The world is growing accustomed to the new America – a country that will always surprise you. The United States’ political system used to be proud of its ability to avoid extremes and to find “the golden mean.” But things have changed. Fierce inter-party conflicts flare up at the slightest provocation, and radical views dominate, especially among the Republicans.
The US government’s partial shutdown is unlikely to last long, because squabbles among politicians who fail in their duty to reach agreement damage both parties’ reputations and irritate the electorate. A deal will most likely be made by mid-October, when the government will have to raise the nation’s debt ceiling once again to service its obligations to creditors. This will be a huge shock and a major blow to the United States’ economic standing. After causing international concern, the US government and parliament will strike a deal at the 11th hour and sit back and relax – until the next crisis, because the solution will, once again, only be temporary.
The United States is running a high fever – the superpower is starting to rethink. The post-Cold War period, when anything seemed possible, is over. One of the most widely-discussed issues 10 years ago was the United States’ imperial overstretch – the belief that Washington had exceeded its ability to maintain or expand its global commitments. This issue has now moved from theory into practice, confronted with the dilemma of what to do about Syria, for the first time in decades, US public opinion is clearly against foreign intervention.
Commentators say it is understandable that nearly 75 percent of Americans are against another war in the Middle East. What is interesting though is that these same 75 percent firmly believe that Bashar Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Five to seven years ago they would have readily agreed “to punish the evildoers,” because America is “a city upon a hill” and “the light of the world.” Today Americans believe that the Syrian tragedy is horrifying, but they also feel that it is not their cause, and that they have enough problems at home.
Politicians, who are obliged to listen to the electorate, are changing their stance so as not to lose the public’s trust on other, more important, internal issues.
The domestic political agenda has become more important than foreign policy. Barack Obama’s international maneuvers can be explained above all by his unwillingness to lose points at home. His opponents – the Republicans – need to bury the proposed healthcare reform, which has pushed the country into the deadlock we see today, and they barely care what the world thinks about America.
During the previous debt deadlock two years ago, the world held its breath until Congress and the Presidential Administration agreed on a way to avoid a default at the last minute. It will likely go the same way this time, too.
This was an issue Vladimir Putin pinpointed, when he criticized “American exceptionalism” in his The New York Times op-ed. It is true that the United States holds a unique place in the world order, which is why the international community feels the impact of internal US squabbles. The fact that many countries are striving to achieve a multipolar world is not an indication of anti-Americanism, but a desire to reduce dependence on the US as the world’s sole power.
US policy is cyclical.
The country’s rise to power began a hundred years ago, and then it gradually became the leader of the Western Hemisphere, the West and ultimately the world.
But before it all began, the United States preferred to keep its distance from issues that did not directly affect its national interests. We may be witnessing the beginning of a new cycle.
Washington will most likely be unable to revert to a classical isolationist policy in today’s globalized economic environment, but it can refuse to spend time and money on issues it considers unnecessary and can deliberately narrow its political horizon, unlike in the past when it thought it had to have a finger in every pie.
The next US presidential elections, in three years’ time, may turn out to be the most interesting and important in years. Judging by public opinion, the candidates will most likely represent two fundamentally different views of the future. One will likely urge the revival of Reagan’s or Clinton’s assertive policies, and the other will propose leaving the world alone as much as possible in order to focus on domestic issues. At the moment the latter seems impossible to imagine, but recent history is a chronicle of the impossible becoming reality.
In this light, US-Russian relations appear rather unusual. It is clear both sides have cooled toward each other and have diverged on basic views of domestic policy and the world order. They no longer have an agenda, because the old issues have been exhausted and there are no new ones to discuss. On the other hand, Russia and the United States have both started thinking hard about the future, including their role in the world.
Despite obvious differences, the two are in a similar state. Russia has achieved the priority goals set for the past 20 post-Soviet years, as far as this was possible, and has regained the role of a center of influence whose opinion must be taken into account in neighboring countries and in global affairs.
What next? It is no longer enough to oppose the United States and its allies on most issues that come up. First, given the current dramatic situation, the world does not need a fight, but solutions. And second, as the United States becomes a weaker figure on the international scene, the need to fight it will be replaced by the need to fill the vacuum of influence left by its withdrawal and to determine which country can become the new arbiter in international affairs.
China clearly does not intend to take on this role. Russia would gladly avoid it too, but, due to the specifics of its economy and geopolitical position, it will be the first to feel the consequences of global chaos. Therefore, more than any other country, it is Russia that will need to stop playing provocateur, and to start playing a constructive, conciliatory role.
Syria is its first attempt to do this. Moscow is taking a huge risk. It would be much safer to take a “Mr. No” stand and to veto any proposals in the UN Security Council than to join in with the game that is grand diplomacy. But the issue cannot be resolved otherwise. The fact that its Syria initiative, which appeared utopian a few weeks ago, is steadily overcoming political obstacles points to a demand for genuine diplomacy.
Even the United States needs this, as, for the reasons mentioned above, it is reviewing its capacities and needs.
Moscow and Washington decided everything during the Cold War. Or rather, everything depended on them. The situation has changed, but a great deal still depends on these two superpowers – one former and the other current – because no other player seems able to advance an initiative that can move the pieces on the chessboard.