Four notable episodes in recent months underscore the reality that the United States no longer possesses the major influence around the world that it enjoyed in the 1990s or during the Cold War years. Examples:
What accounts for this decline in U.S. influence on crucial foreign policy issues that face President Obama?
One reason is that world politics have changed markedly over the past ten years. In addition to the disruptions caused by the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. economy suffered a massive blow on September 15, 2008, when the banking system nearly collapsed, following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. Also, U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq proved far more difficult to conclude than expected, and the financial cost rose to several trillion dollars at a time when the federal budget went deeper into debt to pay for both domestic spending and the wars.
A second factor is the emergence of half a dozen aspiring powers that challenge what they view as an oppressive American hegemony. This is true in Europe, South Asia, the Middle East, and even Latin America. These states--China, India, Iran, Turkey, Russia, Brazil--are competitors with Washington for influence on four continents. Twenty years ago, U.S. influence in those areas went largely unchallenged.
Finally, domestic political change in the United States impacts its foreign policy. Americans are disenchanted with the cost of accepting the world policeman's role which Washington carried out for over half a century. Both political parties reflect this changing public mood. It isn't the isolationism that President Roosevelt encountered in the 1930s, but instead a non-intervention policy by U.S. forces. Barack Obama responded to this sentiment with his "no boots on the ground" policy on Libya.
In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, (Sept.-Oct.), a noted University of Virginia historian, Professor Melvyn Leffler, concludes that the tragedy of 9-11 "did not change the world or transform the long-term trajectory of U.S. grand strategy." He argues that America's "quest for primacy, its desire to lead the world…its concern with military supremacy," and "its sense of indispensability" have not changed and will continue to be the guiding factors in future policy.
Leffler reflects a Wilsonian point of view, that America should be a beacon to the world and use its influence to lead, and make the world a better place. American voters rejected Wilson's worldview in 1920, and during the next twenty years the country largely withdrew from world responsibility. World War II changed that trend.
Although Barack Obama prefers to have a foreign policy based on the Wilsonian model, history has dealt him a poor set of cards. His urgent task now is to rein in an overstretched foreign policy and respond to the realities of budget constraints and a public that is simply tired of interventions abroad. The mood may not last twenty years. But it is also possible that we are entering an era where the voting public will not permit future presidents to lead the world in the way Woodrow Wilson sought to do, and failed.
File last modified on Monday, 10-OCT-2011 1:31 PM EST