Cracks Americana

Andrew Krepinevich is right in principle.  The head of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank in Washington, DC, observed with US foreign policy in mind, “Strategy is what you need when you don’t have any more money.”  But America does have a global strategy.  It’s just not viable.

The notion that the US will be required to downsize its foreign footprint flows from the observation, often associated with noted historian Paul Kennedy, that military might is contingent on economic might.  Money does not always beget muscle, of course.  The European Union constitutes the world’s largest economic block but lacks the will to project military power, while North Korea, verging on economic collapse, fields a formidable force.  But fiscal austerity tends to limit martial aspirations.

For years America’s economic heft matched its growing hegemonic pretensions, first in the western hemisphere and later globally.  No longer.  America is overstretched.  The winding down of the US’ military engagement in Iraq—not to be confused with a cessation of the country’s civil war, which continues to rage—offers an opportunity to reflect on this inconvenient truth.

Although no US leader could fess up to America’s inability to sustain its present foreign commitments, it was the subtext of Obama’s nationally televised speech last week announcing the end to combat operations in Iraq.  Nation building must begin at home, not abroad—and not a moment too soon.  The US has sunk $750 billion into Iraq, though the ultimate cost of the war may well be in the trillions.  Meanwhile, the conflict in Afghanistan, already the longest war in US history, consumes $100 billion annually.

Leaving aside whether the two campaigns are worth any outlay, large or small, their price tag is untenable when the annual US deficits are nearly $1.5 trillion, forcing the government to borrow 41 cents for every dollar it spends.  “The defining fact of foreign policy in the second decade of the 21st century and beyond will be ‘less,’” writes Michael Mandelbaum, author of The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era.

A retrenchment, then, is inevitable, but is it undesirable?

The prospect of a chastened America presents considerable risks.  For decades the country has provided global public goods, such as the maintenance of open sea-lanes and addressing threats from rogue states.  Who will be the guarantor of security in the US’ absence?  Will chaos fill the vacuum?  It is worth remembering that Rome’s rise may have augured poorly for many in its conquered domain, but its fall often augured worse.

There are, however, benefits to the US’ cash-strapped retrenchment.  Since the end of World War II, the US has, with disturbing regularity, searched for monsters to destroy, precisely as John Quincy Adams famously warned against.  What’s more, the results of the imperial fetish have been awful: the US has not convincingly won a major campaign over the same period.  The country’s wars are sometimes inconclusive (Korea in the 1950s); and other times disastrous (Vietnam in the 1960’s and ‘70s).  More typically, seemingly stunning victories turn out in the fullness of time to be otherwise (the first Gulf War in 1991 and Afghanistan).  Only mosquito-bite sized clashes in places like Panama and Granada have yielded definitive US triumphs.

Over the course of history, the US has been engaged in outright conflict about 20 percent of the time, on average.  But even when not engaged in armed conflict, America frequently has resorted to cloak and dagger operations to achieve regime change abroad.  The results are no better.  Such machinations have often produced “blowback,” or unintended consequences counter to those desired.  This dismal record brings to mind the definition of insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly with the expectation of different results.

Undeterred by a string of setbacks and failures over the past half century-plus, the US, during Republican and Democratic administrations alike, has not deigned to reconsider its aggressive foreign policy.  No doubt, the same spectacularly ineffective strategy would continue but for the parlous state of our balance sheet.  Thus, the dawning era of tight budgets might actually do what a record of failure has not: produce a smart foreign policy that uses US military power only when absolutely necessary.

To paraphrase Krepinevich in light of this possibility, insolvency has a way of concentrating minds.  And for that we can at least take some solace from our economic woes.

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