Every period of great exertion in American foreign policy — World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the cold war, the post-9/11 wars — has been followed by some sort of downsizing. To many, this feels like weakness; to others, mere realism. But there's no arguing with the pattern. The past few years were going to be a time of retrenchment no matter who was in charge.
At the start of the Obama administration, it was of course not certain how far disengagement would go. Should it involve gradual change or a true break with the past? Most of the people Obama appointed to top positions seemed to favor incremental adjustment only. Out of instinct, experience and conviction, Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, Richard Holbrooke and many others treated a large role for the United States as a precondition of world order.
From everything we know, it was Obama who disagreed. Far from playing "indispensable nation" on the world stage, he wanted to focus on "nation-building here at home." He has carefully steered the United States toward a role of lesser global responsibility. Retrenchment generally leads to tighter presidential control over decision-making, and Obama is no exception to this rule. He has been the active hand guiding a passive policy.