international analysis and commentary

US foreign policy after the election: caution and austerity

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The writing has been on the wall for some time. Since the Iraq War and President Bush’s War on Terror dominated the presidential election of 2004, foreign policy has slid off the table as a concern Americans base their votes upon. In January of this year, the Pew Research Center did extensive polling that concluded that, at present, Americans care more about domestic policy than at any point in the last 15 years. The adage attributed to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill that all politics are local has rarely seemed so true.

Given America’s neglected psychological trauma – originated with the Lehman crash of late 2008 – only a foreign bolt from the blue, or an ongoing crisis going septic (say over Iran’s nuclear program or the euro crisis) was ever likely to reverse this dominant trend. In the end, the Obama team got what they wanted, enough quiet abroad so that their slim but methodically calibrated path to victory would not be disrupted.

As has been par for the course throughout the currency crisis, Europe’s leaders limped along, doing just enough to keep Greece in a coma, while shielding Spain and Italy from the wolves immediately lurking at the door. Greek debt stills needs restructuring (certainly to include taxpayer losses in some form) and Spain still needs a bailout while Italy hopes to just avoid having to throw itself on the mercy of the Troika; nothing has changed. If Europe remained the sick man of the advanced world, the White House was electorally blessed with being able to put the whole thing aside for the past few crucial political months.

More surprisingly, the Iran crisis uneasily slunk from view. In the end, Prime Minister Netanyahu did not follow through on his bellicose rhetoric, to take matters into his own hands and strike the Iranian nuclear program in the waning days of 2012. There are two possible explanations for this, one technical and one political.

Technically, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak – up to now a firm supporter of the Prime Minister’s hawkish line – made clear, Tehran has converted around one-third of its most highly enriched uranium (20% grade) into yellowcake for its medical research reactor, thereby setting back the clock for an Israeli strike. Likewise, while all the centrifuges have now been installed at Fordow, Iran’s most impregnable nuclear site, the new machines have yet to be turned on. The technical explanation makes it appear that Iran has blinked, hesitating to go further with its nuclear program for fear of an Israeli strike.

The political explanation is that it is Israel, and not Iran, that did the blinking. Confronted with the open and increasingly public opposition of the security and intelligence barons in his own cabinet, as well as the clear, consistent, and implacable warnings of an Obama administration which made it abundantly clear that sanctions must be given further time, Netanyahu faced a serious crisis over sowing discord with America, his indispensable ally. Either way, the Iran bullet was dodged, if only for the moment.

If long-simmering crises failed to come to a boil, no out-of-the-blue foreign thunderbolt upset the race either. The one clear threat to Team Obama’s peace-at-all-costs strategy came from the murder of Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in a terrorist attack in Benghazi on September 11th. To put it mildly, there remain troubling questions about the whole affair, as the administration, grudgingly over a matter of days, shifted explanations as to why the attack occurred, from lamely blaming a provocative You Tube video insulting the Prophet Mohammed to finally accepting what everyone else knew at first sight; this was the work of terrorists.

This very strange refusal to accept reality spawned numerous conspiracy theories on the American right. Critics charged that that a terrorist attack by a group affiliated with al Qaeda was the last thing the White House wanted to politically deal with, both in terms of its claims that al Qaeda was on its last legs and that the Libya mission had been a rousing success. It is certainly true that the administration has been considerably less than forthcoming about who knew what, and when, and slow to provide a clear outline of what happened and what might have been done to salvage the whole situation.

After bungling an opening in the second debate to press President Obama on this point – to the fury of the neoconservative right – Governor Romney chose to ignore the whole thing in the third foreign policy-centered debate. Worrying that bringing up the whole Benghazi can of worms might misfire, making him look cravenly political in the face of a terrorist attack, Romney chose not to renew what had initially been a provocative line of questioning. With this, the one foreign policy issue that might just have affected the outcome vanished politically, as quickly as it had appeared.

Election night exit polls bear out that the President avoided the foreign policy bear pit. CNN’s exit poll had a full 60% of Americans signal that the economy was the most important issue, with only a miniscule 4% citing foreign policy. Fox News’s exit poll came to similar conclusions, with only 5% of voters naming foreign policy as a central concern. And with that, the most relentlessly domestically focused presidential campaign in memory came to its end.

As a post-mortem, there are four lingering takeaways regarding foreign policy and the 2012 presidential election. First and foremost, more than at any time since the 1930s, the weakened and perilous state of the American economy will be the determining context that drives American foreign policy in the multipolar era.

From this central assumption three lesser but important lessons flow. The days of a hyper-activist American foreign policy are at an end, both for neocon hawks of the right and humanitarian interventionists of the left; there simply isn’t any money. As the President rightly observed, Americans want nation-building to proceed apace at home; lengthy foreign adventures that get in the way of this will not be tolerated by the electorate.

Particularly among younger voters (a key part of the emerging and dominant Obama coalition) there is no stomach for foreign adventures. A September 2012 poll commissioned by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed that nearly 40% of those questioned believe the US should stay out of foreign affairs, up from only 25% a decade ago. Likewise a Pew Research poll found the percentage of Americans who agreed with the statement that America should “mind its own business internationally” has increased from 30% in 2002 to a startling 49% in 2009. The future is simply not neo-con.

This more hands-off approach will lead to fewer foreign problems being solved, with more being managed. The story of foreign affairs not upsetting the Obama applecart is not one of glistening international success: The eurozone crisis drearily rumbles on, the Iranian nuclear crisis will still come to a head next year, and the problems of terrorism will continue to plague the West for the foreseeable future. Managing semi-chronic crises in a time of austerity does not make for a heroic – or even intellectually satisfying -age. Nevertheless, it is now clearly the one we are living in.

Lastly, in a multipolar era, where countries besides America sit at the great power table, crises will be driven (and hopefully resolved) by others living outside the immediate zip code of Washington, D.C. This new reality amounts to a significant mental shift for the U.S., but equally wrenching for the rest of the world. In the end Europe will master the eurozone crisis, or it will not. Israel and Iran will walk back from the brink of armed confrontation, or they will not. America can help, should help, and must help in all these global crises. But it cannot save anyone. Instead it is a peripheral, if important, player in each case. The easy days of the rest of the world lazily denigrating America from the safety of a café are over; the rigorous new multipolar world will demand more of its global citizens than that.