President Obama may not say so explicitly in his State of the Union address, but his administration’s foreign policy is poised to shift significantly in his second term. The shift is the result of an ongoing debate between two camps that I call “restrainers” and “shapers.” Restrainers and shapers sharply disagree about the threats to the United States and this leads to very different views about how to engage the world — and it may well lead to a division within the Democratic Party.
Restrainers see a crumbling infrastructure, the budget deficit, a subpar education system, and a sluggish economy as much more threatening than events elsewhere in the world. Democrats of this stripe call for “nation-building at home,” to use President Obama’s phrase, and want to prioritize these tasks at the expense of international commitments, which they see as a drain or a distraction. Republicans have their restrainers too. They eschew the notion of an activist government but also want to concentrate on the domestic tasks of reducing the deficit and restoring growth.
The shapers have a starkly different view. They agree that domestic challenges are important — and should be the subject of a strong domestic policy agenda — but they don’t believe international difficulties are on the wane. The U.S. economy is in a slump largely because of a crisis prone international economic order. A new foreign economic policy that advances new free trade agreements and a more stable international structure is crucial but thus far lacking. On security, the United States is a global power and detrimental developments in the Middle East, East Asia, or Europe will severely damage U.S. interests. For instance, war between China and Japan would likely spark a new economic crisis and create the conditions for decades of instability in a crucial region. Any notion that the United States can take a sabbatical to tend to the home front is mistaken, the shapers argue.