THE BLOG

America Is in Transition -- and So Is Its Foreign Policy

02/21/2014 06:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2014

America is changing. So too is the rest of the world. But will America's internal changes carry broader implications for its role in the world, the influence and power it wields, and the foreign policy choices it makes?

While proving causality would be difficult, commonsense logic might suggest that a youthful America, one that has a more diverse ethnic and cultural makeup and that is more aware of its economic inequality, is also one that might hold more open, accepting (and perhaps liberal) views on a number of issues. However the record is mixed: while in some areas America is becoming more liberal, in others such as gun control and abortion, the trend seems to be towards the conservative.

But America is undergoing some fundamental transformations. America's demographics are changing. Unlike many in Asia and Europe, the US is remaining a relatively young country. It is also becoming more diverse. In 2011, there were more births in the U.S. among minorities than Caucasians (minorities made up 50.4 percent of the nation's population under one year old). Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the population.

America, in common with many other countries, is also seeing a dramatic rise in the level of economic inequality. While the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement spread to 900 cities around the world, the U.S. is perhaps exceptional in the speed with which the social gap is widening and its size. These populations are also swiftly urbanizing.

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is growing rapidly. According to Pew Research polling, one-fifth of the US public are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest numbers recorded by them. Younger adults are more likely to have no religious affiliation than their elders, suggesting that this trend is likely to continue.

These changes could be contributing to the possible trend towards more liberal views in the US, led for the main part by cities and states. For example, while federal law continues to ban cannabis, in the summer of 2013, two states -- Washington and Colorado -- legalized it. Since Massachusetts in 2004 made gay marriage legal, 16 other states (and the District of Columbia) have followed suit, with nine of these decisions taking place in 2013. And, at a federal level, after 18 years of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (the law that prevented military personnel from disclosing that they were gay), the law was finally repealed in 2011 after years of debate.

One could also argue that the slow creep of some Republican platforms towards a more open social agenda is also an indication that, at least politically, some on the right recognize that to be reelected they need to move where they perceive the population to be (i.e. left of their position).

These demographic and political changes are taking place in a backdrop of some other important national trends. Over the past 10 years, the arrival of new technologies, most notably fracking, has led to an energy revolution in the United States. America's trend towards energy self-sufficiency is having a direct impact on the US economy and will have implications for its diplomacy. It is supporting 're-shoring' (the return of jobs to the US) which is rebuilding America's manufacturing and industrial base, and it is helping the US (along with the stimulus and other policies) climb out of recession faster than many of its European allies.

This is taking place in the context of the highest ever levels of political polarization (as measured by Congressional voting). For the first time last year, the most liberal Republican was to the right of the most conservative Democrat; the traditional overlap that facilitated the two political parties working together has now disappeared.

These trends are joined, and at times reinforced, by two other profound global factors: faster technological shifts and the dispersal of power.

As all these dynamics interact it will have implications for America's foreign policy and, as such, should be of interest to an international audience -- with a caveat: Americans generally don't appear to care much about foreign policy and as such their impact on it is limited.

At a basic level, a youthful America is a productive one that is likely to retain relatively high growth rates. This is vital for its trading and investment partners, not least in Europe and Asia. While the US will soon have to deal with unaffordable entitlements (such as social security and health care) and needs to reenergize its early education, the fact that it still has a relatively low ratio of retirees to workers, means that it has a bit more time to manage this transition.

America's young and diverse population could also have an impact on America's soft power. The fact that increasing numbers of Americans affiliate as Asian-Americans or Hispanic-Americans (to name but two groups) could have profound effects on how the nation manages its relationships with these regions and is seen by their citizens. The proliferation of communications channels and the empowerment of the individual will only reinforce these tendencies.

The increase in people-to-people links likely to result is also a manifestation of the broader trend of the diffusion of power to other non-state actors. Over the long term, foreign policy is no longer going to be the exclusive right of the state, but other actors, from individuals to philanthropists and businesses, will play a role.

However at some level, while the young are taking advantage of new technologies to engage with their neighbors, and a more diverse population is linking with their families and friends overseas, the rising income inequality could be pushing the globalization agenda in the opposite direction. As those towards the bottom strata find technology taking away their jobs or corporates moving them overseas they are likely to push back. And their ability to be heard (individual empowerment once more) is only increasing.

Two regions in particular are likely to see specific foreign policy changes. In Latin America the inevitable shift on immigration (although it could still be some time in coming) will have potentially huge implications on migration of workers north. At the same time, America's 'war on drugs' has already begun to change under the Obama Administration from a historically supply side driven policy to one that accepts (at least rhetorically) the need for addressing the demand side. This more nuanced policy could allow a more balanced policy agenda between the US and its southern neighbors.

And for Europeans, the young increasingly don't remember the Cold War and the importance of the Alliance in and after World War II (Obama is the first US president who didn't live through it). The ties that bind could in time weaken. This is only being reinforced by immigration trends; fewer citizens from Europe come to the US than from any other region of the world.

America is not, as some assert, becoming isolationist. 'Nation-building at home' may be Obama's focus, but this does not precipitate an abandonment of international engagement. These trends suggest instead that America might become more nuanced and collaborative in its relationships. America's diversity has always been a strength and as it increases, will continue to be one. America, more than any other nation, truly continues to be the global melting pot.