“The question we face is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity, but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe.” So said President Barack Obama during a much-anticipated recent speech on the future of US foreign policy. Though some, both inside and outside the US, are happy to see America do less, others might be glad to hear the US president promise to continue to provide the leadership that only a global superpower can. Only a leader can enforce the rules, force the compromise, and underwrite the security on which geopolitical and economic stability depends
This is a crucial question, because today there is no government, or durable alliance of governments, ready to fill the vacuum if America retreats. Europe was focused on managing change within the Eurozone even before European parliamentary elections revealed growing public frustration with European governance. China and Japan are fully occupied with risky domestic reform plans. Other emerging powers – India, Brazil, Turkey, and others – are likewise busy with problems at home. All these countries can help, but none of them can lead.
But whatever the president tells a cheering crowd, there are several factors limiting Washington’s ability to take on new challenges—in Ukraine, Syria, in the South China Sea, and in cyberspace. First, political leaders in most major developing states know they will still be in power long after the departure of Barack Obama, who will wield much less influence in Washington as soon as Hillary Clinton and a few high-profile Republicans announce their candidacy for president. That will happen no later than next spring. This makes foreign leaders less willing to risk domestic political popularity by supporting Obama administration plans.
Second, Washington continues to damage America’s international reputation. The country’s political polarization has undermined confidence in the president’s ability to deliver on his promises. The US use of drones has undermined relations with some allies, and Obama’s tolerance for (or ignorance of) US spying—including on the leaders of friendly governments—has alienated even more of them. It is harder to argue for closer international cooperation in cyberspace when the US eavesdrops on Germany’s chancellor and Brazil’s president.
In a world where no single power, not even the United States, has the clout to persuade others to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, even a superpower needs capable, like-minded partners willing to share the burdens of leadership. Given George W. Bush’s internationally unpopular war in Iraq and the seeming double standards of the Obama administration, skepticism from traditional US allies is deeper than at any time since the Cold War’s end.
Most importantly, most Americans don’t want a more active foreign policy. A Pew Research poll published earlier this year found that a record percentage of respondents (52 percent) said the United States “should mind its own business and let other countries get along as best they can,” up from just 30 percent in 2002. Obama was elected to end old wars, not start new ones, and voters have little appetite for sending American soldiers or American money to solve faraway, hard-to-understand problems.
The unfortunate result is that Washington is now sending contradictory signals—to the American people and to the world. Voters still enjoy hearing that America is powerful and “exceptional.” It’s easy for politicians of both major American parties to tell them this is so. But Americans disagree sharply on what makes their country exceptional or on how their country’s strength should be used. As a result, promises from elected officials that America remains an indispensable nation don’t square with US reluctance to accept costs and risks where threats to US national security are not obvious.
The Obama administration has added to the confusion by sending mixed messages on its foreign policy priorities. The much-vaunted “pivot to Asia,” a plan to shift political, economic, and military resources to East Asia, continues. But the administration’s public focus on Russia, Iran, and an ill-fated push for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that no one seems to want suggest an easily distracted White House.
The result is that US allies don’t know where and when Washington will help, US rivals are eager to test the limits of US resolve, and American voters don’t know what they’re voting for. In a world that already lacks leadership, fires are more likely to burn hotter and longer than in the past.
That is not good news for anyone.
* Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of “Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World.” You may follow him on Twitter @ianbremmer.