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What role will America play in the world?
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What role will America play in the world?

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Anyone concerned about the future role that the United States can or will play in the world ought to evaluate very carefully the major voices on the political scene as the November election begins to take sharper focus. 

While America has a long history of internal tension between internationalism and isolationism in the conduct of its foreign relations, in the post-World War II period, the U.S. certainly has asserted a strong role of engagement. With participation ranging from a containment policy to undertaking responsibility as the free world’s policeman to fighting for human rights and a series of other doctrines, the overall posture has been one of being committed to active involvement. 

The 2016 campaign clearly has shown that both Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders are articulating an isolationist approach to foreign policy. They have presented these views both actively and passively. Both men appear determined to shift the policy emphases of the country inward, with little or no active international engagement, except in a responsive mode. 

The Sanders campaign rarely addresses foreign policy issues. The “guns or butter” debate is never invoked in terms of the consequences that might develop should the United States dramatically reduce its role and place in the world. Sanders himself even appears to be bored by any conversation on foreign relations. He largely responds only to human rights considerations and the plight and suffering of those in need. His explanations for his emphasis on these issues reflect a knowledge of the facts and/or an understanding of the complexity of the problems, but a lack of any interest in the underlying geopolitical situation that has created them.

Sanders’s concern for the suffering of the Palestinian people, for example, is only one instance wherein he may rightly suggest the need for greater American sensitivity to their needs, but his rhetoric on the subject is as unbalanced as those on the Right who demonstrate an equally unbalanced comprehension of the Palestinians. Unlike Trump, Sanders is a far more sophisticated student of world affairs and politics, except he prefers to lead his minions with a totally locked, unrealistic approach to foreign affairs. (The only clear thing about Sanders is that it is virtually impossible for him to become the Democratic Party’s nominee; he will, however, drive hard to shift a future Clinton administration’s foreign policy as much as he will try to do so on domestic and economic issues.)

For Trump, international politics represents another issue on which he appears to know very little and care even less regarding his inadequacies. The sum of most of his comments about foreign relations under a Trump administration is very much out of the isolationist playbook of the 1930s. He used the classic slogan of the isolationists — “America First” — in his self-entitled (and only) major foreign policy address. 

The America First idea fits right into the “Make America great again” doctrine of his overall campaign. It can include: the construction of a wall to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico and the notions that U.S. participation in NATO and other defensive obligations are sustainable only if the other parties pay much more for U.S. participation, that international trade agreements are inadequately beneficial to the American economy, that international treaties and agreements can be replaced or dismissed willy-nilly, and that America’s global place in the world overall — including in the Middle East — should be more neutral and less engaged. 

Finally, it has become much clearer since Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy interview with President Obama in the April issue of The Atlantic that there is indeed a doctrine for how he, Secretary of State John Kerry, and his entire foreign policy team behave and continue to conduct U.S. foreign relations. It appears that the president believes strong engagement by the United States and an American global presence is best attained not necessarily through the demonstration of force and military might. Rather, diplomatic finesse and less confrontational tactics coupled with a strong emphasis on international humanitarian values can achieve much of America’s global interests without the use of military power. 

Curiously, it appears that neither the president nor any of the remaining presidential aspirants appear to favor the United States pursuing a dominant leadership role in international security — except for Hillary Clinton. So distinct is Clinton’s position that there are many neocons — formerly strong Republican intellectuals, office holders, and public advocates — who are now suggesting or even stating that they may well feel compelled to support her, despite numerous qualms and concerns about her domestic and economic policy positions. 

The question in 2016 will be: How important will any of this discussion be to the supporters and followers of President Obama or those who wish to succeed him in January 2017?

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