The new American isolationism?

A lack of clear direction in US foreign policy is generating a growing chorus of international frustration. Washington is preoccupied with political fights at home these days, and vacillations over Syria and other intractable Middle East problems leave the Obama administration without foreign policy direction. Some wonder if the US has surrendered its leading international role.

Worries over a deepening US isolationism aren’t new. Two decades ago, the Clinton administration stepped away from Somalia as soon as American lives were lost, did virtually nothing to halt genocide in Rwanda, and avoided intervention in the former Yugoslavia for as long as possible.

This time, however, is different. Despite US involvement in a NATO bombing campaign, no one of any standing in Washington argued that US troops should enter Qaddafi’s Libya. President Obama has never really considered an on-the-ground intervention in Syria and speaks of US policy as if non-intervention in civil conflicts has always been US policy. The question in Washington these days is not “Why aren’t we getting involved?” It is “Why should we?”

Today, both political parties have good reason to indulge in isolationist rhetoric. President Obama edged past Hillary Clinton to win his party’s presidential nomination in 2008 in part thanks to his opposition to the invasion of Iraq and his pledge to end the Bush administration’s wars. Within the Republican Party, opposition to the Obama administration foreign policy has created demand for a new isolationism, a Libertarian trend that remained at the margins of party rhetoric during the hawkish George W. Bush presidency. Washington’s current foreign policy risk aversion reflects the public mood. Recent polling confirms that American voters want their elected leaders to devote time and energy to rebuilding economic growth in the United States, not in Afghanistan or Egypt.

Adding to the trend is a revolution in domestic energy production that has sharply reduced US dependence on imported oil from the Middle East. Thanks to new technologies and drilling techniques, the US Energy Information Agency now forecasts that about half the crude oil America consumes will be produced at home by the end of this decade and more than 80 percent will be produced in the Western hemisphere. US consumers now have less need of the Middle East’s predominant export.

We shouldn’t exaggerate this isolationist trend. The United States still spends more on its military each year than all its potential challengers combined. In addition, there are two areas in which the United States holds a significant technological advantage and which provide US officials with cost-effective security options: drone aircraft and advanced surveillance tools. Washington will continue to use drones to gather information and inflict casualties in countries where security conditions create too many costs and risks for direct US intervention. The use of state-of the-art digital spying makes clear that though Washington is now less interested in acting as global policeman, the US intelligence community still wants to know what everyone else is thinking.

Nor is the Obama administration backing away from deeper involvement in international trade. There is a consensus among leaders of the two parties that the United States has a compelling economic interest in pushing ahead with the Transpacific Partnership, an enormous US-led trade deal that will open markets and accelerate commerce in both Asia and the Americas, and with a free trade agreement with the European Union.

Even when it comes to US military commitments, a deeper US reluctance to take foreign policy risks will have less impact on vitally important US allies than on would-be partners that lack longstanding ties. Officials in Japan and Israel may worry that a domestically focused America will fail to protect their security, but Washington has ample reason to maintain strong relations with both. Other governments in Asia and the Middle East have greater cause for concern that the US will become a less predictable security partner.

What does a less ambitious US foreign policy mean for the world? It means that the trend toward a G-Zero world order, one in which no country or bloc of countries is consistently willing and able to offer global leadership, will only intensify. In Asia and the Middle East, in particular, confusion over when and where the US will and will not intervene will breed competition for influence among powerful states and uncertainty among their neighbors. It will allow hawkish officials in China and Russia to argue more effectively within their governments for an aggressive push to establish larger spheres of influence within their respective regions.

There will soon be an intense debate inside the United States over America’s role in the world, one that takes place not simply between the two political parties but within them, as well. Yet, it will take more than one election to decide the future of American power, and a long line of G-Zero-related upheavals will do little to make a more active US foreign policy more attractive for American voters.

* Ian Bremmer is the founder and president of Eurasia Group, the leading global political risk research and consulting firm. His most recent book, Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, details risks and opportunities in a world without global leadership.

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