In his inauguration speech last Monday, officially starting his second term as president of the United States, Barack Obama effectively confirmed the unfolding strategy by the world’s only remaining super power to step back from its six decade-long role as global policeman. Pressing domestic matters are to receive top priority in what some observers term a new phase of American isolationism.
The world, and the American public, will have to wait another three weeks for details about the shift taking place in American foreign policy. On 12 February Mr Obama will deliver the first State of the Union speech of his second term when, in the words of one of his senior advisers, he will “lay out his vision for a second term”.
The inaugural address was just part one of the second term agenda, adviser, George Stephanopoulos, said.
Emphasising that he will be following a balanced approach during his second term, Obama promised to tackle public debt and the federal deficit, an issue about which there are deep divisions between him and Republican-controlled congress. Likewise, with the social security network, which he promised to strengthen.
He also promised to “harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code,(and) reform our schools”.
Against this background, he declared in clear reference to his earlier announcement that the US would transfer the primary responsibility for combat operations in Afghanistan to the Afghan military in the coming months in a move toward the withdrawal of US forces.
"A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. We have always understood that when times change, so must we."
In what is seen as a continuation of a trend starting with the conflict in Libya two years ago and most recently in Mali he said in specific reference to foreign policy:
"We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war... we will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully, not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear."
Also hinting that the US, in future, would increasingly position itself, rather in a supporting role than as first respondent in global trouble spots, he assured the country’s allies the US will “remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe”.
Reverting to a traditional role
It is probably against this US trend of wanting to step back that America is urging Britain to remain part of the greater Europe and warning Europe itself to sort out its financial problems.
A stable, unified Europe is needed, not only to look after its own global interests, but also to play a leading role when problems break out in its own backyard such as happened in Libya and now in Mali. This development is creating a whole new set of challenges for Europe.
To a large extent, the US might be reverting back to the role it played during the time of its emergence as a major economic and military power during the first half of the 20th century. At the time of both World Wars, the US largely remained on the sidelines. It only stepped in when it became clear that Europe was no longer able to cope on its own, earning the country the reputation among most commentators and some historians of having isolationist tendencies.
There are, however, compelling reasons for the US to become more inwardly focused at this juncture in its history, when surveys indicate that 70% of the American public regard the weak economy as its top priority. Not only is it faced by a daunting budget deficit and related fiscal problems, but the US' global war against an amorphous and shifting enemy consisting of loosely affiliated radical terrorist groups has put strain on many aspects of the American way of life and values.
These strains include issues like the privacy of citizens during intelligence gathering programmes and operations, the rule of law in dealing with the terrorist threat and constitutional issues like congressional consent to some types of military operations.
To this can be added some pressing and divisive social issues like gun control in the wake of a number of tragedies, and more.
Only time will tell what the influence of this new emerging reality of an isolationist America will be on the global war against terror. It will also be interesting to see how emerging global powers such as China will respond to the new reality.