Big election loser: Uncle Sam’s global status

November 7, 2012

By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

When Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, he was the world’s darling. Politicians and citizens in many countries, not to mention the Nobel Peace Prize committee, saw an intelligent, decisive and idealistic leader. Such a man could help set the global agenda dealing with its many challenges. Four years later, expectations will be lowered.

The reason is simple. Under Obama, the United States let the world down. The government behaved as if it wanted to reduce confidence in the dollar. An antagonistic approach to China has embittered America’s largest trading partner. Hyperactive policies toward Iran, Israel and terrorism alienated many. The United States failed to lead in the promotion of free trade and the world’s response to, among other events, the reconstruction of the global financial system and the Arab Spring.

The presidential campaign underscores what foreigners often see as an American retreat from worldwide responsibility. Though relatively few of Tuesday’s voters focused on international affairs, it was disheartening to see Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney compete primarily in their ability to pander to fears and prejudices and secondarily in their desire to tell other countries how to behave. Neither showed much concern with finding the best return on the country’s huge investment in military strength.

The trend is hardly new. American exceptionalism, whether interpreted as leadership in the promotion of freedom or overwhelming armed forces power, has been on the wane for decades. The decline is probably inevitable as other countries get richer and memories of fewer people remember when the United States was a global role model.

At best, a visionary, wise or clever president could slow the country’s descent to just another developed nation. In his first term, Obama turned out to be not much of the above. If his election campaign sets the tone for the second term, the country – and the world – can expect more of the same. For a nation now mostly exceptional for its foreign debt and a world that still turns to the United States for leadership, the comedown could prove dangerous.

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