The Age

By Tom Switzer

ONLY the spectacle of anti-American violence across the Middle East and beyond has made foreign policy a live issue in the race to the White House. Until last week, the subject was being comprehensively ignored in this year's presidential election.

According to a CBS News poll last month, just 2 per cent of Americans rate it as the most important issue facing the nation. In other surveys, national security has not even ranked as the single most important issue in voters' choice for president.

That explains why one of President Barack Obama's most popular lines on the campaign trail has been his call ''to do some nation-building right here at home''. It also explains why Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, dedicated only one paragraph to foreign affairs (with no reference to Afghanistan) in his 40-minute speech to his party's national convention last month. This while his budget-focused running mate, Paul Ryan, skipped the subject altogether.

Why is this? Why are Americans less concerned about foreign policy than at any time since the heyday of isolationism in the 1920s and 1930s?


For one thing, Americans have tired of the world. For generations - first against fascism, then communism, and more recently Islamist terrorism - they supported an activist and engaged defence commitment across the globe. Today, however, Americans are reordering priorities.

Last week, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs published its annual survey of American public opinion and US foreign policy. Among other things, it found that Americans are now less likely to support the use of force in many circumstances and are more likely to endorse defence spending cuts; that fewer Americans are concerned about global terrorism as a ''critical'' threat to the US than at any time since September 11, 2001; and that majorities oppose either a unilateral US pre-emptive strike on Iran or even an attack authorised by the UN. It also highlighted the dovish views of ''Millennials'' - those between the ages of 18 and 29: 52 per cent believe that the US should ''stay out'' of world affairs.

To the extent that such views prevail, they contradict the notion that the US, as the world's sole remaining superpower, should impose its will and leadership across the globe.

Indeed, the lesson of the mid-2011 brush with debt default, which culminated in the Standard & Poor's credit downgrading and the debate over entitlement spending, is that Washington will make cutting spending a very high priority in the next decade.

An ambitious foreign policy inspired by a sense of mission - the kind of world view that helped build up the power of the US federal government in the past 70 years - is incompatible with that goal

There is another reason why Americans are turning off foreign policy: they are used to a state of world affairs in which things are set out in Manichaean terms. Them and Us; Good versus Evil; Freedom against Totalitarianism: the sort of thing that can be summed up easily in one of those doctrines that have defined America's world role (think Harry Truman in 1947, George W. Bush in 2002).

Those terms are not only familiar but congenial to an American temperament that is idealistic and impatient of nuance. The Australian conservative Owen Harries once applied the Oxford political philosopher Isaiah Berlin's well-known labels ''hedgehogs'' and ''foxes'' to the US context. Americans are the former: hedgehogs want the world explained in terms of one big, all-embracing idea; foxes relish complexity and see things in terms of many different, discrete truths.

For much of the Cold War and in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Americans, perhaps understandably, had a hedgehog view of international relations.

Today's world, however, is becoming a foxy, pluralistic, ambiguous one to which the ordinary American does not respond so easily.

No longer is there a compelling national mission that can clearly be explained to the American people to justify a Pax Americana.

Having said that, given their genuine concern for their nation's dignity and honour, it is easy to see how Islamist violence outside US embassies across the Muslim world could taunt and goad Americans out of their torpor.

But it is bound to be a short-term distraction. Ditto a pre-emptive strike on Tehran's nuclear facilities. The upshot of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is that Americans are suffering from foreign policy fatigue and they lack the attention span and staying power that comes with being a genuine world policeman.

The US will remain the most important presence on the global stage. But in the absence of a great defining goal to motivate his fellow citizens, and given Washington's budget priorities, the next president is unlikely to assert US power and influence across the globe as his predecessors have done for much of the past seven decades.

That is why foreign policy will remain a negligible concern in American politics.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of Spectator Australia.

This article originally appeared in The Age.