In a low-key passage of his address to the UN, US President Barack Obama cautioned allies and friends of the US that Americans are tired of being the world’s police force and look to other nations to shoulder more of the burden for global security.
The question is whether anyone outside of the US caught the president’s primary, but gently delivered message. Initial indications are that they either missed his point or ignored it.
“The United States has a hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries. The notion of American empire may be useful propaganda, but it isn’t borne out by America’s current policy or by public opinion,” Obama said. “Indeed, as recent debates within the United States over Syria clearly show, the danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries or to take on every problem in the region as its own.”
Quite to the contrary, the president contended, “the danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war — rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world — may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership.”
“I believe America must remain engaged for our own security,” Obama said.
He said Americans “have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all.”
Then came the call to other nations: “I must be honest, though. We’re far more likely to invest our energy in those countries that want to work with us, that invest in their people instead of a corrupt few; that embrace a vision of society where everyone can contribute — men and women, Shia or Sunni, Muslim, Christian or Jew.”
The president’s address came against the backdrop of the national debate over US policy on Syria. It seems clear that a majority of Americans — and their representatives in the US Congress — are against actions that might draw the US into a full-blown intervention.
Perhaps more important, his words reflected a deep-seated revival of isolationism.
The Pew Research Center in Washington recently published an incisive report saying the American public today “feels little responsibility and inclination to deal with international problems that are not seen as direct threats to the national interest.”
“The depth and duration of the public’s disengagement these days goes well beyond periodic spikes in isolationist sentiment,” Pew said.
Those spikes erupted in 1974, after the unpopular war in Vietnam, in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in 2006, when protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan caused disillusionment.
Further, Pew found an upward trend among Americans who said: “We should not think so much in international terms, but concentrate more on our own national problems.”
The Pew report pointed to “the gravity of domestic concerns,” notably jobs and the economy, and to “a sense of war weariness.”
All that appears not to have registered with the US’ allies and friends.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for instance, was in New York at the same time as Obama.
Although the Japanese leader said his nation would not be a “weak link” in the security of Asia, he announced no specific plan or timetable for getting there.
In South Korea, neither the Chosun Ilbo nor the Jungang Ilbo, two of the leading newspapers, reported the president’s remarks.
The English-language Korea Times lamented that Obama did not mention North Korea and “didn’t even touch on Asia, despite his signature foreign policy of rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region.”
The Times of India noted Obama’s warning that the US might disengage and commented: “In the new world disorder, the US can be simultaneously accused of interfering in other countries’ affairs and also upbraided for shirking its responsibility as the world’s sole superpower.”
In Britain, which has declined to support the US on Syria, the Times and the Guardian ignored the president’s words of caution. In Paris, the newspaper Le Monde and the news agency Agence France-Presse also ignored the president’s remarks, although France has aligned itself with the US on Syria.
Obama, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will have another chance to publicize the president’s thinking as each travels to Asia early this month. Maybe they should hit the president’s theme a bit harder.
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.
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