Is the US turning inward and becoming isolationist? That question was posed to me by a number of financial and political leaders at the recent World Economic Forum at Davos, and was heard again a few days later at the annual Munich Security Conference.
In a strong speech at Davos, US Secretary of State John Kerry gave an unambiguous answer: “Far from disengaging, America is proud to be more engaged than ever.”
Yet the question lingered.
Unlike the mood at Davos a few years ago, when many participants mistook an economic recession for long-term US decline, the prevailing view this year was that the US economy has regained much of its underlying strength.
Economic doomsayers focused instead on previously fashionable emerging markets like Brazil, Russia, India and Turkey.
The anxiety about US isolationism is driven by recent events. For starters, there is the US’ refusal (thus far) to intervene militarily in Syria.
Then there is the coming withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. And US President Barack Obama’s cancelation of his trip to Asia last autumn amid domestic political gridlock in the US Congress and the resulting government shutdown made a poor impression on the region’s leaders.
Indeed, with Kerry’s time and travel focused on the Middle East, many Asian leaders believe that Obama’s signature foreign policy — strategic “rebalancing” toward Asia — has run out of steam, even as tension between China and Japan, evident in their leaders’ statements at Davos, continues to mount.
Particularly egregious from the point of view of Davos was the recent refusal by US Congress to approve the reform and refunding of the IMF, even though a plan that added no significant burden to the American taxpayer had been agreed upon years earlier by the G20 under Obama’s leadership.
When I asked a prominent US Republican senator why Congress had balked at keeping an American commitment, he attributed it to “sheer orneriness,” reflecting the mood of right-wing Tea Party Republicans and some left-wing Democrats.
Further evidence of US isolationism can be found in a recent opinion poll taken by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations. According to the survey, 52 percent of US citizens believe that the US “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”
About the same number said that the US is “less important and powerful” than it was a decade ago.
The problem with these perceptions — both at home and abroad — is that the US remains the world’s most powerful country, and is likely to remain so for decades.
China’s size and rapid economic growth will almost certainly increase its relative strength vis-a-vis the US.
However, even when China becomes the world’s largest economy in the coming years, it will still be decades behind the US in terms of per capita income.
Moreover, even if China suffers no major domestic political setback, projections based on GDP growth alone are one-dimensional and ignore US military and soft-power advantages. They also ignore China’s geopolitical disadvantages within Asia.
The US’ culture of openness and innovation will ensure its role as a global hub in an age when networks supplement, if not fully replace, hierarchical power.
The US is well-positioned to benefit from such networks and alliances, if US leaders follow smart strategies. In structural terms, it matters greatly that the two entities in the world with economies and per capita income similar to the US — Europe and Japan — are both American allies.