Here to Stay

Don't like America leading from behind in the world? Get used to it.


Lately, those bemoaning the fate of the American Experiment have discovered a new way to make themselves (and the rest of us) feel miserable. America is not only in decline and ungovernable, they say. It’s withdrawing from the world.

A recent Pew survey on America’s "place in the world" stunningly shows that 52 percent of those polled believe the United States should mind its own business internationally. Only 38 percent disagree — the most out-of-whack imbalance in the almost 50-year history of Pew asking the question.

What’s going on here? Is this simply a cyclical turn of the wheel that runs throughout U.S. history, where Americans want to get off the roller coaster following a particularly turbulent period. Or are there other factors afoot that suggest a deeper syndrome — a new form of U.S. retrenchment driven by idiosyncratic factors unique to some new and unprecedented American Moment?

Weightier minds than mine have considered this issue and come to a variety of conclusions. Stephen Walt, my fellow FP contributor, commenting on a piece by Dan Drezner, argues that whatever is promoting the risk aversion, it is healthy — a new sobriety when it comes to biting off more than we can chew abroad. (As relevant and recent history lesson, see: George W. Bush). Others, including my good friend Robert Kagan, aren’t so sure. Kagan argues that the central question is not whether America can or should play a role in the world, it’s whether the public actually wants to. And he believes that Barack Obama, rather than pushing back against the public’s caution abroad, encourages it. David Brooks, on the other hand, argues that the real dynamic driving the retrenchment is a loss of faith and trust in big units, armies, corporations, unions, and other such entities. These days, Americans think change comes about from masses of individuals gathering in public squares, and many people look at history as if it were leaderless.

My take on these matters is somewhat different. I think the polls and the president’s policies reflect a mix of situational and traditional factors, but also a new element or two. And I believe that this hodgepodge isn’t a passing teenage phase. It’s here to stay, and it will influence how America decides when, how, and why to project its still-formidable weight in a world that’s grown so fraught.

Indeed, if you don’t like America leading from behind, you’d better at least get used to it. Three key factors are driving the country’s approach to the world.

Iraq and Afghanistan. These two wars weren’t as consequential as Vietnam, nor nearly as costly or disastrous, but they’ve created their own syndrome nonetheless. They were an effort to counter a perceived existentialist threat after 9/11, not just by taking the fight to the enemy or denying him sanctuary, but by transforming battlegrounds into functioning nations. Indeed, they were not just discretionary wars; they were driven by the unattainable goal of constructing states. There was never really any way to define victory other than by leaving.

Had there been a draft in the United States, it would have been highly unlikely that America would have stayed in these wars for a decade or more. In fact, there is something very wrong about having the two longest wars in the nation’s history waged by 0.5 percent of the population, particularly when there is little sense of shared obligation, challenge, or sacrifice. Is it really OK for the military to be at war if the country is not?

This kind of disconnect, particularly in losing wars, undermines national resolve. It will be a long time before another president from either political party gets into another one of these trillion-dollar social-science projects. Our economic travails and the downsizing of the military and changing nature of how we plan to fight wars guarantee it.

Broken Home. The argument that foreign policy begins at home has already been made in a compelling way by my former colleague Richard Haass. That we have serious problems on our own turf (I call them the six deadly Ds: debt, deficit, dysfunctional politics, dependence on hydrocarbons, and deteriorating educational system and infrastructure) has been evident for some time. And these are slow bleeds — systemic challenges that evade simple or quick solutions. We will be dealing with them for years to come.

If you combine the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with the nation’s domestic woes, you can begin to see how retrenchment in our foreign policy may indeed be different than previous cycles. We also wanted off the roller coaster in the wake of World War II. But that war gave the country a foundation on which to build a credible post-war policy. People also had faith in government both because of the remedy it had provided during the Great Depression and because of victory in the war against Germany and Japan.

Today, the United States is in a far different position — weaker at home and abroad, with the public left doubting its government and itself. Americans may not feel it as acutely now, but the period from the decade or so following 9/11 has left the country exhausted and hoping for better times without really believing they’re coming.

Americans don’t want to disengage from the world, certainly not on the economic side. But the last thing they want now is to tilt at more foreign windmills in the name of democracy, freedom, or anything else. Barring an attack on the continental United States, I’m not sure what would justify the use of military force now or in for the foreseeable future.

Our Complicated World. Today the world may actually be a less dangerous place for America. I just don’t believe in these world-falling-apart analyses that suggest things abroad are actually getting worse, and we face an end-of-civilization challenge. There are fewer major conflicts in the world, fewer authoritarian powers, more democratic ones, and despite the threat from jihadists, America and its allies are holding their own. In the Middle East, the area I know best, America is actually keeping above water on several issues that really count: preventing another 9/11; getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan; and weaning itself off Arab hydrocarbons. I’m not at all sure how the fourth core issue, stopping Iran from getting nukes, will turn out. And who knows what will happen to Syria, the poster child for everything Obama’s critics think is wrong with his approach to foreign policy. America may very well be dragged into doing more there.

The real problem, from the perspective of America’s place in the world, is that conventional applications of U.S. military and diplomatic power are no longer well matched and as functional as they used to be, when it comes to fixing the problems that ail humanity. Clearly, in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, the notion that U.S. military power can be used to alter the internal character of nations that really aren’t nations or to confront Vladimir Putin in Ukraine where proximity, geography, and local politics are on Russia’s side isn’t even worth debating. And having served in the two previous administrations and having watched this one, I don’t have a great deal of confidence that the United States has the will or skill to take on seemingly intractable conflicts with any hope of resolving them.

In other words, it’s not the problems have become bigger; it’s that they’ve morphed, and the United States is out of its league.

The last serious and effective foreign policy team America had was George H.W. Bush and James Baker. In their honest moments, even they would probably concede now that the situations they were dealing with were vastly different than those the country is faced with today.


So what will happen? The United States won’t be withdrawing into a shell behind its two oceans, which one historian brilliantly described once as liquid assets. (They give America a greater margin for error and for retreat, to be sure.) The county’s economic interests alone will compel it to remain active in the world, and it is in the middle of the mix on just about every kinetic foreign policy issue there is, many of which may endure for a long time yet: Ukraine, Iranian nukes, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and a gazillion counterterrorism operations, to name a few.

How effective America will be in any of these endeavors is another matter.

All that said, Obama inherited the presidency at the end of a long arc of hyper U.S. involvement in the world, which hardly comprised a series of slam-dunk successes. It created enormous ambivalence in the world about American power and tremendous doubts at home about activities abroad. That sense of uncertainty is going to continue. The world isn’t coming to an end; but neither is America going to be the master of it.

All presidential successors are bound to some degree by the actions of their predecessors. And the next president will be bound by what Obama has done and not done, caught somewhere between a world that America can no longer transform and a public that’s lost a good deal of enthusiasm for transforming it. The key for the next president will be finding the balance between George W. Bush’s risk readiness and Obama’s risk aversion in protecting America’s image and interests.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.

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