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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The downsizing of American foreign policy

Here's an interesting introduction of a book by Michael Mandelbaum of his new book The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era. This sums up his argument (Hat Tip: Memeorandum).
In foreign policymaking, the American public is divided into two groups. A small one follows international issues closely, writes about them in the media, and, when its members serve as government officials, they carry out the foreign policy of the United States. The much larger majority of the population has far less information, interest, and influence. This does not mean, however, that the American government can do anything it wants in foreign policy.

It has to operate within limits that arise from a consensus in the wider public about what is desirable and what is feasible. During the Cold War, for example, America maintained a large and costly military presence in Europe because this was widely agreed to be necessary to protect American interests by deterring a Soviet attack. The limits that govern foreign policy are not formally encoded in a foreign policy charter and are seldom even set out explicitly. They are more like customs in small-scale societies or good manners in larger ones: they are tacitly, but broadly, understood.

Because of the country’s financial constraints, those limits will be narrower than they have been for many decades. The government will still have an allowance to spend on foreign affairs, but because competing costs will rise so sharply that allowance will be smaller than in the past. Moreover, the limits to foreign policy will be drawn less on the basis of what the world needs and more by considering what the United States can–and cannot–afford.

In these circumstances, the public will no longer feel able to afford, and so will not support, operations to rescue people oppressed by their own governments and to build the structures of governance where none exists. Interventions of this kind, which the United States has undertaken in the last two decades in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, will not be repeated. The American defense budget will come under pressure, and so, too, therefore, will the missions that the defense budget supports: the American military presence in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East.

Here the impact of the coming economic constraints on foreign policy will differ from the effects of the downsizing of the financial industry. Reducing the size of banks and other financial institutions will have benign consequences, reducing the risk of a major economic collapse, limiting economically unproductive speculation, and diverting talented people to other, more useful, work. By contrast, the contraction of the scope of American foreign policy will have the opposite effect because the American international role is vital for global peace and prosperity. The American military presence around the world helps to support the global economy. American military deployments in Europe and East Asia help to keep order in regions populated by countries that are economically important and militarily powerful. The armed forces of the United States are crucial in checking ambition of the radical government of Iran to dominate the oil-rich Middle East. For these reasons, the retreat of the United States risks making the world poorer and less secure, which means that the consequences of the economically-induced contraction of American foreign policy are all too likely to be anything but benign.
Obviously, I have not read the book, but my sense is that like the 1960's, when the American economy was not booming and yet the US had to spend the money to deter the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the coming years will leave the US no choice but to take costly measures to fight terrorism. That means - as Mandelbaum correctly points out - no more wars for regime change in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, but the US will still need to engage in asymmetrical warfare against terror groups around the World.

Some of those operations may be subcontracted out (hello Israel) but the US will find the costs of not fighting terror - if it tries taking that tack - too great to ignore. We see some of that already in the American public's reaction to the terror attack (Fort Hood) and the two attempted terror attacks (the Northwest Airlines Christmas Day flight to Detroit and Times Square) that took place on or over American soil in the last year. Terrorism is a domestic concern that must be addressed outside US borders.


At 5:50 PM, Blogger Akiva said...

Sorry, I disagree with you. The public may react and build pressure on terrorist events - but that happens AFTER the government reshapes policy. The author wrote well...under pressure to support the many (critical) social programs (critical under their thinking), non-critical support like US troops in Europe and Japan can be disengaged. (This might also explain Obama's position on missile defense - why bother? Just alert the Russians to do things quietly and slowly to give the US time to get out of the way first.)

Similarly China's getting aggressive and N. Korea's going nuts...and the US response is? None - not interested. For this to move on to a decrease in deployments makes perfect sense under the current pattern.

Note the cuts in weapons programs. No need for them if the US isn't in a power posture.

The only question is whether Obama's posture will lose enough US edge that it can't be regained, ever. "And the sun set on the U.S. super power."


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