The Shrinking Superpower

Why the recession could spell the end of American dominance

While the Obama administration seeks to improve America’s position vis-à-vis Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Europe, and Asia, the most critical foreign-policy front of all – the home front—is looking brittle. This development is new, as for almost seven decades – ever since Pearl Harbor—policymakers have taken for granted that the homefront would cooperate with military missions and expenditures. America could build ships, planes, and tanks, and assert itself as the pivotal outside power in many parts of the world, and the home front (despite sometimes outspoken political opposition, as during the Vietnam War) would financially support those efforts. This held true from the time of the end of the Great Depression right up until the onset of our current great recession. The emergencies of World War II and the early Cold War years, coupled with a constantly expanding economy, allowed the home front to write blank checks for our endeavors abroad. But the big question in foreign policy today is, Will this continue in the face of the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s?

Soon after the Iraq war turned nasty in 2006, the American people lost their stomach for involvement there. It was only because the surge paid fairly quick dividends, which got Iraq off the front pages, that public disquiet was reduced to low-level muttering. But that was before the economic crisis hit. Given the state of people’s retirement accounts and job prospects, where will the public be regarding Afghanistan a year from now? I’d guess that the Administration has no more than a year to show striking progress in Afghanistan before the public starts to growl like it did at the Bush Administration in the 2006 mid-term elections.

But Afghanistan is only the most obvious potential casualty of the recession. Also at stake are the expensive weapons programs and air and sea platforms that allow the United States to sustain its position as a global military hegemon. Regardless of what happens on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. dominates the air and the main sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Ultimately, it is this fact that makes this country the preeminent global power that it is, and gives our diplomacy the heft it requires to sit at the front of the table at critical gatherings around the world. Yet maintaining that position doesn’t just cost money, it costs lots and lots of money—billions, not millions.

The fact that the public has docilely accepted this arrangement for so long does not mean that it will continue to do so. Despite the many new billions that President Obama’s budget allocates for jump-starting the economy, he intends to substantially cut the Pentagon’s money-line. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned that the financial “spigot that opened on 9/11…is closing.” Gates might more accurately have said it is the financial spigot that opened following Pearl Harbor that’s closing. For the only interruption to the succession of high budgets the Pentagon has enjoyed since Pearl Harbor occurred during the 1990s, when America felt itself at peace, with no overbearing security threats. That decade saw the Navy lose almost half of its ships. The 1990s may provide only a taste of what is to come as the recession deepens and elongates, leading to tectonic changes in the public mood.

Conservatives are already protesting the short shrift President Obama seems to be giving the Pentagon, but they are crying into the wind. The President’s approval rating is exceedingly high. The lesson seems to be that the President and the Democrats can do what they want with Pentagon budgets, and, if the economy doesn’t pull out of its tailspin relatively soon, they will.

Nonetheless, I do not expect any sudden slashing of defense budgets. What I foresee is a more gradual siphoning of money away from vital programs over the next decade, even as China, India, and other countries enlarge their navies and other forces. This will not necessarily lead to a security dilemma for the U.S., but it will certainly lead to a multipolar world and the end of American dominance. The only development that could change this equation would be a new and sudden threat – and one other than mass-casualty terrorism. For while terrorism would lead to larger budgets for the intelligence establishment, the conventional air and sea platforms from which great powers are made would not be affected.

Defense policy will be increasingly geared toward protecting the homeland, even as globalization makes for a smaller, more intricately connected world. America, in the final analysis, will be better protected, even as its global reach wanes. That is what to expect if the recession is still with us a year from now.