This nation must put its domestic necessities at the core of its relations with
the world. This, the author argues, is a counsel not of isolationism--a
shibboleth used to suppress fresh thought--but of realism.
by Alan Tonelson
Although Bill Clinton was elected President on a platform of domestic
renovation, he knows that he will not be able to avoid foreign-policy
challenges. To judge by his major campaign addresses on foreign policy, he is
less cognizant of the constraints he will face in meeting them, which are both
real and intellectual. The chief real constraint is financial; the intellectual
constraints are assumptions left over from the Cold War--encrusted ways of
thinking about the world and about U.S. power which are prevalent not only
among conservatives and Republicans but also among Democrats like him. Herewith
a primer on the realities that will shape the first post-Cold War foreign
The Fiscal Crunch
For much of the post-second world war period American leaders have struggled to
fund history's most sweeping foreign-policy agenda while satisfying the
American public's entirely understandable desire for more government benefits
and guarantees--just like those enjoyed in most of the advanced industrialized
countries we have defended. Complicating the challenge have been Americans'
limited appetite for higher taxes, the economy's inability to grow as fast as
the popular demand for social spending, and the fact that the costs of our
foreign-policy responsibilities and consequent defense burdens have not been
borne by our protectorates. Rather than cut domestic programs or significantly
reduce defense spending, American Presidents from Lyndon Johnson to George Bush
simply ran enormous budget or international-payments deficits.
With debt repayments now exceeding our military budgets each year, it's clear
that profligacy is no longer a workable fiscal policy. The demise of the Soviet
Union may have let us off the hook by permitting us to "do more with less," as
Clinton has argued. But the new President intends to cut defense spending by
only five percent more than President Bush would have, and thus to leave our
military budget significantly higher in real terms than it was in 1981--shortly
after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
These cuts will shrink military spending as a share of gross national product
down to a level (3.5 percent) not seen since before Pearl Harbor. If we could
afford defense budgets that ate up eight or nine percent of GNP thirty and
forty years ago, some foreign-policy mandarins wonder, why can't we afford this
relatively much smaller defense burden today?
There are two reasons. First, we had an even more parsimonious welfare state
then than we have now, along with a much smaller deficit. Therefore it was
easier to be fiscally responsible while accommodating heavy defense spending.
Of course, in terms of raw numbers, the main culprits responsible for the big
deficits have been greatly expanded and underfunded domestic programs--chiefly
entitlements indexed to inflation. But as Clinton recognizes, a
deficit-reduction plan that zeroes in on entitlements alone is a
deficit-reduction plan going nowhere.
Second, optimism about funding our international agenda seems to assume that
we're already meeting our domestic needs pretty well. Yet even if entitlements
could be slashed, the new President favors spending vast new sums on
infrastructure and education. His plans for addressing the health-care crisis,
the drug crisis, and the urban crisis will surely cost a great deal as well.
And his desire to give business tax incentives to encourage productive
investment (not to mention giving tax relief to the middle class) will also
strain the budget--at least in the short run.
Moreover, as the outgoing budget director, Richard Darman, warned, there are
literally hundreds of billions of dollars in underfunded, off-budget federal
liabilities--deposit insurance, mortgages, student loans, small and minority
business loans--lying in wait, in his memorable phrase, like hidden Pac-Men,
ready to gobble up lines of resource dots if economic conditions stay sluggish
enough long enough.
Deep cuts in U.S. defense spending alone--which would inevitably mean a very
different, less grandiose foreign policy--would not solve our budget crisis.
But they could help break the fundamental budgetary impasse, which is not
economic but political. By supporting a defense establishment that will consume
nearly one of every five tax dollars for the indefinite future, the policies
that Clinton espoused during the campaign practically guarantee a further
weakening of the compact that must lie at the heart of successful tax policy in
any reasonably democratic system: the taxpayer will pay only if he is persuaded
that most of his money will be spent in a way that benefits him.
Because the United States is so secure geopolitically, it has always been
difficult for American Presidents to persuade voters to make sacrifices for
national-security objectives like anti-communist containment in far-off
regions. That's why Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon tried to fight in Vietnam
on a business-as-usual basis. Now that the Cold War is over, how will American
leaders justify the "shared sacrifice" that all thinking people acknowledge is
necessary to solve the budget crisis--and do so, moreover, while so much of our
national wealth goes to defending rich economic rivals, such as Germany and
Japan, against threats that no longer exist? Without a presidential confession
that Washington's priorities have long neglected domestic needs, together with
energetic efforts to right the balance, voters probably won't respond.
How Much World Order?
The demise of the Soviet Union, rising ethnic and regional conflict around the
globe, and George Bush's use of the term "new world order" set off a classic
modern American foreign-policy debate about which of two utopian goals we
should stake our national security and prosperity on: global stability or the
worldwide triumph of democracy. Bush was seen--notably by Democrats--as having
surrendered to prudence, siding with stability and kowtowing to tyrants who
were doomed to fall. He countered by emphasizing the strategic importance of
some dictatorships and the urgent need in a nuclear world to prevent complete
Though loath to admit it, the two sides are promoting ideas rooted in the same
venerable ground of American diplomatic thinking--namely, that the nation's
welfare depends critically on a benign international environment. But American
history has never borne this out. We have thrived even though we have been
surrounded by dictatorships for most of our national life. Today, in a world
greatly shrunken by technology, the international environment arguably affects
us more than ever. At the same time, this environment is just as arguably
becoming less controllable.
A more orderly, more democratic world would of course be wonderful. But both
goals seem fanciful. Thus we need to stop thinking of foreign-policy planning
as an exercise in creating wish lists and instead focus on questions that can
actually provide useful guidance for policy-makers: How much international
order and democracy do we really need? Are there some regions where we don't
need much at all? What is achieving our goals worth to us in the way of defense
and aid resources and human lives? What will it take in the way of economic
resources to advance these goals? How are budget planners to proceed? How will
we know when we have succeeded? Most important, given the difficulty of
promoting peace and democratic change, and given our budgetary constraints, how
can we enhance our own security and prosperity if much of the world remains
turbulent and oppressed? What are our fallback positions--in other words, how
can we hedge?
Nowhere is this new approach needed more than in our relations with the former
Soviet Union--too big and too badly broken down to fix anytime soon with any
politically realistic amount of Western aid, and still armed to the teeth with
nuclear weapons. Aid programs designed to give Russian democracy "a fighting
chance," in Clinton's words, implicitly admit that the situation is already
hopeless. A truly responsible President would start thinking a lot more about
shielding America from the worst effects of anarchy in this huge region. One
way to do this would be to withdraw the vast majority of our military forces
from Europe, and not leave 75,000-100,000 soldiers, as Clinton has suggested
doing. If disorder in the former communist world spreads, American soldiers
should be as far away as possible Moreover, if Clinton really is worried that a
nuclear conflict among the former Soviet republics will endanger America, he'll
devote a much larger share of defense spending to the task of developing
conventional weapons that can find and destroy weapons of mass destruction held
by any untrustworthy forces before they are used. In other words, in some
instances the new international realities will force us to become more, not
How Much Interdependence?
Many foreign-policy doers and thinkers view interdependence and its close
relatives cooperation and globalization as America's salvation. These
conditions are supposed to make great-power conflict obsolete--much as it was
supposed, by Sir Norman Angell at least, on the eve of the First World War that
the dense web of commerce connecting the great European powers made peace too
profitable to jeopardize, at any rate for very long. Moreover, they are
supposed to be the key to solving a series of new "transnational" problems,
such as drug abuse, AIDS, and environmental destruction.
The idea seems to be that once mankind understands just how widespread
interdependence et al. have become and what their true implications are,
international relations will become an essentially harmonious enterprise. Power
will no longer be important, and the struggle for advantage and for relative
position will end. Regarding transnational problems, all countries will
recognize that they have a stake in the solutions, and will promptly identify
those responses that reason says are in every country's true best interests.
It's the dream world of America's early-twentieth-century Progressives and
other "good government" types revived and writ large. In the realm of
economics, governments and special interests will finally recognize that
nation-states have become anachronisms, step out of the way, and let capital
flow to wherever in the world it will reap the highest return. The resulting
international division of labor, based on nothing but considerations of
efficiency, will bring the greatest good for the greatest number. It is hard to
find a major official American speech on foreign economic policy which fails to
endorse these goals wholeheartedly.
Of course, interdependence, cooperation, and globalization are extremely
important and becoming more so. But they hardly eliminate the need to think in
terms of power and advantage. What the mainstream forgets is that they are
inevitably complex. As long as we live in a world of multiple sovereign
political units (and economic integration in Europe and elsewhere doesn't alter
this reality; it simply changes the size of the units), these conditions will
have structure, and particular content. And their structure and content are
going to be determined by someone or something. If we assume that states will
all have the same preferences as to how to solve problems, then power may
indeed be unimportant. Similarly, we need not worry about power if we assume
that whose preferences prevail is unimportant. But all those who assume that
the different sizes, locations, strengths, cultures, and histories of states
and other units will regularly produce different preferences, some of them more
desirable than others, will care deeply about power. They will care because in
all negotiations not refereed by a commonly accepted authority, power will
decide which preferences prevail. Only an academic political scientist could
seriously argue that success at international negotiations is a matter of
convincing one's interlocutor that one's ideas have everyone's best interests
at heart. Winners are determined not primarily by merit but by how much
material wherewithal they bring to the table--the better to bribe or coerce
others or to create realities that others must accommodate.
Hence the growing importance of interdependence et al. demands that the United
States pay much more attention than it has so far to accumulating and
preserving national military and economic strength. This shift, in turn,
requires us to rethink our determination to put America's economic fate
entirely in the hands of free-market forces, an objective that makes it all too
easy to rationalize the loss of key industries and technologies to other
countries. In an age of interdependence, intelligent economic
nationalism--striking a balance between efficiency and self-reliance--becomes
more important than ever.
The Romanization of American Life
The very prominence of national security in American life for the past forty
years has seriously warped American politics, society, and culture. During the
Cold War this Romanization of American life was probably unavoidable. But we
need to rethink it now that we are no longer maintaining a state of national
America's defining political system, which consists in a limited government
resting on the principle of the separation of powers, was never meant to help
exercise the kind of active world leadership that we have pursued since 1945.
Decades of an outsized foreign policy have put it under considerable strain.
That foreign policy has produced excessive secrecy in government. It has helped
to imbue our leadership classes inside and outside government with a contempt
for the man in the street which has been growing since the 1930s--when the
public ostensibly was determined to ignore the fascist threat--and contributed
to the alienation from these leaders that Americans have developed in return.
The Romanization of American life has also generated some troubling theories
about America's national identity and purpose which have become all too
uncontroversial. Specifically, many of us have come to believe that America
will never be true to its best traditions unless it is engaged in some kind of
world mission, that creating a more perfect United States is not a noble or an
ambitious enough goal for a truly great people, that we will be morally and
spiritually deficient unless we continue to be the kind of globe-girdling power
we have been for the past half century.
One important strain of the conventional wisdom has seen the lack of connection
between national-security imperatives and America's eighteenth-century
political institutions as evidence that the institutions should be brought
up-to-date. Yet the end of the Cold War reveals another possibility: that we
should work harder to put national security in its proper place. We need, for
example, to move away from viewing public opinion as an impediment to an
effective foreign policy. To the contrary, public opinion in this
geopolitically secure and economically strong country has been serving as a
desperately needed commonsense check on the utopian security and economic
designs of the foreign-policy industry. The more democratic foreign-policy
decision-making in America becomes, the more effective it may well be.
Consequently, the new President should start thinking about ways to open up the
process, perhaps using some variant of Ross Perot's electronic town hall to
permit the public to make the kinds of foreign-policy decisions in which the
national-security stakes are low but the risks to certain groups of Americans
are potentially great--for example, military intervention in a strategically
marginal hot spot like Bosnia.
Above all, Bill Clinton needs to understand that foreign policy is not an end
in itself but a means to a highly specific end: enhancing the safety and
prosperity of the American people. A domestic focus is imperative not in order
to rebuild the foundation for American world leadership but to prepare America
for a world that cannot be led or stabilized or organized or managed in any
meaningful sense of those words.
Tying foreign-policy initiatives tightly to domestic needs will unquestionably
carry risks. Third World conflicts we ignore might spread, regions in which we
reduce our military presence might become less stable, opportunities to bolster
international law and institutions might be lost for years or forever, and one
day America might indeed rue a decision to retrench.
But the risks of continuing to neglect domestic problems or of seeking their
solutions in promoting millennial global change are much greater--and they are
not conjectural. Recognizing these risks is not a matter of being a declinist
or a protectionist or an isolationist. It is not a matter of sticking our heads
in the sand. It is not a matter of being selfish or parochial. It is a matter
of drawing axiomatic distinctions--between needs and wants, between the likely
and the unlikely, between present realities and future hopes. It is a matter,
that is, of governing.
Alan Tonelson is a Research Fellow at the United States
Business and Industrial Council Educational Foundation
Copyright © 1993 by Alan Tonelson. All rights
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1993; Clinton's World; Volume 271, No. 2;