The Spectator Australia

By Tom Switzer

Washington, D.C.

Five years. If a week, as Harold Wilson once observed, is a long time in politics, five years is a virtual eternity. How strange then that in all that time since Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination which set the scene for the 44th presidency he has been unable to put together a convincing, coherent foreign policy. Here it is, the global leader, but it does not have a foreign policy whose essence and rationale can be conveyed succinctly. Julia Gillard tells Congress that ‘Americans can do anything’, while Tony Abbott urges the conservative Heritage Foundation that ‘America needs to believe in itself the way that others still believe in it.’ Yet Americans, in record numbers, think their country is heading in the wrong direction. And US foreign policy remains a disorganised mish-mash, a collection of ad hoc responses: Libya, yes; Syria, no; Afghanistan, sort of. As Winston Churchill said in another context, it is a pudding without a theme. Why is this? Why this failure on the part of the most powerful nation on earth?

This is what I want to talk about during my two-week trip to the US. My 5,000-word cover article ‘The Invisible Superpower’, co-authored with my friend and mentor Owen Harries for the May-June issue of the American Interest — Francis Fukuyama’s Washington-based magazine created to challenge the neoconservatism of the Bush era — provides the perfect platform for my visit. Our argument: that although Obama’s foreign policy rightly marks an escape from the delusional ambition that the US can and should lead everywhere, it’s too bad the President has failed to articulate a doctrine that matches resources with aspirations, and brings commitments and power into balance. And the response: well, it’s about as mixed as Washington is polarised. Conservatives such as nationally syndicated columnist George Will and Nixon-Reagan speechwriter Pat Buchanan praise us for recognising the wisdom of great-power prudence and humility, while the neocons at the American Enterprise Institute imply that we’re cold-blooded amoral schemers out of touch with the liberal ideals of the greatest power since Rome.

But one thing is clear: despite the Gillard-Abbott consensus that Uncle Sam can do anything, the American people are tired of the world. They are suffering from foreign policy fatigue. Obama did not utter the words ‘mission accomplished’ in the War on Terror in his landmark security speech last week, but he himself recognised that it is time for a change and for a respite from responsibilities.

The scholars at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs conduct regular opinion polling on foreign policy, and they conclude that Americans are now less concerned about foreign policy than at any time since the heyday of isolationism between the world wars. That is why in last year’s presidential election it was the dog that did not bark. And that is largely why the US does not have a coherent foreign policy.

This is not just a popular feeling in small-town America. Read this:

The biggest threat to America’s security and prosperity comes not just from abroad but from within. The US has jeopardised its ability to act effectively in the world because of runaway domestic spending, underinvestment in human and physical capital, an avoidable financial crisis, an unnecessarily slow recovery, a war in Iraq that was flawed from the outset and a war in Afghanistan that became flawed as its purpose evolved, recurring fiscal deficits, and deep political divisions. For the US to continue to act successfully abroad, it must restore the domestic foundations of its power.

Whose views are those? Former Republican presidential adviser Richard Haass, writing in his new book Foreign Policy Begins at Home. Haass describes himself as a ‘card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment for nearly four decades’, and his thesis that Washington should reorder priorities in favour of domestic affairs more or less reflects the feelings of a clear majority of Americans.

Whether this mindset represents a short-term cyclical phase or a long-term trajectory is not clear. What is clear is that realism, US foreign policy’s perennial hangover cure, is making a comeback. For generations, as Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose has told me, overenthusiastic idealists of different stripes have led the country into strategic blunders and had to be bailed out by more prudent successors. But when the crisis passes, the realist message about the need to act wisely in a pluralistic world ends up clashing with Americans’ idealistic impulses. We’re witnessing this today: Obama has tried to clean up the mess bequeathed by Bush 43 only to see left- and right-wing hawks call on Uncle Sam to back more assertively the opponents of the Assad regime in Syria. Most Americans laugh along with Henry Kissinger’s joke about the 1980s Iran-Iraq war: ‘It is a pity they can’t both lose.’

To his credit, Obama, like Rand Paul whom I visit in his Senate office, shares and reflects the current lack of interest in foreign policy. That may explain why a majority of Americans support the President’s sensible caution and why Paul is a rising Republican star. It is also why Canberra should get real about what Menzies called ‘our great and powerful friend’. Uncle Sam is putting his house in order.

This article was originally published by The Spectator Australia