Disengagement is the way

Those who criticised American unilateral interventionism under President George W. Bush may soon have an opportunity to see how they like American isolationism, especially if a Republican recaptures the White House in 2012.Throughout its history the United States has periodically turned its back on the world, even its long-time allies. There is now new evidence that Washington is about to do so again, if the American people have their way.A newly inward-looking America would have profound implications for Asia, Europe, NATO, the war in Afghanistan and the future reliability of the United States as a leader on a range of global issues. The world has periodically suffered the consequences of a self-pre-occupied America. This may happen again.

Isolationism is hardly a new phenomenon when it comes to the US approach to the world. In 1801, in his first inaugural address, President Thomas Jefferson’s warned against “entangling alliances.” And this warning has repeatedly echoed down through US history. Isolationist sentiment slowed America’s participation in both World Wars I and II. And it led to Congress’ rejection of US membership in the League of Nations in 1919. In more recent times, world weariness peaked again in the mid-1970s, a product of America’s frustrating and deadly experience in Vietnam and its inglorious exit in 1975. The isolationist sentiment  has now returned with a vengeance in the hearts of many Americans.

A majority, 58 per cent, of Americans now believe that the United States should pay less attention to problems overseas, according to a May 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center. That isolationist sentiment is up nine percentage points from 2004. This same opinion poll found that 65 per cent favored reducing overseas military commitments and 72 per cent of Americans wanted to cut foreign aid. This despite the fact that over the recent decade US foreign aid has been cut, constituting 0.2 per cent of gross national income in 2009, as compared with Denmark, Luxembourg and Norway, which gave more than one per cent.

Nowhere is this change more evident than in the reversal of American views about the Afghan war, a conflict started by President George W. Bush and intensified by President Barack Obama. Two in three Americans, 65 per cent, now want to reduce or withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, up dramatically from 39 per cent in 2009, according to the new German Marshall Fund 2011 Transatlantic Trends survey.Americans have clearly soured on international adventurism. Non-American critics of the Afghan intervention may find this encouraging. But the growing partisan nature of attitudes toward foreign-policy issues in general in the United States should give foreigners pause.

Whether in reaction to the ill-fated Iraq and Afghan wars of the Republican president Bush or to distinguish themselves from the perceived internationalism of Democratic president Obama, Republicans in particular are turning their backs on the world. Republican candidates for president and their voters are distinctly more isolationist than their Democratic counterparts on a range of issues, not simply the Afghan war. And, with President Obama now trailing many of his Republican contenders in early head-to-head matchups, it may well be Republican snsibilities that shape future US foreign policy.

Disengagement is even more strongly supported by Democrats (70 per cent) and Independents (66 per cent), but their swing to that position is less pronounced. Backing for reduction or withdrawal is up 23 points among Independents and 24 points among Democrats since 2009.It is little wonder then that in the mid-August Republican presidential candidates’ debate in Ames, Iowa, one of the loudest applause lines was for isolationist Rep. Ron Paul’s demand to “bring our troops home.”Republican voters are also distancing themselves from NATO. Only a bare majority, 51 percent, of Republicans thinks NATO is still essential to America’s security. That support is down 11 percentage points since 2009. Democrats’ backing for NATO, 69 per cent, is actually up 5 points, Independents’ support, 56 per cent, has slumped just 2 points.

As many Americans turn away from Europe and turn inward, they do recognise the growing importance of Asia. A majority, 51 per cent, now sees China, Japan and South Korea as more important than the nations of Europe for US national interests, according to the GMF survey. This is hardly surprising at a time when Europe is floundering economically and Asia is booming. But to many Americans, especially Republicans, emerging Asia, at least China, is a threatening development, posing a profound danger to the United States, not an opportunity.

In the months ahead apologists for the fickle American electorate will be quick to dismiss isolationist rhetoric in the US presidential campaign, especially from Republican presidential candidates, as mere populist campaign posturing that signifies no long-term policy intentions for White House aspirants. But downplaying US presidential candidates’ isolationist pronouncements will belie the underlying sea change taking place among American voters, who are turning their backs on the Afghanistan war, on NATO and on engagement with Europe, while gearing up for a confrontation with China.The long-term foreign-policy implications of these developments, especially if a Republican sits in the White House in 2013, cannot be underestimated. – Khaleejnews