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Is America's Foreign-Policy Pendulum Swinging Back to Intervention?

After Obama’s two terms in office, will his successor push America back toward a more robust engagement with the world?

American voters are fickle. They watch their presidents plunge into ill-advised wars, and then select successors who promise to bring the troops home. And they watch their presidents approach crises with caution, and then vote for candidates promising to restore American power.

President Obama’s term in office, said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, was marked by the pendulum swinging toward caution. “Much of his administration was a conscious reaction what he saw of his predecessor of trying to do much,” he said. “Seeing the dangers of doing too much, he opted to do less, and I think what historians will see is that he opted to do too little in places.” 

He spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. He was joined byThe Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, and by James Steinberg, who served as deputy secretary of state under Hillary Clinton, and now teaches at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.

Steinberg agreed that Obama had tried to change course, but offered a more charitable read of the administration’s foreign policy. “The United States stepping back—not because it wanted to step back but to encourage others to play a larger role,” wasn’t in itself the issue, he said. “The problem was that others didn’t step up to the plate. The theory of the case required others to step up to the plate ... and what we’re seeing, especially in the Middle East is that that just hasn’t happened.”

Instead, Obama has been a “reluctant sheriff” as Haass put it. “It was an intellectual and political overreaction to his predecessor.” Steinberg concurred that in his aversion to overextension and unilateralism, Obama had lost sight of the necessity of trying. “President Clinton used to say, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to succeed, but I want to be caught trying,’” he said.

The metaphor of the swinging pendulum suggests not just the constant changes, but also the apparent inability of American democracy to produce a stable consensus.

If Hillary Clinton moves into the Oval Office next year, she may push the pendulum back toward a more aggressive, engaged foreign policy. She understands the risks, Steinberg argued, but compared to Obama, “she maybe has more confidence in the capacity of the United States to act in a way that will do good.”

Her Republican rival, though, feels rather differently. Politicians, said Haass, need to explain to the public “why isolationism and various forms of protectionism aren’t solutions, just the opposite.” Later Tuesday, though, Donald Trump took to the airwaves, to offer a campaign speech touting the virtues of protectionism. Instead of helping the pendulum swing back, it seems, a Trump administration might push it in a whole new direction.