A frugal America in a world of weaklings

Michael Mandelbaum summarizes his new book, Frugal Superpower, for The New Republic.  From now on, “the United States will have far less to spend on foreign policy because it will have to spend far more on other things.”  What does that mean?

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 the 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.

Where do we go from here? Last month, I wrote an op-ed for Global Europe in which I argued that while the U.S. and EU are suffering in the current economic environment, they’re not alone.  Russia is also feeling the pain – as Alistair underlines in his recent post – and has moderated its foreign policy as a result.  China and India enjoy stellar growth and are willing to challenge the U.S., especially in their backyards. But their ability to project long-range military power remains limited for the time being.

All the rising powers are increasing defence spending, while European military cost-cutting will likely continue well beyond the immediate downturn. But for now, we are in a moment when everyone looks weak. If the U.S. and its NATO allies are wary of projecting power, the big emerging economies still have limited reach.

In some ways, this is rather nice. Great power confrontations are not impossible, but are still relatively improbable. Yet this era of weakness also bring risks. The most obvious are in the Middle East. With the U.S. gradually pulling back from the region, a breakdown in Iraq or spillover of violence from Afghanistan could create endemic instability. Israel, uncertain of U.S. support, has become increasingly hawkish. State failures and civil wars will continue to bubble from Sudan to Central Asia. If the Afghan experience has convinced many that interventionism is foolish, ignoring these crises is dangerous. Remember why we went into Afghanistan in 2001.

Containing new crises will be difficult. Instead of Bush-era “coalitions of the willing”, it may be necessary to form “coalitions of the weaklings”: groups of states that can’t handle international problems alone, but have sufficient leverage between them to do something.

“Coalitions of the weaklings” may sound snappy, but what will they look like and what will they achieve? The rather rickety international alliances put together to deal with Iran and North Korea aren’t exactly inspiring models for future cooperation. Nor is the Sino-US-AU-EU arrangement for dealing with Sudan likely to excite idealists… plus such coalitions are also hard to stick together and sustain. In a recent piece for World Politics Review (subscription required) Bruce Jones and I came to this conclusion:

In the future, resolving looming conflicts will more often than not involve convening highly complicated — and inherently unstable — coalitions of governments to put pressure on potential combatants. Regional organizations, like the African Union and Organization of American States, also have leverage. But who will do the convening?

Sometimes, the U.S. will still take the lead, or else regional powers will do so. But in many cases, the competing interests involved in a crisis will preclude a single state from orchestrating mediation. In such instances, the task of leading talks — or backing up local actors with better political contacts to do so — may fall to a much-maligned actor: the United Nations.

A prospect that will fill you with hope or dread, depending on your convictions…