US foreign policy is receding from view, with the possible exception of a new activism in Asia, and declining in influence around the world. In part resource-constrained, in part responding to an isolationist impulse at home, the US is exercising leadership less often and less effectively. The notion of “leading from behind” has become the norm. Outcomes in US foreign policy are now reactive and responsive, not deliberate and strategically managed.
Here in the Middle East, it’s a kind-of getting what was wished for. For decades, nationalist and anti-imperialist leaders have bemoaned American interfering in their internal affairs. With the aftermath of the Arab revolutions, in particular the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, there is less appetite in the US for Middle East meddling (and fewer levers the US has to meddle with). However, the downside of that disengagement is significant. It has meant less US ownership and less prominent US leadership in tackling the region’s egregious problems. From the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the economic malaise that triggered the Arab Spring, the US is practically absent from finding innovative solutions.
In other parts of the world, leaders are calling out the US for its lack of leadership and directly asking Washington to step up its game. In March, Felipe Calderón, the President of Mexico at the time, told the World Economic Forum’s assembled group of Young Global Leaders that the US has been functionally absent as a leader in politics and policy-making in Latin America, and that the region was worse off for it. He cited the implications for the drug war, which has grown increasingly deadly, along with other woes that need American leadership.
US foreign policy has never been perfect. But the retrenchment of American power and lack of strong American policy is a dangerous mix. Now that we are in what Ian Bremmer, President of Eurasia Group, calls a ‘G-Zero” world, a world without power poles, there are consequences to be reckoned with. The world needs the best of US diplomacy back in action, in full force.
The opportunity for digital diplomacy is one opening, enabled by the powerful force of technology deployed for policy aims. But the successful future of US foreign policy may depend on getting creative about a traditional and humble question: how does the US do more with less? Defining and achieving its aims is more of a challenge today, in an increasingly complex world. That challenge ahead will be to find ways to exercise leadership in lean and nimble ways that don’t stretch thin resources but can expand to meet the scale of global problems at hand.
Author: Lara Setrakian is a Correspondent for ABC News in the Middle East and a member of the Global Agenda Council on the United States
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