Ian Bremmer, For The Straits Times

US will stay on the sidelines of war - whoever is president

Americans have again voted for change in Washington as opposition Republicans take control of both Houses of Congress. As attention now turns to the 2016 presidential race, it's time to think through what all this means for the United States' role in the world.

On foreign policy, Mr Barack Obama has proven himself a risk-averse president. Some welcome his caution as a wise corrective to the excesses of the George W. Bush administration's "global war on terror".

Others warn that Mr Obama's reluctance to engage has made the world a more dangerous place. After nearly six years in the White House, Mr Obama knows well that no matter what he does, there will always be someone angry at the President of the United States.

It's not that Mr Obama has avoided all conflict. He sent more US troops into Afghanistan before beginning the process of final withdrawal. He approved US participation in the multinational attack that killed Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. He has spoken forcefully against Russia's interventions in Ukraine and imposed sanctions on Russian banks, energy companies and arms makers. He has ordered the bombing of Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.

On his watch, the US National Security Agency has spied on enemies, allies and, allegedly, members of the Congress. Drone aircraft continue to drop bombs inside the territory of other countries.

Yet, Mr Obama is much better known for his reluctance to take on new costs and risks abroad. He made clear, even before he was president, that he intended not only to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but to avoid starting new ones.

"Don't do stupid stuff," he told reporters when asked to explain his foreign policy doctrine. No attack on Syria's Bashar al-Assad. No troops for Ukraine. No more troops in Iraq, whatever Islamic militants do next. Mr Obama is not a "hawk" and has no intention of becoming one.

As the long march towards the 2016 presidential election begins, the world might well ask: How will America's next president conduct foreign policy?

Given that she served as Mr Obama's first secretary of state, would Mrs Hillary Clinton as president follow his cautious path? Would Mr Jeb Bush restore the grand ambitions of his brother's neo-conservative approach? Would another candidate introduce something altogether new?

The next US president, Democrat or Republican, is unlikely to lead the country far from its current path. There are two main reasons.

First, although every serious presidential candidate will talk tough to impress voters, all are aware that the American public remains focused almost entirely on domestic policy and the reinvigoration of the US economy.

A Pew Research poll conducted late last year found that, for the first time in the 50 years that Pew has asked this question, a majority of US respondents said the US "should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own". Just 38 per cent disagreed. That's a double-digit shift from the historical norm.

Eighty per cent agreed that the US should "not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems".

No president can sustain an expensive, ambitious foreign policy without reliable public support. In America, that support is no longer there - and unless there is another major terrorist attack on US soil, it isn't coming back in the foreseeable future.

Second, whatever the candidates say during the coming campaign, both parties recognise that there is no easy solution to today's most intractable international problems.

Russia cannot force Ukraine to remain forever in Moscow's orbit. But no power, not even the world's sole superpower, can force the Russians to stop trying. Sanctions can inflict long-term pain, but they will not change Russian leader Vladimir Putin's mind. This conflict is headed for a stalemate, and no US president will risk his presidency on a gamble that Washington can break it.

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants will continue to wreak havoc in those countries. They lack the power to threaten either country's central government or even to dislodge Kurds from their territory in northern Iraq. Yet Washington cannot fully defeat ISIS without putting American soldiers back into Iraq.

Short of a successful large-scale ISIS attack on US soil, the next president, Democrat or Republican, will not ask the American people to support another war in Iraq.

Nor is the next president likely to believe that a political or economic fight with China in support of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, or anywhere else, is a wise idea.

The closest he or she might come to provoking Beijing is support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal that will deepen US ties with many of China's neighbours.

As the next round of US presidential candidates strides onto the stage, expect to hear a renewal of aggressive foreign policy rhetoric. Don't be fooled. For the next several years, Washington will remain mainly on the sidelines of the world's costliest and riskiest conflicts.

Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group and global research professor at New York University.