10/15/2013 07:09 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Isolationism Revisited? The Tea Party and American Leadership in the World

As discussed in my previous column, a foreign policy of retrenchment would envision an orderly disengagement of the United States from key regions around the globe. U.S. military forces would be brought home, while economic and trade relations could be expected to remain intact. Allowing states in Europe and East Asia to reassume the burdens of their own defense would allow for a reallocation of American resources toward pressing domestic issues with the additional benefit of removing a source of anti-American hostility -- America's perceived imperial global presence. Today, however, rather than a shift toward retrenchment arising from a vigorous national debate or shrewd presidential leadership, the United States seems to be moving in this direction without plan or purpose. Retrenchment imposed from within -- a resurgent isolationism -- seems like a logical implication of the rise of the Tea Party in American politics.

What is disconcerting (and very different) about the current nature of American domestic politics is that, taken to their logical conclusions, the views of the Tea Party seem to be (at least implicitly) neo-isolationist, but without any overarching worldview or more fundamental sense of the larger implications of domestic political actions like shutting down the U.S. government or crassly cutting defense budgets and foreign aid through sequestration. Similarly, rhetoric that blithely dismisses or downplays the potentially catastrophic implications of breaching the so-called debt ceiling (for both the U.S. and global economy) reflects either a recklessness or willful ignorance on the part of these elected public officials that is truly shocking. It certainly does not unnoticed abroad.

They (lest we forget) support the troops, but the Tea Party's views on larger U.S. commitments abroad seem much less clear. Moreover, their reflexive opposition to government power and seeming distrust of American institutions precipitated the last crisis that resulted in the agreement to cut government spending through sequestration. It is true that the proposed mechanism was chosen specifically because it would demand draconian, across-the-board cuts in government spending (including defense), but in effect, it represents an abject failure of governance. The subsequent inability of Democratic and Republican negotiators to coalesce around a more targeted, comprehensive bipartisan solution left no alternative. But the current standoff and prospect of continuing dysfunction in Washington may be creating just the types of dynamics that we would see if retrenchment became an official U.S. policy. If the United States government cannot pass a budget and (more alarmingly) its legislative leaders would risk a global economic disaster to extract policy concessions from its president, can America still be counted on to be a strong ally, a willing partner, a global leader?

In the wake of the government shutdown and the cancellation of President Obama's scheduled attendance at the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Indonesia, a prominent Chinese scholar recently wrote:

The United States pivot to Asia is not unwelcome -- but for it to be a responsible and sensible policy, it has to be a balanced one. Otherwise, U.S. action will not only be counterproductive, but too costly for a nation currently mired in a budgetary quandary. No one wants the United States to stay away from East Asia -- but if it can't manage the task, perhaps it should stay focused on the problems within its own borders.

Condescension aside, the piece reflects a growing view around the world that the United States simply cannot manage its own affairs any longer. Given the emergence of a radical and uncompromising anti-governance party in Washington and the subsequent dysfunction and damage it has caused, the United States may not be capable of meeting its global commitments and maintaining its leadership role over the longer-term. Retrenchment may become the de facto policy of the United States in the second decade of the 21st Century, but not because of a decline in America's relative material power or as the result of a conscientious strategic choice by prudent leaders, or a robust democratic debate, but because of the ascendance of a group within its body politic that erodes the foundations of its power and constrains its capacity to shape and influence the world around us.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?