A smaller role for America on the world stage is an appealing prospect for some. But it will surely be a disappointment, columnist Paul Brill writes, “because who will fill in the gaps?”
With the first State of the Union address of his second presidential term, President Obama has served his left wing liberal followers well. Imagine if the president succeeds in realizing all his plans, Ezra Klein, columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, told his readers a day after the speech.
That would be something. America would go through a transformation in the next four years. There would be no more assault weapons to buy. For millions of immigrants without a residence permit, there will be an opportunity for legality. There would be severe measures to reduce the emission of harmful substances. Wealthy citizens would have to pay more federal taxes. Dilapidated roads and bridges would be recovered. The minimum wage would rise by $1.25. All four-year-olds would have access to a preschool program.
All of this, naturally, will not happen. Not only the Republicans, but also some Democrats will stop this. Above all, there is no money for expensive projects. It would be a real achievement if Obama were able to change the course of the ship of state by a few degrees.
Nevertheless, with this speech he has given a significant signal. This is clearly the winner of the election, who seems determined to put his reform plans at the top of the political agenda and not to let his initiative slip out of his hands to the benefit of the Republicans, as happened in 2009 to a certain extent and to a greater degree in the 2010 Congressional elections, which did not go well for the White House.
Usually a president (or candidate) uses his acceptance speech at the party convention to show off with his ideological ideas, after which the inauguration and the SOTU give him the opportunity to preach reconciliation and show national leadership. In a certain way, Obama did this conversely. His inauguration speech and his performance for Congress showed a greater will for reformation than the rather superficial speech he gave this past summer for the Democratic convention.
The modest place that was made for foreign politics in both recent speeches is noticeable; it is a subject that usually receives extra presidential attention in a second presidency. It seems unlikely that this is a coincidence. Even more so, I think that the contours of what could be called the Obama doctrine have been shaped — the doctrine of the withdrawing superpower. This is a doctrine born from the necessity to take on the nation’s problems, but also reflects a world image in which the “indispensable nation,” as Madeleine Albright has qualified America, is not so indispensable anymore and American leadership will be a matter of deliberation.
Naturally the White House will not speak of “withdrawal.” That goes against the American instinct of dynamism. And the withdrawing movement is not equally spread over the line. Especially in East Asia, where the world economy will find its new focal point, the United States will still take on an active role. But elsewhere, the motto often is: lead from behind (although this term doesn’t sound so great either).
That counts especially for the Middle East and the surrounding areas. It is clear that Obama sees the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan as one of his most important achievements. He does not want to darken it by taking new burdens onto his shoulders. This explains the role of the (crucial) sidekick in the Libyan operation, the president’s aversion to military support of the Syrian opposition and the relief that France is withdrawing from Mali. And although a visit to Israel is planned, I wonder if Obama will risk his own prestige again to bring Israel and the Palestinians to peace. With a real North Korean atom bomb and a potential Iranian nuclear weapon, he has no lack of precarious problems.
A smaller American role on the world stage is an appealing prospect for some. But it will surely be disappointing — who will fill the gap? Europe is too weak and preoccupied with its own problems. China and Russia are lacking any sense of global responsibility, not to mention their view of democracy and human rights. So it still looks better to have the good old ugly American.