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Friday, Oct. 5, 2012

America on the road to 'emotional isolationism'


LOS ANGELES — Foreign policy has suddenly surfaced, like a leviathan sea monster, crawling onto the beach of the U.S. presidential campaign. If I were an incumbent American president seeking re-election, I might be worried.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire, American foreign policy has lacked the grace of evident coherence.

On one level that is acceptable. Our geopolitical world is complicated — it's a huge work in massive process of definition that appears defiant of crass simplification.

Even the late great George Kennan, in his waning years at Princeton, concluded that concocting something as simple as a new "containment theory" to help American policymakers sort out all the murderous complexity of global politics just wasn't realistic. So the foreign policy of the world's sole superpower has had to bump along from crisis to crisis, from here to there. But that's how the world is: No sense trying to piece together an elegant tapestry out of a series of ragged torn experiences.

On another level that messiness is not a good thing. People can get confused.

Yes, noisy democracies produce everything from the finest public intellectuals to stupid viral videos on sensitive religious subjects. A measure of confusion is endemic.

But, at times, democratic public opinion cries out for thematic simplicity. That is especially the case when the country would appear to be under attack, and when such an attack or attacks occur in the heat of a presidential election campaign.

So who wins and who loses as the foreign policy leviathan climbs ashore with the election, looking for someone to eat?

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney? A more focused — or, perhaps, a less decent — candidate would almost certainly ride the foreign policy mess for all it was worth, and hope to ride it right into the Oval Office.

Were Mitt more like a Richard Nixon, he might declare that America had become a "pitiless, helpless giant" and being run on a platform of some stupid platitude like "Let's put the muscle back in America'.

To his credit, Romney, whatever his faults, is no Dick Nixon. And, of course, muscle-heads are the who and the what and the why that got America into the messes of Afghanistan and Iraq.

So while "pitiless, helpless" wouldn't be a healthy argument, it might well prove a politically potent one: For at the moment, America may be but a few notches short of becoming scared, or at least confused; and a scared/confused America should be a very unnerving thought for everybody.

We Americans usually think such good of ourselves. Does the rest of the world understand that there is no general national memory that helps us to recount the ways in which we have wronged the world over time? A country with the power to do massive good also has the power to do the massive opposite.

Even a country that gets it right more than half the time is going to cause trouble somewhere, sometime. We don't see things this way, of course. The late Chalmers Johnson, with his keen "blowback" theories of why "they" — all around the world — so hate us, rarely was honored much above the level of academic crank to have enough impact. There was always enough good from America that allowed us to balance the account in our favor and keep the dark side out of our immediate view. This reduced introspection.

Our current president possesses the necessary introspection (and the helpful background) to see much of this clearly. But it is hardly a view of the world that you'd want to sell while trying to hang onto your job as "Leader of the Free World." It's far too honest to qualify as campaign material.

The lack of historical memory and psychic introspection will work against us in the near term. We may be history's nicest hegemons, but there is a price to pay for hegemony. For unless one is utterly perfect, one will make mistakes.

The problem is that mistakes really count for a lot when giant America is the one that makes them.

A kind of emotionalism isolationism will help America ride out the current waves of attacks on its sense of honor and self-worth. The American military, in its far-flung organization and ambition, will keep that emotional isolationism from making us globally dysfunctional.

So it will be Barack Obama, if re-elected by the default of Republican campaign incompetence, who will have to keep America's emotional level low to the ground.

A broken U.S. economy is only part of our problem. The other part is that, one way or the other, we won't have the right president in the White House for what we need most: someone who could help us come to a new global foreign policy.

In the meantime, we will have to settle for an emotional isolationism. The old international zest is gone. Fix the economy, re-balance the deficit; and keep your head down. Who needs inspirational vision? Perhaps sometimes a country can have too much of it for its own good.

Loyola Marymount University professor Tom Plate is the author of the best-selling "Giants of Asia" book series. The latest volume is "Conversations with Ban Ki-moon: The View from the Top," published by Marshall Cavendish Asia this month. © 2012 Pacific Perspectives


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