Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

U.S. Midterm Election and the Growing Fear of a "World Out of Control"
NAKAYAMA Toshihiro / Professor, Keio University

December 16, 2014
What are the foreign policy implications of the U.S. midterm election? This election was not necessarily a "national security election," in which foreign policy and national security featured prominently as the primary interest of voters.

In fact, there were no clear issues in this election, such as the war in Iraq back in 2006. Yet, the perceived growing instability around the globe was inevitably on the minds of voters as a significant factor behind their doubts about the Obama administration.

As evidenced by its response to the Ebola outbreak – particularly its failure to prevent secondary infections once the virus had entered the country, the impasse in the Ukrainian situation and the rise of the heavily armed Islamic State, the U.S. has been giving off the impression that it was falling behind international events rather than proactively shaping them, and thereby narrowing its own options. A sense of mistrust towards President Obama's foreign policy had definitely been building up.

However, we must not overlook the fact that foreign policy initiatives taken by the Obama administration have more or less mirrored the moods of the U.S. public. Americans are still weary of the era of interventionism since the beginning of the 21st century. We should avoid getting entrapped in complex international situations as much as possible – such is the prevailing mood in the country.

And the U.S. government acquiesced to this mood when it decided to attack the Islamic State from air, by explicitly ruling out the dispatch of ground troops. From the government's point of view, it did what its people wanted, but has failed to earn popular support.

Why? Because regardless of how it responds to individual events, there is an underlying suspicion that the Obama administration is not in control of the international situation to begin with, and thus may actually be accelerating the country's decline.

The United States is currently faced with multiple crises on land and at sea spanning an area that stretches from Libya to the East China Sea. It is expected to respond with some form of action in all these areas, but they have not quite panned out.

When the U.S. is bent on proactive engagement as it did under President George Bush, it is ultimately dragged into conflicts it can neither understand nor control. Yet, when it moves more cautiously to reduce its "footprint," as President Obama has done, "enemies of America" emerge as if to fill the vacuum.

Consequently, the mood of the American public has swung wildly between intervention and non-intervention. Most importantly, in the midst of this situation the U.S. leadership has been unable to explain what is going on in the world or what America's response should be. And this further diminishes any sense of direction among its people, rendering them incapable of recognizing anything but chaos in the world spread out before their eyes. The "fear" that permeates the U.S. today is not necessarily caused by a distinct threat; it springs from the anxiety of being unable to control the world. And it all boils down to the question of how to exert control over a situation that can no longer be controlled solely by exercising the country's overwhelming force.

In the 2006 midterm election, President Bush had only to reverse his Iraq policy in the face of public opposition. The United States was responding to a situation of its own making, and in that limited sense the world was a place that could be "brought under control." It does not quite work that way anymore. Nor is it an issue that can be resolved by simply "restoring American leadership," as advocated by the Republican Party.

Originally, the central task envisioned by President Obama in his foreign policy was to give shape to a new approach that would enable the U.S. to deal with precisely such an "uncontrollable world." It was a vision backed by an accurate understanding of the circumstances and an awareness of the issues involved. However, in the course of translating it into actual policy, the pursuit of "dialogue" with adversaries or the "retreat" from Iraq and Afghanistan became an end in itself, allowing the original idea to lose substance. Herein lies the tragedy of President Obama's diplomacy.

Today, the U.S. government finds itself in a world that lies beyond the reach of the "Obama doctrines" laid out in the National Security Strategy of 2010 or, to put it in a more critical vein, a world that it created unwittingly by its own strategy.

The Ebola outbreak represents a postmodern situation that fills us with fear amid a dramatic rise in cross-border movement of people and goods, while the framework of sovereign states becomes increasingly ambiguous. Meanwhile, developments in Ukraine and East Asia have created a situation with overtones of the 19th century, in which countries lock horns in a display of raw power over sovereign rights. And then there is the pre-modern savagery of the Islamic State, which denies the very existence of the sovereign state and even embraces slavery.

The Obama administration must present an outline of U.S. diplomacy for a new era that can deal with complex problems posed by these situations. Unfortunately, the outcome of the midterm elections does not point to any leads.

Perhaps it is impossible to change the very nature of this "uncontrollable world." And in that sense, it could force the U.S. – along with the rest of us – to live under a permanent shadow of anxiety. If so, what the world needs now is the ability to get along with anxiety.

Toshihiro Nakayama is Professor at the Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University. This is a summary of an article that first appeared in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun newspaper on November 12, 2014, published with the writer's approval.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

米中間選挙 ― 「制御できぬ世界」募る不安
中山俊宏 / 慶応義塾大学教授

2014年 12月 16日
米中間選挙結果の外交的インプリケーション(含意)は何か。今回は、外交・安全保障が有権者の最大の関心事である「安全保障選挙(national security election)」では必ずしもなかった。








 その結果、米国民の気分は介入と不介入の間で大きく揺れてしまう。何よりも重要なことは、こうした状況下で米国の指導者たちが、世界で何が起きていて、米国として何を為すべきかを説明できていないことだ。こうして国民はますます方向感覚を失い、目の前に広がる世界をカオスとしてしか認識できなくなる。 いま米国で蔓延する「恐れ」とは明確な脅威に対応する恐れでは必ずしもなく、世界をコントロールできていないという不安だ。つまり本質的には、米国の圧倒的な力の行使のみによっては制御できない状況を、どのように制御するかという問題である。







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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > U.S. Midterm Election and the Growing Fear of a "World Out of Control"