders and the public have been edging toward a new consensus. They have had enough of the international sturm und drang that has prevailed since 9/11 and seem resolved on concentrating on a daunting collection of domestic ills. Not least among these are lagging growth rates, rising inequalities, and swelling deficits. The recent presidential election seems to have validated the consensus. Domestic issues dominated; foreign affairs stayed in the shadows. The accelerated timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan was received with a shrug. The Benghazi controversy failed to gain traction with the electorate.
The new consensus has been confirmed since Obama’s victory. His inaugural address announced the end of a decade of war and the start of a process of national reinvention meant to address challenges on the home front. References to maintaining U.S. military power, preserving alliances, and advancing global democracy and development were distinctly pro forma. Secretary of State nominee John Kerry in his opening statement before the Senate Foreign Relations committee played the new line pitch perfect. He stressed the priority of getting the U.S. fiscal house in order and more generally handling the national business in a more efficient and timely fashion.
However sensible this new consensus may be, it suffers from a major flaw: its profound vulnerability. There are at least three directions from which threats may arise.
One is the continuing, sweeping U.S. commitment to global leadership. Can the Obama administration and the political class more generally stand aside when crises erupt in North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, or East Asia? So far so good on Syria and Mali and Somalia and Yemen. But in none of these has the conflict fully played out. And who can predict what other trouble spots may yet “demand” U.S. engagement? This cautionary point is supported by striking cases of presidents whose domestic agendas were derailed by unanticipated events abroad. Think of Woodrow Wilson and World War I, Franklin Roosevelt and wars in Europe and the Asia, Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, Jimmy Carter and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
A second threat is the ongoing confrontations with regional powers in which too much politically and ideologically has been invested to be called off. Iran and North Korea are acute concerns. Add to the list China, which has become the target of the Obama administration’s much heralded pivot toward Asia, as well as Putin’s Russia with its prickly relationship with the United States. The U.S. notion of global leadership has over the last half century expressed itself above all else in terms of repeated and widespread regional interventions. The new consensus assumes what is palpably untrue—that the American leaders will retreat—or will be allowed to retreat—when regional challenges arise.
If international chance or regional circumstance don’t disrupt the new consensus, then political frustration may do the job. It is easy to imagine domestic renovation miscarrying or at least bogging down as a result of the deep divisions over how precisely to address an accumulation of ills. At what point do political forces at loggerheads step away from seemingly insoluble problems at home in favor of foreign issues, especially where the vaunted U.S. military superiority can be put to work? Presidents have a long track record of absorbing themselves in foreign policy where they enjoy latitude after finding their hands tied on the domestic front. How much more satisfying to play commander-in-chief than pleader-and-negotiator-in-chief operating in a noisy, crowded domestic arena. Conservatives frustrated by the growth of government programs have their own reason to champion overseas adventures. Better the energies of the American state be directed safely abroad and away from domestic aggrandizement. The neo-conservatives who championed and then helped direct the Iraq invasion acted on precisely this conviction.
The new consensus makes sense. The country suffers from real problems that deserve urgent attention. But those championing the new restraint should realize they are hostages not just to events abroad but also to their own deeply ingrained commitment to a broad, ill-defined, and highly militarized version of global leadership.
Michael H. Hunt is Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author or editor of eleven books, including Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (with Steven I. Levine), The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance, and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. Read his other guest posts on this blog or visit his website.