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colin robertson

U.S. President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal is delivered to the Senate Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington March 4, 2014.GARY CAMERON/Reuters

It's Budget Day in Washington. Its importance this year is in signaling the future direction of U.S. defence policy. It is also another reminder of the differences in our two systems of government.

Traditionally devised in secret, Canada's budget day is the highlight of the parliamentary calendar. There are new shoes for the finance minister and live media coverage of the speech and opposition reaction. Governments rise or fall on the subsequent confidence motion.

By contrast there is little in the President Barack Obama's 2015 budget that has not already been previewed.

This budget, for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 (vs. April 1 in Canada), is already a month behind its statutory requirement because Congress only resolved its final spending for 2014 in mid-January (months behind its deadline).

There is no expectation that the spending bills that come out of Congress – most likely another series of continuing resolutions – will bear any resemblance to the brick of documents wheeled into Congress on Tuesday. Legislating on Capitol Hill has been compared to sausage-making and this is especially true for presidential budgets.

It does give a sense of presidential direction. It is the financial companion to the policy blueprint laid out in the annual State of the Union. Most of this year's estimated $3.5-trillion spending is for non-discretionary entitlements like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Discretionary spending will cover everything from modernizing the electricity grid and repairing road and bridges, to the Pentagon.

It is for the Pentagon and future U.S. defence policy that this budget is especially significant.

It confirms the downward spending trend begun with sequestration. It also confirms the shift in the long-standing strategic goal of being ready to fight two simultaneous wars on separate fronts.

In his budget preview last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged that "we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies and in space can no longer be taken for granted."

After 13 years of war, the longest conflict in American history, Mr. Hagel said this 'defining budget' "starts to reset, reshape … rebalance, refine our enterprise for the future." U.S. armed forces will shrink: fewer ships, aircraft and armored vehicles with troop numbers down to about 450,000.

U.S. defense strategy, to be spelled out in the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review, will focus on defending the homeland; building security globally by projecting U.S. influence and deterring aggression; and remaining prepared to win decisively against any adversary should deterrence fail.

The shift in operational focus and forces to the Asia Pacific will continue. Recognizing new centers of power in a world that is "growing more volatile, more unpredictable", there will be more emphasis on special forces and new technologies.

In his new book Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, scholar Stephen Sestanovich demonstrates that when the costs in blood, treasure and public morale reach a tipping point, the backlash leads to a period of retrenchment.

Most Americans believe the U.S. does too much to solve world problems. They want the U.S. to "mind its own business internationally" and pay more attention to problems at home. Americans still see themselves as the number one global military power. They are divided on reductions in military spending.

Elected, in part, to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Obama 'led from behind' in Libya, then found no enthusiasm for engagement in Syria beyond diplomatic parley and sanctions. Ukraine should take note.

Retrenchment to rebuild at home is probably good politics. Good policy will depend on the smart diplomacy that the Obama administration aspires to achieve. It starts with attention to the allies.

The Atlantic Alliance needs more attention and the Center for Transatlantic Relations lays out a plan of action in its forthcoming report. It should begin with the North American neighbourhood. Last month's trilateral summit in Mexico was long on rhetoric and short on actual achievement.

It is a verdict that, unfortunately, threatens to characterize the Obama record. The trade agreements with the Pacific and Europe are now in limbo pending congressional approval of presidential trade promotion authority.

Retrenchment, warns Mr. Sestanovich, often evolves from being seen as a strategy for averting decline of U.S. power to one "that accelerates, accepts, and even embraces it."

While hardly an encouraging prospect for Canada and the alliance, it reminds us that good allies keep the U.S. engaged. It also means recognizing that burden-sharing is a collective responsibility, with application to all, not just the United States.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior advisor to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.