America: Beware the Siren Song of Disengagement

America's global leadership may not be politically popular today. But it has hardly been more essential.

In authorizing airstrikes in Iraq, President Obama faces a challenge: making the case for U.S. action to an American population that is tired of energetic international engagement. While cautioning that airstrikes may go on for months and that any solution is “a long-term project,” he also took care to acknowledge Americans’ worries about an ever-deeper military commitment to Iraq. While a slight majority now appears to support airstrikes against ISIS targets, there remains a pervasive weariness—among both Democrats and Republicans—not only with Iraq, but with the world and its many challenges.

Why, Americans are increasingly asking, must it always fall to the United States to spend energy, treasure and sometimes blood to right the world’s wrongs and enforce international rules of the road? After more than a decade of grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a financial crisis coupled with high unemployment and deep deficits, the chaos and instability brought about by the Arab Spring and other global events and a sense that our allies have ridden free for too long, many Americans are saying that enough is enough.

Their leaders are as well. Responding to the demand signal—or lack thereof—for international activism, it is today much more common to hear American politicians criticize engagement—whether military, economic or diplomatic—than encourage it. More often, many senators and representatives do not express a view on international affairs at all, believing that they were sent to Washington to deal with pocketbook and social issues and not to take foreign-policy positions. Meanwhile, President Obama has emphasized “nation building at home,” and foreign observers in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere worry aloud that America is turning inward.

After a look at the latest polls, it’s hard to blame them. Nearly half of Americans say they want the United States to take a less active role in global affairs, up from just 14 percent back in 2001, and just a fifth want to see a more active role for their country. Another survey shows that a majority of Republicans and independents, and nearly half of Democrats, believe that the United States already does “too much” to help solve world problems and that the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own"—a higher percentage than at any point in the past five decades. The proportion of Americans who say that the United States is exceptional—“standing above all other countries”—has declined by some ten points in three years, and four-fifths agree that “We should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems and building up our strength and prosperity here at home.” This level of response is similar to the previous high, reached just after the Cold War.

A national mood of retrenchment has settled in. Engagement—particularly, but not exclusively, military intervention—is seen as too expensive, too risky and too prone to failure. Countries that have been on the receiving end of American force or dollars—or both—often do not appear to be in much better shape than when we began. Renewed insurgency in Iraq, political crisis in Afghanistan, instability in Libya, insufficient cooperation in Pakistan and a leader more repressive than Mubarak in Egypt do not encourage Americans to support greater U.S. investment in overseas projects. The United States, it is often thought, has routinely poked its nose into the affairs of far away countries about which it knows little, without much to show for its good intentions and herculean efforts. Perhaps, this reasoning goes, it is time to pull back a bit, let others shoulder more of the burden and take care of number one for a change.

The impact of these sentiments has been dramatic. The United States has sought to disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan, placing more emphasis on when our troops would come home than on how we would protect our national interests as those wars end. Sequestration has ravaged the defense budget, imposing deep and wholly illogical cuts that undermine the military’s operational readiness and investment in the capabilities needed to sustain U.S. military superiority, making fighting future wars more difficult and costly. Enthusiasm for spending on foreign aid and diplomacy is also waning fast, and the administration has slashed funding for democracy-promotion activities. Support for trade agreements has declined faster still, as the inability of the Senate to move Trade Promotion Authority attests. The Senate has stalled treaties as innocuous as the one covering disabilities, and Congress recently declined to approve reforms to the International Monetary Fund.

Previous calls to global action—from JFK’s “pay any price, bear any burden” to George W. Bush’s aim of “ending tyranny in our world”—seem light-years away from today’s national temper.

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