Can The U.S. Be Trusted As An Ally?

Confusion over what America's reduced commitment means for the rest of the world will undermine the confidence of allies in US staying power.
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Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group and author, most recently, of "Every Nation For Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-20 World."

Washington's current climate of gridlock and shutdown isn't doing the U.S. economic recovery any favors, but the rebound continues. A U.S.-led revolution in energy production and other game-changing technologies remind us that Americans don't need their government to power U.S. prosperity. It is America's foreign policy, not its economic model, that's in decline.

There are several reasons. First, in a democracy, an ambitious foreign policy can't be sustained without public support. The Obama administration (rightly) believes that support is not there for a foreign policy that takes on unnecessary costs and risks.

A survey released in December by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations detailed what the report's authors called "the most lopsided balance in favor of the U.S. 'minding its own business' in the nearly 50-year history of the measure." Add a December CNN/ORC International poll that found that 82% of Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan, making it the most unpopular conflict in U.S. history.

U.S. foreign policy is also undermined by Washington's partisan politics. Trade is a crucial element of relations with other nations, and the US is now leading negotiations among a dozen countries toward a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement that would open markets on both sides of the Pacific as part of one of the largest trade deals in history. To conclude the agreement, President Obama needs "trade promotion authority," a power that reassures US partners by empowering the president to submit a final deal to Congress for a simple up or down vote, rather than a process in which individual lawmakers can demand a potentially infinite number of revisions that alienate other governments and kill the deal. With midterm elections on the horizon, however, even Republicans who support TPP will balk at granting Obama any new form of "authority."

U.S. influence abroad is also diminished by changes in the global balance of power. Emerging players like China, Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey, the Gulf Arab states and others do not have the power to change the international status quo on their own, but they have more than enough economic and diplomatic leverage to thwart US plans.

The U.S. government has also undermined its own ability to build partnerships. The war in Iraq, the ongoing US presence in Afghanistan, the prison at Guantanamo, and drone strikes inside other countries have inflicted lasting damage on America's reputation with the citizens of other countries. Foreign political officials might privately shrug off unfolding evidence of the eavesdropping capacities of the U.S. National Security Agency, but they will find it harder to explain to their constituents why they continue to cooperate with a government that spies on its friends.

As a result, the Obama administration will continue to avoid foreign policy risks that distract from its domestic policy agenda. We saw this trend in 2013 when the president chose not to follow through on threats to order military action against Syria's Bashar al-Assad after accusing him of using chemical weapons. We saw it again in the extreme caution with which the administration treated a territorial dispute between Japan and China in the East China Sea.

U.S. reticence will lead friends and foes alike to wonder how many of its traditional commitments Washington is prepared to honor. America's closest allies have less to worry about. Many in Israel's government were angered by the US reluctance to intervene directly in Syria and mistrust the U.S.-led effort to reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. But the minimal sanctions relief offered to Iran in exchange for major concessions toward a hoped-for final agreement does not undermine the Obama administration's consistently restated commitment to Israel's security.

Japan need not fear that the US will abandon its defense in favor of closer ties with China--or a retreat from the region. The US "pivot to Asia," the administration's plan to shift more U.S. political, economic, and military resources toward East Asia, has lost steam over the past year. Yet, both TPP negotiations and the rebalancing of U.S. military assets toward Asia continue.

Nor should Britain fear that the US pivot toward Asia will permanently undermine the "special relationship." A Britain that remains in Europe is a much more valuable ally for Washington, but the ties that bind America and Britain extend well beyond a particular president or prime minister.

Yet, America's "second-tier" allies, countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Germany, and Brazil, have more cause for concern. The Saudis are right to wonder what better US relations with Iran might mean for their interests in the Middle East--and how Washington would respond if a democratically inspired domestic uprising threatened the Saud family's political control. Washington's desire for better relations with Turkey has not prevented sharp US criticism of embattled Prime Minister Recep Erdogan's response to protests in his country. Germany's Chancellor Merkel and Brazil's President Rousseff have both had their personal communications targeted by US spies.

The region most concerned by uncertainty over US intentions is East and Southeast Asia, where China's nervous neighbors hope to hedge against too heavy an economic dependence on fast-expanding China with deepening security and trade relations with the United States. For the governments of countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand, America's willingness to maintain the neighborhood's stable balance of power is crucial, because there are no regional multinational institutions that can resolve territorial and other disputes involving China.

A less ambitious foreign policy will force US policymakers to rely more heavily on partnerships with willing, capable, like-minded allies. But for now, confusion over what its reduced commitment means for the rest of the world will undermine the confidence of those allies in US staying power, extending the unfortunate decline of America's foreign policy.

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