With defense cuts looming in the US, Secretary of State John Kerry has warned against growing isolationist sentiment. But experts say that Washington is simply adopting a more restrained foreign policy.
US President Barack Obama published his budget on Tuesday, a week after Secretary of State Kerry had warned that cuts in military spending potentially signaled a "new isolationism" among the American public and its elected representatives.
"This not a budget we want," Kerry told reporters last Wednesday. "It's not a budget that does what we need. It was the best the president could get. It's not what he wanted."
"Look at our efforts to get the president's military force decision on Syria backed up on (Capitol Hill)," the secretary of state said. "Look at the House of Representatives with respect to the military and the budget."
"All of those diminish our ability to do things," Kerry said, adding that the US was "acting like a poor nation."
But according to Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, accusations of "isolationism" are little more than a political tactic used to delegitimize critics.
"This is standard American politics," Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and former army colonel, told DW. "There seems to be a belief in Washington that if you can portray your critics as isolationists, that doing so will then strengthen one's own claim to wisdom. The United States is not an isolationist country - quite frankly it's never been. Certainly it's not today."
‘Looking for effective leadership’
Last December, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations indicated that 52 percent of Americans believe the US "should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." That's the highest percentage recorded since the question was first asked more than 50 years ago, according to Pew.
But David Adesnik, with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), does not believe the data points to a broad isolationist sentiment among the American public. The poll also found that 72 percent of Americans favored a global leadership role for the US so long as other powers shared the burden.
"There’s no question that Americans are dissatisfied with where their foreign policy has been for pretty much a decade," Adesnik, an expert on national security policy, told DW. "There are a lot of important signs in the data that they are looking for effective leadership. They are not looking for someone to take them out of the role of leadership."
"Look at the costs of what happens when America doesn’t stay engaged," he said, citing the metastasizing civil war in Syria and the confrontation in Ukraine. "We have forgotten that when America doesn’t take a leadership role, you get increasing chaos."
Military budget cuts
The president's budget would cut military spending by $31 billion in 2014 and by another $45 billion the following year. That would reduce the defense budget to $496 billion in 2015, roughly equivalent to the spending levels before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. According to US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Pentagon plans to reduce the army from 520,000 soldiers to between 440,000 and 450,000 troops, its smallest size since before World War Two.
While Bacevich says these cuts will "make it more difficult for the United States to invade and occupy countries," he believes this is a positive development given Washington's mixed record in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But according to Adesnik, the cuts signal "a lack of appreciation of the continuing importance of military power after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."
"The idea that the army is taking the brunt of the cuts relates to part of the idea that we can plan only for contacts where air and naval power are likely to be predominant, whether that is in a conflict with China, or we hope that’s the shape of a potential conflict with Iran," he said.
Although the Pew poll indicates that a majority of Americans want Washington to "mind its own business" in the world, 56 percent of respondents also said that they want America to remain the sole military superpower.
Culture of 'self-restraint'
Last year, President Obama decided to consult Congress on the question of launching military strikes against Syria for the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons.But after the inconclusive interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, congressional opposition to the use of force in Syria proved much stiffer than many officials, including Secretary of State Kerry, had apparently bargained for.
"To contrast 2014 with 2002, yes, there is reluctance on the part of the American people to endorse any large scale use of force," Bacevich said. "Because a large scale use of force in the previous decade didn't produce the results that were promised."
"So there is a broader current of self-restraint, I wouldn't call it isolationism," he said.
According to US foreign policy expert Joseph Nye, "prudence is not the same as isolationism."
"A smart power strategy starts with a clear assessment of limits," Nye, a professor of international relations at Harvard's Kennedy School of government, wrote in an editorial for Project Syndicate on February 12. "The number one power does not have to man every boundary and be strong everywhere."