US Foreign Policy: The Law of the Pendulum

2017 / 03 / 07

Author: Amb. Archil Gegeshidze, Executive Director of the Levan Mikeladze Foundation

The US foreign policy watchers note that since the end of the Cold War a second large-scale foreign policy debate has been underway in the US. The first cycle of debates started during the term of Bush Sr. and was completed by the end of Obama's first term. At the time, the main subject of debate was the scale and extent of US global ambitions. More precisely, the dispute was about the extent to which America should intervene in the "pacification and ennobling" of other countries. The debate took place within the foreign policy elite: some calling for global stability and conflict reduction, others supporting the policy of spreading democracy and rescuing nations from tyranny and civil confrontation. 

Today, the debate is about whether or not America should get involved at all to ensure the stability and protection of human rights outside its borders. In contrast to the previous case, today's debate is between elites and non-elites, where the "internationalists" are in opposition to "isolationists".

Over 25 years of absolute hegemony, there were two competing views in the United States: the followers of the first, both the left and right-wing political groups, urged the government to take measures as a result not of urgent necessity, but of the availability of choice of action. The US could and therefore should have acted not so much to protect their own national security (with the collapse of the Soviet Union there was no longer a need for this), but for the sake of the “welfare of others". The second view, inherent at the center of the political spectrum, supported less ambitious goals: it was thought that the US had to worry more about influencing the foreign policy of foreign countries than getting involved in their internal affairs.

This cycle began before the fall of the Berlin Wall when, in response to Tiananmen Square in 1989, many actors across the political spectrum called for the introduction of sanctions against Beijing. President Bush Sr. himself did not share this approach and believed that, amid growing regional and global challenges, cooperation with the Chinese was necessary. Equally acute were debates about the Gulf War. President Bush Sr. was content to reduce the threat posed by Iraq to the region just by expelling the occupying forces from Kuwait. Others demanded that the coalition forces pursue the invaders as far as Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein's regime.

In both cases, the "prudent" policy of Bush Sr. prevailed, but the debate was not exhausted. The Clinton administration believed that the mere achievement of stability was insufficient and that principles of good governance also needed to guide foreign policy. Soon, it became clear that the task was no easy one. The response of the Clinton Administration to the conflicts in Yugoslavia, Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda were limited and inconsistent.

Next came 9/11. President Bush Jr. did not want to take revenge only on the Taliban government and soon set his sights on Saddam's regime. In his opinion, toppling the regime would pave the way for not only eliminating the stocks of WMD, but also for spreading democracy in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. The effort proved futile. The Arab Spring was no success either. The only success was the operation to destroy Bin Laden. Yet, despite the significance of the fact, it could not affect the overall trend: the project of "upgrading" the Middle East had failed. So ended the first cycle of debates on foreign policy.

The "intervention fatigue" has embraced both the government and the public. Modification and “upgrading” of the outside world was considered a luxury. Americans grew tired of sluggishness, especially against the background of the financial crisis of 2008, as the economy was still in a stage of "a long awakening", many jobs were lost and inequality continued to deepen. This series of grievances about the foreign policy and the state of the economy prompted the inflammation of isolationist sentiment.

Already “cautious,” the Obama administration became even more restrained: neither Bashar al-Assad’s reckless use of chemical weapons against his own people, nor Russia’s robbery of Ukraine startled Obama enough to give a bold response to the violent regimes. Only conservative groups, particularly in Congress, opposed his ‘passive’ foreign policy. This ‘passivity’ also resonated globally – enemies rejoiced, allies got worried.

Presidential candidates Trump and Sanders noticed the mood of discontent among the general public and put it to good use in their campaigns. The focus of discussions moved inside the Republican and Democratic parties. By inertia, party elites supported the preservation and/or enhancement of US global leadership, while the lower echelons held inward-looking views. As the elections were approaching, the debate became increasingly stringent, especially within the Republican Party.

With Trump winning the presidency, his views have gained weight. "America First" is essentially a nationalist paradigm and will make America internationally even more passive. Aside from war on terror, President Trump seems to be willing to downgrade “altruistic commitments” in other areas, including supporting "obsolete alliances". Certain statements and executive orders already directly indicate his sympathy to US isolationism. In the situation of polarization of political tastes in the public and elite, the Trumpean “isolationism” counters traditional “internationalism”. It is believed that, over time, the debate will become more acute and, according to the Law of the Pendulum, will lead to the prevalence of “internationalists”. As their argument goes, unlike the market economy, geopolitics has no "invisible hand" that can bring peace and order. The global stability of the past 75 years is the merit of America’s "visible hand". Today, too, as forces working against peace and order grow in number and strength, the need for an effective and reliable US is stronger than ever.

As observers hold, because of Trump’s inexperience and peculiarities of character, his views are shaped more by intuition and instinct than by well thought-out doctrine. Therefore, it is hoped that the checks and balances in the US political system, and in international relations, will do their job and the US will return to its role and place in the modern world to meet the needs of the time.


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