It's remarkable that the US economy looks to be picking up steam even as rising stars like China, India, Turkey, and Brazil wrestle with slowing growth and the risk of unrest. Improving US fundamentals, a steadily recovering jobs market, and revolution in energy production remind us that Americans aren’t waiting on Washington to kickstart growth. Yet, even as America strengthens at home, its influence abroad continues to wane.
The American public doesn’t seem to mind. A Pew Research poll conducted in December 2013 found that, for the first time in the fifty years Pew has asked this question, a majority of US respondents said the US “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” Just 38 percent disagreed. That’s a double-digit shift from the historical norm. A full 80 percent agree that the United States should "not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems." In a democracy, no president can sustain a costly and ambitious foreign policy without public support. In America today, that support just isn’t there.
US influence abroad is also diminished by a substantial shift in recent years in the global balance of power. China, Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, the Gulf Arab states and others don’t have the muscle to change the global status quo on their own, but as Russia’s intervention in Ukraine reminds us, they remain the most powerful actors in their immediate neighborhoods and have more than enough economic and diplomatic leverage to obstruct US plans. Aware that Obama is focused on domestic goals and that a war-weary US public will not support costs and risks that don’t directly threaten US national security, it doesn’t take much for outsiders to discourage US intervention in Syria, Crimea or the East China Sea.
The energy revolution plays a role, as well. Thanks to new technologies and drilling techniques, the US Energy Information Agency forecasts that by the end of this decade half the crude oil America consumes will be produced at home. More than 80 percent will come from the Western hemisphere. With that in mind, it’s tougher for any US president to explain why Washington should be more deeply involved in the Middle East’s problems.
Unfortunately, the US government has undermined its own ability to persuade allies to help with the international heavy lifting. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and drone strikes inside other countries have made it harder for foreign leaders to persuade voters they should still support US policy. The US National Security Agency has made matters worse. It’s bad enough that NSA espionage undermines Obama’s ability to criticize autocrats for spying on their citizens. It’s much worse when the US president must explain to the presidents of Germany and Brazil why Americans are reading their email or listening to their phone calls.
Washington’s political food-fights undermine US foreign policy, as well. If there is any issue on which today’s Republicans and Democrats should agree, it’s trade. Republicans should be on board because they are traditional champions of international commerce. Democrats should support Obama’s trade agenda because party control of the White House gives Democrats the most influence in writing the rules of any new agreement.