There exists a bedeviling paradox for foreign-policy realists: When America determines to mind its own business it invites the kind of atrocities Americans find hard to ignore. And so Barack Obama’s flight from global stewardship comes to ground with an apparent nerve-gas massacre of innocents outside Damascus. The Bush-weary intelligentsia that twice voted for the man who promised disengagement from troubled regions is now disturbed. “[T]he United States and other major powers will almost certainly have to respond much more aggressively than they have so far,” reads a New York Times editorial from Thursday. And American reproach goes beyond events in Syria. The Kremlin’s anti-gay crackdown has inspired activist Americans to focus their energies on bringing change to a foreign land. The “who are we to say?” outrage at Bush-style interventionism is giving way to “how can we just stand here?” frustration over Obama-style aloofness.
If it’s taken five years of George W. Bush’s being out of the spotlight for Americans to recover a sense of global do-goodism, that’s unjust to the 43rd president, but the return of clarity is welcome all the same. “There is no question that the image the United States holds of itself must affect its role in foreign affairs,” wrote Nathan Glazer in a July 1976 COMMENTARY essay. “If it sees itself as a good country and a strong country—the way I would say the overwhelming majority of Americans did between 1945 and 1965—and if it is seen by others in the same way, it will feel confident in playing a large role in the world. If it sees itself as a good though weak country (one present-day image of ourselves), or as wicked and strong (another), or as wicked and weak, there will be a tendency to retrench and withdraw.”
Today, many Americans see themselves as having done something good in electing and reelecting Barack Obama (whatever the merits of the case may be). And if anything, the popular fear is that we’ve become too strong militarily (again, putting aside the validity of the argument). So we seem to have shifted into some version of the good-and-strong precondition to “playing a large role in world affairs.” That the president whose election facilitated this shift doesn’t see it that way is an unfortunate irony, but hardly a long-term hindrance to the exercise of American power in service of American ideals.
You should not underestimate the effect of popular opinion in U.S. foreign policy. Civil advocacy, as on behalf of gays in Russia today, has a long history of shaping events for the better beyond our borders. Immigrant lobbies, missionary groups, and trade organizations have all spoken up, acted, and changed the course of history in other countries. The American urge to actively do good in the world is not a matter of party or ideology, but a reflection of our national ethos. The understandable wish to recoil from the world is usually a short-lived response to great trauma abroad. Such was the case after both World Wars, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War.
Boycotting vodka and calling for action against the perpetrator of mass murder are, of course, a very long way from launching popular wars for freedom. Nor is any lone voice calling for such wars. In fact, questions regarding how to do good—in Syria, Egypt, Russia, and beyond—are more fraught than they used to be. Bad guys are everywhere and allies are in short supply; this is largely a function of our five-year break from global affairs. But it is becoming evident that Americans are at once growing increasingly uncomfortable with the state of the world and more comfortable in their right (their obligation) to do something about it.