Traveling to Washington for briefings with policy makers and pundits is almost always an exciting affair. In an election year, however, the experience can border on the surreal. The most power-infused place on the planet is naturally also the most opinion-soaked, gossipy place, and everybody is only too willing to talk, speculate, and anticipate. Foreign policy often takes a back seat in all this, but when listening closely, the outside visitor can identify some of the undercurrents standing out in the discussion. Very clearly, the Iranian nuclear standoff, North Korea’s desperation, and AfPak after the troop withdrawal dominate the agenda at the moment. But here are three recurrent issues that are not in the limelight as much, but which struck me as being of equal, if not higher importance during my meetings last week. They make for a sobering read.

  1. The “Pivot” to Asia is Less Meaningful Than It Sounds

    Much has been made of America’s strategic shift away from the Middle East and Europe to Asia and the Pacific. To a certain extent it’s true, of course. America’s security interests are stronger in Japan and South Korea now than they are in Europe. But most analysts in Washington that I met from across party lines agreed that the “re-balancing” (preferred D.C. nomenclature) was hugely oversold. Even worse, it was also badly mishandled. America simply does not have the means to significantly increase its troop presence in the region beyond its current level. Its influence in the East China Sea, around Taiwan, has diminished in recent years. The 2,500 Marines in a base in Darwin, Australia, are a largely symbolic gesture. They certainly don’t make for a very impressive element in a wider U.S. containment strategy vis-à-vis China. More importantly however, there is not a single nation in the region that would embrace containment. Almost all of them appreciate good relations with the U.S., and might even stage military exercises with their big ally. But none of them can afford to position themselves openly against Beijing. An administration intent on going very robust on China would find few, if any, real partner for such an approach. This is why some analysts fret over the clumsy way the Obama administration has allegedly handled the entire affair. Critics from both camps claim that that noise with which the new policy was announced created unnecessary suspicions in Beijing. So did some of the martial symbolism. Diplomatically, nothing much was gained that could not have been by just silently solidifying the existing ties and troop deployments. Accordingly, especially people closely related to the current administration are trying to play the entire thing down. Another hype debunked, it seems.
  2. America’s Own Economic Vulnerability is Hugely Underestimated

    The European currency and economic crisis is high on everybody’s list in D.C., and rightly so, but no one ever talks about the potentially abysmal economic situation in the U.S. itself. Republican and Democratic protagonists alike walk you through America’s global agenda as if the country was not suffering from continuing sluggish growth, high unemployment, a huge structural budget deficit, a ticking social time bomb, and protracted squabbling about how to fix all of these issues. All this while the banking sector that created the financial fiasco in 2007 and 2008 manages to thwart any attempt to reign in the risky business practices by undoing the fateful deregulations that all presidents from Reagan to Bush Jr. drove forward between the 1980s and the early 2000s. The credibility crisis that came with the financial meltdown is now largely attributed to the Europeans and their struggling currency union. Few pundits acknowledge that there is a reason why the Euro, despite all the bad news coming out of Europe is still so relatively strong against the dollar: the fact that investors perceive the U.S. as a rather risky market with enormous dangers looming, among them an ineffective political system, high dependence on America’s Chinese creditors, and a new financial bubble building up in the banks seemingly unhindered. For Europeans, as for Asians and Latin Americans, this is bad news for two reasons: First because a weak U.S. economy will, as always, have negative effects on economies elsewhere. Second, because a financially and economically hampered global super power will be less capable of protecting the liberal world order and maintaining stability in the dangerous corners of the globe.
  3. The Fear of a Political Unrest

    This was the most surprising lesson to be learned this time around in Washington: that the elites in America’s capital, maybe for the first time in a generation, feel that the political moods could swing, and that a potentially violent protest movement of significant size could run like a wave across the nation. Says William Kristol, editor of the neo-conservative flagship publication, The Weekly Standard: “For me, the most important political question of the next 10 years in the United States is whether we will see the continuation of the decoupling between the elites and the population. What kind of popular backlash will there be?” This would not only lead to upheaval on the domestic front, but it would most certainly have an isolationist foreign policy element in it as well. Kristol: “We can easily have a Ross Perot/Pat Buchanan movement trying to ‘bring America home’. They would say: the Middle East is hopeless, the Arab Spring is going south, Russia, Turkey and the Europeans are unreliable. And we have all that energy in North Dakota and South Texas. We don’t need to worry about the world as much anymore. That would be a very scary outlook for the U.S. and for the world.” No doubt Kristol’s fears are fuelled by the still powerful Tea Party Movement within the Republican Party which does not share the interventionist appetites of the neo-conservatives. But the sentiment is also shared by more left-leaning analysts. With the Occupy movement, the left had its own share of a populist uprising fuelled by economic and political dysfunctionality. There is a prevailing sentiment on both sides that the gap between what must be done and what can credibly be done by the current political set-up is widening. The degree to which this assessment mirrors the prevailing fears in Europe is striking. Political systems stretched to the limit, a moderate political core unable to muster the strength to address the real issues, and a growing restlessness in the population.

What can be concluded from these observations? Much of what is sold as strategy is not the real thing. And much of what needs a strategic approach is neglected. Both are done at the expense of strategic interests abroad and at home, in the U.S. and in Europe. And while the campaign machinery in Washington is humming in heavy rotation, with TV shows, papers and the web spitting out ever more babble on ever less politics, the tiredness of the political spectacle is graspable. The more that is at stake, the less serious is the debate, the more obvious becomes the strategic exhaustion. In this respect, America and Europe are very much alike. And that is an altogether frightening perspective.