For Candidates, Can Foreign Policy Reflect America’s Waning Power?

Ian Bremmer asks: Could Obama or Romney make the most of our new, reduced role in international affairs?

Jewel Samad / Getty Images ; Rainier Ehrhardt / Getty Images

Over the next few months, the Obama and Romney campaigns will occasionally set aside discussion of the country’s most pressing domestic issues—the ethical treatment of dogs, the virtues of motherhood, and the tantrums of Ted Nugent—to take on the foreign-policy issues of the day. Unfortunately, their messages will be crafted to win votes, not to offer a coherent vision of America’s evolving role in the world. We can hope that whoever wins the November election recognizes that changes at home and abroad will define America’s next generation of challenges and opportunities, but the signs are not always encouraging.

Earlier this year, Governor Romney warned that Russia is “without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe.” It’s as if he hasn’t noticed that Russia lacks the Soviet Union’s global military reach, its network of allies, and its ideological appeal for dozens of developing states. Russia is not the No. 1 geopolitical anything.

But the Obama team’s response was almost as strange. White House press secretary Jay Carney countered that “clearly the preeminent threat to the United States” is al Qaeda, a claim that seems calculated mainly to remind us of President Obama’s most widely celebrated first-term achievement—the killing of Osama bin Laden—rather than to lay out a plan for the next four years. The al Qaeda brand of militant nihilism has lost much of its power. Many of its leaders have been killed or captured, and the movement was all but irrelevant during the Arab Spring uprisings. The White House focus on al Qaeda appears to leave the Obama team a half decade out of date, while the Romney campaign seems stuck in 1978.

In reality, any administration’s greatest foreign-policy challenge can’t be summed up with the name of a single country or terrorist cell. Instead, Job One will be to develop a doctrine that allows U.S. policymakers to adapt to the demands of a changing America and a changing world.

First, President Obama/Romney must manage the expectations of a U.S. public that’s increasingly reluctant to accept new burdens overseas. Last year the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of U.S. public attitudes toward “long-range foreign-policy priorities,” which found that the only goals winning majority support were protection of American jobs, safeguarding the homeland against terrorist attacks, and a reduction of dependence on foreign oil. Some 46 percent favored “reducing the U.S. military commitment overseas,” up from 26 percent in September 2001. Just 13 percent favored “promoting democracy abroad,” and nearly half said America “should mind its own business internationally.”

The results shouldn’t surprise us. U.S. troops are returning home from two of the longest-lasting wars in American history. War fatigue, domestic priorities, and a ballooning federal deficit will depress public demand for an activist superpower foreign policy for the next several years. Romney adviser Richard Williamson warned this week that Washington “should not be playing ‘Mother, may I?’ about sanctions on Iran and relations with China and Russia.” But Beijing and Moscow won’t take orders from Washington no matter who is president, and a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities might well send oil prices surging, destroying the still-delicate economic recoveries in Europe and the U.S., without really solving the Iran problem.

Second, because threats of military action are now less credible, it will be harder for President Obama/Romney to build support for sanctions and other forms of “coercive diplomacy.” Other countries are more likely to sacrifice business opportunities with Iran and other rogue states to support sanctions if the alternative appears to be military action that might make matters worse. Without that threat, any president will have a lot less negotiating leverage. The U.S. must also expect less from its traditional foreign-policy partners as America’s European allies focus their time, attention, and cash on the bid to restore confidence in the eurozone.

Most importantly, though America will remain the world’s most powerful and influential country for the foreseeable future, a variety of other states now have the means to obstruct the U.S. agenda. Gone are the days when the decisions that mattered most for international politics and the global economy were made by the Americans, West Europeans, and Japanese, the G7 group of industrialized free-market democracies. Today, no alliance that excludes China, India, the Gulf Arabs, Brazil, and other emerging powers can hope to offer credible solutions to serious transnational problems.

Not that the G20 will accomplish much either. There are too many competing sets of values and interests around that table for cooperation on anything that demands real sacrifice. This is not a G7 or G20 but a G-zero world, and President Obama/Romney must learn to make the most of it.

So how can America’s next president advance U.S. interests in such a world? By developing a policy approach that sets aside national vanity, adapts to changing circumstances, innovates where possible, and partners where necessary. They might not admit it to voters, but both President Obama and Governor Romney have shown occasional signs that they get this.

Take Governor Romney’s proposal for stopping the slaughter in Syria. He has suggested that Washington can work with Turkey and Saudi Arabia to arm the rebels to extend the fight and use a combination of inducements and pressure to persuade the country’s military and business elite to give up on President Bashar al-Assad. That formula is not so different from President Obama’s strategy for Libya, a plan that ended a brutal dictatorship and averted a larger bloodbath without a single American casualty. Until U.S. lawmakers cut the deals that restore the nation to long-term fiscal health, intelligently crafted limited engagements must become the rule rather than the exception.

Campaign seasons always encourage tough talk. But we must hope that President Obama/Romney recognize the need to find creative ways to do more with less. This will require that America sometimes provide others with the support they need to take the lead.