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The Myth of Isolationist America

CAMBRIDGE – Is the United States turning inward and becoming isolationist? That question was posed to me by a number of financial and political leaders at the recent World Economic Forum at Davos, and was heard again a few days later at the annual Munich Security Conference. In a strong speech at Davos, Secretary of State John Kerry gave an unambiguous answer: “Far from disengaging, America is proud to be more engaged than ever.” Yet the question lingered.

Unlike the mood at Davos a few years ago, when many participants mistook an economic recession for long-term American decline, the prevailing view this year was that the US economy has regained much of its underlying strength. Economic doomsayers focused instead on previously fashionable emerging markets like Brazil, Russia, India, and Turkey.

The anxiety about US isolationism is driven by recent events. For starters, there is America’s refusal (thus far) to intervene militarily in Syria. Then there is the coming withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. And President Barack Obama’s cancellation of his trip to Asia last autumn, owing to domestic political gridlock in the US Congress and the resulting government shutdown, made a poor impression on the region’s leaders.

Indeed, with Kerry’s time and travel focused on the Middle East, many Asian leaders believe that Obama’s signature foreign policy – strategic “rebalancing” toward Asia – has run out of steam, even as tension between China and Japan, evident in their leaders’ statements at Davos, continues to mount.