Americans have again voted for change in Washington as opposition Republicans take control of both houses of the US Congress. As attention now turns to the 2016 presidential race, it’s time to think through what all this means for the US role in the world.
On foreign policy, Barack Obama has proven himself a risk-averse president. Some welcome his caution as a wise corrective to the excesses of the George W. Bush administration’s “global war on terror.” Others warn that Obama’s reluctance to engage has made the world a more dangerous place. After nearly six years in the White House, Obama knows well that, no matter what he does, there will always be someone angry at the president of the United States.
It’s not that Obama has avoided all conflict. He sent more US troops into Afghanistan before beginning the process of final withdrawal. He approved US participation in the multinational attack that killed Muammar Qaddafi. He has spoken forcefully against Russia’s interventions in Ukraine and imposed sanctions on Russian banks, energy companies, and arms-makers. He has ordered the bombing of Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria. On his watch, the US National Security Agency has spied on enemies, allies, and, allegedly, on members of the US Congress. Drone aircraft continue to drop bombs inside the territory of other countries.
Yet, Obama is much better known for his reluctance to take on new costs and risks abroad. He made clear, even before he was president, that he intended not only to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but to avoid starting new ones. “Don’t do stupid stuff” he told reporters when asked to explain his foreign policy doctrine. No attack on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. No troops for Ukraine. No more troops in Iraq, whatever Islamic State militants do next. Obama is not a “hawk” and has no intention of becoming one.
As the long march toward the 2016 US presidential election begins, the world might well ask: How will America’s next president conduct foreign policy? Given that she served as Obama’s first secretary of state, would a president Hillary Clinton follow his cautious path? Would a president Jeb Bush restore the grand ambitions of his brother’s neo-conservative approach? Would another candidate introduce something altogether new?
The next US president, Democrat or Republican, is unlikely to lead the United States far from its current path. There are two main reasons. First, though every serious presidential candidate will talk tough to impress voters, all are aware that the American public remains focused almost entirely on domestic policy and reinvigoration of the US economy. A Pew Research poll conducted late last year found that, for the first time in the 50 years that Pew has asked this question, a majority of US respondents said the US “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Just 38 percent disagreed. That’s a double-digit shift from the historical norm. Eighty percent agreed that the United States should «not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems.» No president can sustain an expensive, ambitious foreign policy without reliable public support. In America, that support is no longer there–and unless there in another major terrorist attack on US soil, it isn’t coming back in the foreseeable future.
Second, whatever the candidates say during the coming campaign, both parties recognize that there is no easy solution to today’s most intractable international problems. Russia cannot force Ukraine to remain forever in Moscow’s orbit. But no power, not even the world’s sole superpower, can force the Russians to stop trying. Sanctions can inflict long-term pain, but they will not change Vladimir Putin’s mind. This conflict is headed for stalemate, and no US president will risk his presidency on a gamble that Washington can break it.
Islamic State militants will continue to wreak havoc in Iraq and Syria. They lack the power to threaten either country’s central government or even to dislodge Kurds from their territory in northern Iraq. Yet, Washington cannot fully defeat ISIS without putting American soldiers back into Iraq. Short of a successful large-scale ISIS attack on US soil, the next president, Democrat or Republican, will not ask the American people to support another war in Iraq.
Nor is the next president likely to believe that a political and economic fight with China in support of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, or anywhere else, is a wise idea. The closest he or she might come to provoking Beijing is support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal that will deepen US ties with many of China’s neighbors.
As the next round of US presidential candidates strides on stage, expect to hear a renewal of aggressive foreign policy rhetoric. Don’t be fooled. For the next several years, Washington will remain mainly on the sidelines of the world’s costliest and riskiest conflicts.
* Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and global research professor at New York University. Follow him on Twitter @ianbremmer.