A Yankee Abroad on Independence Day

Steve Saideman considers the state of U.S. foreign policy.
By: /
July 4, 2012

I have been an ex-pat for 10 years now, experiencing a difficult American decade only from a distance. On this Independence Day, I am starting anew in Ottawa.  The United States?  Not so much.  The upcoming presidential election will obviously have a great impact, but I am afraid that the institutions are broken, making any short-term progress unlikely. If U.S. President Barack Obama is re-elected, he will still have to fight to get anything through Congress, creating even more temptations to accrue power to the executive. If presidential candidate Mitt Romney is elected, he will find Congress to be less than helpful.

Foreign policy is always the realm where presidents have the greatest discretion.  Not only does the Commander-in-Chief have significant formal powers, but it is just hard politically for Congress to get in the way.  The most significant constraint facing Obama or Romney will be American exhaustion.  The good news is that the two major wars of the 21st century will be ending, even if they produce uncertain outcomes. Still, the American military will need to rest and recuperate. Fighting two insurgencies has challenged the U.S. Army’s ability to fight a more conventional battle. Nevertheless, American conventional supremacy means that the next war is probably going to be more like the last two (not including Libya, since it does not count as a war in the minds of many).


Perhaps even more exhausted are the American people. Never all that fond of sacrificing American lives for humanitarian missions in ordinary times, the effect of 9/11 that raised tolerance of casualties is ebbing. The Libya mission was very similar to a traditional war for the U.S. in that it was capital-intensive and casualty-averse, much like the efforts before September 2001 in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

Of course, economic exhaustion may eclipse that of the military and the public. With a great unwillingness by one party to pay the bills, cuts have to be made. New military expeditions are the opposite of cuts. Sure, the U.S. could afford to fight another war if taxes were raised, but that is not going to happen.

This military, public, and economic exhaustion, combined with institutional paralysis, is likely to lead to yet more drone warfare and reliance on Special Operators. Both minimize risks to personnel, to political standing, and to the budget. Both, however, raise very significant questions about due process, transparency, and accountability. Neither one is a perfect tool for all occasions – but, as the truism goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail. 

On the bright side, with significant constraints, American leaders may be compelled to be more creative, and to rely on the significant non-military strengths that the U.S. still has. Despite controversies about the American educational system, countries around the world still send their kids to schools in the United States. American pop culture still plays extraordinarily well around the world, even when a movie’s lead is a guy wearing the Stars and Stripes. The American economy is deceptively vibrant, as private job creation is doing quite well – employment would be OK if not for cuts in government jobs. The U.S. still has one of the most influential markets in the world due to Americans’ willingness to buy imports. So even though, in 2008, Obama was probably dealt the worst hand of any incoming president, he and his successors still have some cards to play. 

I still believe that the U.S. has the greatest potential of any country, with its dynamic, diverse, inventive, creative, and hard-working population. It has bounced back from the Great Depression, from Vietnam, and from Watergate. Now, it needs to put 9/11 in the rear-view mirror and focus less on fear and more on what can be accomplished. Indeed, the country was founded, 236 years ago, on a dream – the American dream – to pursue happiness. Pursuing that dream and ever attempting to perfect the union has never been easy, and has sometimes gone astray, but, on the whole, it has done a great deal of good at home and abroad. While there have been many times over the past 10 years that I have been embarrassed by my country (Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc.), on this day, I think it is OK to be a bit patriotic and expect that the United States has better days ahead. A little wishful thinking? Ah, but that is part of the American dream.

Photo courtesy of Reuters