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.
Diverging accounts of the challenges to American power lead to different approaches to foreign policy. Restrainers want to find ways to limit America's exposure to international events. Shapers want to find ways to influence them.
Restrainers believe that the United States is overcommitted in the world. They see the country as involved in a wide range of problems that have little bearing on the security of the homeland. Restrainers view the world as something that happens to the United States. U.S. efforts to shape the world are seen as likely to be counterproductive, either because the world is too complicated for the United States to calibrate its approach appropriately or because it will lead to too many new commitments. Restrainers are comfortable with the use of force as long as it entails a light footprint -- in and out. There is little appetite for the messiness associated with protracted involvements, whether that is in the use of lethal force or shaping the post-conflict environment.
Restrainers are not a monolithic group. At one end of the spectrum is the realist restraint school within the academic field of international relations. They come close to neo-isolationism. One of the leading theorists of this approach, MIT professor Barry Posen, proposes to slash U.S. alliances, including with Japan and Western Europe. Several other academics are working along similar lines (see here, here, and here). In general, they believe the world can take care of itself. The world may become a more dangerous place, but the United States has the wherewithal to insulate itself and may even take advantage of the situation. If they have a catchphrase, it's The United States can be safer in a more dangerous world, just as long as it is not too involved.