John M. Owen
At a Berlin conference of diplomats, academics, journalists, and activists last March, a British colleague asked me how the same country that elected Barack Obama twice could be so close to replacing him with a man who is his diametrical opposite. In other words, setting aside the relative merits of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, how can America be so changeable and unpredictable?
Europeans, plagued by many worries these days, have genuine anxieties about their American ally — in part because the North Atlantic Alliance and the security it guarantees depend on Washington’s reliability and predictability. America’s other allies and partners around the world share their misgivings. Indeed, America’s adversaries and non-aligned countries must likewise take into account high uncertainty about the future direction of US foreign policy. It turns out that although its actions certainly have not pleased everyone, the United States for decades had the virtue of predictability. A large body of political science literature argues that democracies are more reliable international partners because of their domestic constraints and transparency. John Ikenberry, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, argues that American reliability is especially important to global order because of the country’s outsized power.
Since the Cold War ended, America to some extent has defied the political scientists by careening from Bill Clinton’s internationalism to George W. Bush’s unilateralism to Barack Obama’s cautious realism. Still, this zig-zagging has been mild compared to what could happen in January 2017. The contest between Hillary Clinton’s hawkish liberal internationalism and Trump’s Jacksonian nationalism has brought with it unprecedented uncertainty about US grand strategy. Even as it appears Clinton is pulling away from Trump, the altered terrain of public opinion revealed during the 2016 campaign may be even more unsettling. A new Gallup survey of 1,900 Americans, designed by James Davison Hunter and Carl Desportes Bowman of the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, discloses a country more polarised than in the 1990s — not only over candidates or issues such as immigration, but over its very place in the world.
The level of diplomatic, military, and economic leadership the United States exercises is a product of how confident its people are in its strength, and Americans are more divided today on that measure. Compared with 1996, larger percentages now believe their country is either declining strongly or improving strongly. The share saying the country is holding steady has decreased over the last two decades from 40% to 32.7%. In other words, the centre has shrunk by nearly one-fifth.
Americans also are polarised when it comes to how the US approaches the world. More than half — 54% — agreed that “The United States has been too weak in dealing with other nations,” while 46% disagreed. More than six in 10, meanwhile, say that “America should pursue its own agenda even when its allies don’t agree.” Whoever wins the White House will find that the American centre is not holding on fundamental, long-term questions about the US place in the world. More Americans today see the country on the rise, yet more also see it declining. Nearly equal numbers agree and disagree that it needs to treat other countries with more strength and firmness.
The deeper problem for the world is that American incoherence may be the new normal. Americans may be tempted to shrug and tell them to deal with it. That is, in fact, the problem: US allies and adversaries alike will indeed deal with long-term uncertainty by investing in different relationships and policies, with results we may not like. Then next president should begin immediately, during the transition, to rebuild a sustainable public consensus concerning America’s place in the world, a world that is watching and thinking hard about its options. The writer is professor of politics and faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.
— Courtesy: USA Today