Get ready - America is pulling back

America’s recovery will be the unofficial Davos theme, but it won’t slow the nation’s pivot towards isolationism.

The official theme for this year’s World Economic Forum is predictably bland - “Reshaping the World”. But the unofficial slogan will be “America is back”. Predictions that the US economy will grow by 3 per cent this year - added to worries about emerging markets - mean that Davos is likely to be bullish on America for the first time in years.

But a revival of the US economy should not be confused with a resurgence of America’s role as the “sole superpower”. On the contrary, the most important emerging theme in world politics is America’s slow retreat from its role as global policeman.

Some of America’s closest partners now talk openly of a diminished US global presence. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, recently gave a speech in which he said: “The United States gives the impression of no longer wanting to get drawn into crises.” As a result, he said, America’s allies are “increasingly factoring in their calculations … the possibility that they will be left to their own devices in managing crises”. Even Israel is adjusting. Its foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, recently remarked: “Ties between Israel and the US are weakening … The Americans today are dealing with too many challenges.” The Israeli analysis is shared by America’s other key ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, which is furious at what it regards as US disengagement.

The deep reluctance of Barack Obama’s administration to get involved militarily in the Syrian conflict has fuelled accusations that America is pulling back from the Middle East. But European policy makers are also worried. They are concerned that America’s famous “pivot” to Asia will mean less attention to Nato and its European partners.

Meanwhile, America’s Asian allies seem no more satisfied. Japan thinks that the US was not firm enough in responding to China’s declaration of an “air defence identification zone” in the East China Sea, while the Philippines feels it was left in the lurch when China established effective control of the disputed Scarborough shoal.

Obama administration officials complain that all this talk of disengagement is wildly overdone. They point out that America is taking the lead in the Syrian peace negotiations, as well as in the Iran nuclear talks and the Israeli-Palestinian saga. The US also remains the main guarantor of the security arrangements of Europe, Asia-Pacific and the Middle East.

And yet, America under President Obama is clearly more reluctant actually to use its military muscle. When Congress debated missile strikes on Syria, Washington quickly became aware that opinion back home was strongly against. The spread of a new semi-isolationist mood was confirmed last week in a poll for the Pew Research Center. Some 52 per cent of Americans agreed that “the US should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best way they can, on their own”; only 38 per cent disagreed. As Bruce Stokes of Pew points out, this is “the most lopsided balance in favour of the US minding its own business” in the nearly 50 years that pollsters have asked this question.

Stokes calls this “an unprecedented lack of support for American engagement with the rest of the world”. What is more, this scepticism about foreign entanglements now reaches into the US policy making elite. When Pew polled members of the Council on Foreign Relations, an elite think-tank, they found their views roughly in line with those of the general public.

It is not hard to identify the reasons for America’s inward turn. The economic crisis persuaded Obama to concentrate on “nation-building at home”. Meanwhile, the trauma of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has led to an understandable disinclination to put America’s hand back into the Middle Eastern mangle. And there are also more positive reasons for America’s neo-isolationism. The shale-gas revolution has raised the prospect of American “energy independence”. By 2015 the US will once again be the world’s largest oil producer. Gyrations in the world energy market could still profoundly affect the US economy. But energy security is no longer such a compelling argument for global engagement.

It is possible that America’s isolationist mood will simply be a phase. The US went through similar, inward-looking periods after the First World War and after Vietnam. In both cases, international events compelled America to plunge back into global affairs. An economic resurgence in the US may create a more outward-looking mood. But it is also possible that, this time, the shift towards non-intervention is structural rather than cyclical - reflecting a US that is quietly adjusting to the rise of other major powers, in particular China.

For the moment, however, it is the rest of the world that is adjusting to an emerging political and security vacuum. The Clintonite slogan that America is the “indispensable nation” may have been vainglorious, but it also turns out to have been true. As Fabius, the French foreign minister, acknowledges: “Nobody can take over from the Americans from a military point of view.” And, if the Americans cannot or will not act, he says, there is a “risk of letting major crises fester on their own”.

The truth of that proposition is currently on display from Syria to the Senkaku Islands to the Central African Republic. Who knows - it is a thought that might even disturb a few dinners at Davos.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014.

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