Other nations that rely on America or look up to it didn’t get to ask a question at Tuesday’s presidential debate on foreign policy. But if they had, it would probably have been this:
“So, just how long will it take for the United States to pull out of its economic pit stop?”
The question is relevant because both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama turned a debate on foreign affairs toward one on the need for America to rebuild its strength. They differ on how to do it. But they each cited a priority in national rejuvenation.
“It’s very hard for us to project leadership around the world when we’re not doing what we need to do [at home],” said President Obama.
“For us to be able to promote ... principles of peace requires us to be strong. And that begins with a strong economy here at home,” said Mr. Romney.
Left unsaid – as the rest of the world probably noticed – was any hint of when this US sabbatical might end and America resume the role of a vibrant world leader. When the jobless rate hits 4 percent? When the national debt is zero?
Or perhaps never – because this economic retreat signals a long escape for the US from the world and its woes?
The two presidential candidates, of course, did not promise to retreat from standing responsibilities to others, such as treaty allies. Obama calls the US “the indispensable nation.” Romney calls it “the exceptional nation.”
But an inward-looking US is hoping for a break. It wants to recover from wars, recession, overspending, and a deep political divide.
Regular rituals of rest are built into any society, whether it’s called the Sabbath, spring break, vacation, a nap, R&R, or, for American presidents, a weekend retreat at Camp David. In the Hebrew Bible, God rested on the seventh day, while, for Christians, Jesus offered rest to all who are weary and burdened.
But there is also another kind of rest, even for a nation. It is a kind of calm action in giving to others without depleting one’s self. It has been seen in historical heroes like Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King. When people – or a people – live up to their ideals and share them, they both do good and are good to themselves.
This sort of resting in action comes more easily for the US when it is promoting the universal values on which it was founded. Sometimes that means doing good, as with the US intervention in Libya to prevent a massacre. Other times it means simply being good, as in running a healthy market-based economy or living up to democratic standards.
In other words, America doesn’t really need to choose between doing good for itself and helping the world. It needs to refine its role so as to rejuvenate itself in the assisting of others. That needs to be done in the choices made on military spending, foreign aid, trade policy, and types of alliances.
When ideals are lined up well, they replenish America.
If the ideals aren’t a basis for action, such as the way the war in Iraq was conducted or the White House virtual silence during Iran’s democratic uprising, America can be depleted, both in resources and stature.
This election shouldn’t be about a zero-sum choice between US interests and its leadership in the world. The economic respite that Americans seek may lie in striking a new balance in its ideals.