America's place in the world

President Obama would be well advised to take a leaf out of Ronald Reagan’s playbook at this stage in the election and offer a vision of the future and a positive rationale for a second term

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Where does Obama see America's role on the world stage?
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Dr. James Boys
On 13 June 2012 11:04

Throughout the Twentieth Century, the United States saw an inexorable rise in its global status, as it attained the position of “the world’s indispensable nation.” As the British Empire crumbled, so America was in the ascendancy. Its politics, culture and media grew, apparently at an exponential rate, to dominate the globe.

Now, as America enters a summer of political conventions and a choice of directions, those who speak of an American decline routinely call her stature into question. After almost a term in office, where has President Obama positioned the United States with respect to the rest of the world?

For many years, America’s place in the world fluctuated between a concentration on the acquisition of power and attempts to reject the responsibility of power. Such sentiment goes a long way in explaining the American dilemma of how best to engage with the rest of the world. Happily, whilst an isolationist stance is often present in America, a penchant for internationalism has always been apparent and is most evident in efforts to transplant American values around the globe. America has long seen herself as having a special mission in the world, viewing herself as innocent and virtuous in the midst of a tainted world.

Indeed American isolationism does not involve American secession from the rest of the world, but rather a rejection of commitments to other states, to avoid what Jefferson referred to as “entangling alliances.” Whilst the debate between interventionists and isolationists has never been fully resolved, a cycle of behaviour appears to have emerged, with each policy taking a political generation to run its course. This is a prime example of what Arthur Schlesinger refers to as “the cycles of American history.”

Through Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Nicaragua and numerous other Cold War flash points, the United States viewed its position in the world through its self-proclaimed mission to “defend freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” Not only was America faced with military engagement, but also the risks of an unstable global economic environment. As the world grew smaller, so America became dependent upon foreign trade and currency exchanges, something that is all too apparent today.

During the 1990s America’s place in the world went through a revolution of its own as the collapse of the USSR left America as the world’s sole super-power. However, just as the world had to readjust to the decline in power of the former Soviet republics, so it also had to consider the new role of the US as a world hyper power. It achieved this status at a precipitous moment, just as a new president was intent on forging a domestic revival rather than international expansionism. For Bill Clinton, it would be the “economy, stupid,” not the fate of the world, that would dominate.

Like President Bush before him, Bill Clinton readily accepted America’s position as the remaining super- power and sought to use his nation’s status in attempts to expand NATO. American envoys brokered deals in Haiti and Bosnia, whilst Operation Vigilant Warrior kept Kuwait free. American duality was expressed by the President himself, declaring “America cannot turn her back on the world” whilst simultaneously stating, “America cannot be the world’s policeman.” Clinton had little doubt however, that the Twenty-First Century would become the second American Century.

With the election of George W. Bush in 2000, there was reason to believe that America’s role in the world would remain essentially as it was before, with little new initiatives in foreign policy or any revolution in economic policy. As Bush was sworn in, America and the world were in a position all but unimaginable just a decade before. Rather than living on the brink of nuclear war, in a bipolar international system, Bush took power in the midst of a unipolar world, apparently free from the deadly rivalry of the Cold War. It was a period that did not long endure. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 produced a seismic shift in the role America would play in the world at the dawn of the Third Millennium.

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