Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Foreign policy in a bad world

By Martin Hutchinson
Source: Asia Times

Mitt Romney, in a speech at Virginia Military Institute October 8, said there was a "longing" for American leadership in the Middle East and he laid out a foreign policy agenda that differed little from that of George W Bush.

As such a policy would more or less remove any possible savings from budget economy, leading to permanently higher taxes and federal spending locked in at about 25% of GDP, with an upward trend as entitlement spending increased, I thought it worth examining whether there might be a cheaper alternative that yet achieved rational US goals.

Traditionally, Republican foreign policy was isolationist, except under the maverick Theodore Roosevelt. His predecessor, William McKinley, for example, struggled to prevent the Spanish-American War and would very likely have succeeded had the battleship Maine not blown up unexpectedly in Havana harbor, triggering a popular demand for retaliation against the supposed Spanish outrage.

Under Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, while the US entered into pacific international agreements such as the Washington Naval Treaty (1921) and the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928), it notably did not join the League of Nations. Even in the hemisphere (Mexico in 1914-16), interventionism was at that time thought the policy of the Democrat Woodrow Wilson, rejected after his departure. The US tradition had been set by president Washington, who in his 1797 Farewell Address said "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is to have with them as little political connection as possible."

After World War II, a consensus formed in favor of interventionism, although a sizeable faction of the Republicans under Senator Robert A Taft opposed it. With a hugely powerful and initially monolithic bloc led by the Soviet Union and China dedicated to acquiring global real estate, it made sense to interpose US power wherever possible to prevent this.

Indeed, the efficacy of interventionism was demonstrated the hard way in 1973-80, when with a US weakened by Watergate and economic malaise, the Soviet bloc took over Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, Nicaragua and Afghanistan - Portugal and Italy were near-misses, too, as was Chile.

Once the Soviet bloc was overthrown in 1989-91, the case for US interventionism became much weaker. President George W Bush notably did not intervene when the Marxist Slobodan Milosevic attempted to quell the separatist movements in Slovenia and Croatia. However the 1990-91 Gulf intervention, supported by the United Nations against a pretty clear-cut case of military aggression against a neighboring state, was so apparently successful (they didn't finish the job) that intervention on humanitarian grounds became temporarily fashionable - thus the interventions in Somalia (1992-93), Haiti (1994-95), Bosnia (1995-96) and Kosovo (1999). Even under president Bill Clinton, however, some situations were thought too difficult - thus there was no intervention against the Rwandan genocide.

George W Bush ran for election in 2000 promising a "modest" foreign policy. He then reversed course abruptly after the 9/11 attacks, intervening in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Barack Obama has continued many of Bush's policies, adding an intervention in Libya, carrying out drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere and, thankfully, taking out Osama bin Laden through a commando operation in central Pakistan.

Neither of Bush's interventions (the Afghanistan one continued by Obama) has been particularly successful in serving US interests, improving the lives of the local people or even making them less anti-American. Their combined cost, US$1.4 trillion so far, is only 14% of the disgraceful $10 trillion addition to US public debt since 2001 but probably represents about the upper limit of the 10-year spending cuts that might be achievable elsewhere in the US budget.

The foreign policy differences between Obama and Romney are not all that great; Romney is more committed to assisting Israel, wants to send arms to the Syrian rebels and wants to tighten sanctions on Iran in an attempt to prevent them building a nuclear weapon. Obama is more committed to multilateral action and would probably devote any savings in the defense budget compared with Romney to subsidizing various multilateral institutions which he favors.

Nevertheless, given the choice between Obama's and Romney's foreign policies, one is tempted to ask "Is that all there is?"

Neither foreign policy would be recognizable to Washington, to McKinley, or to Coolidge. Both are working under the assumptions ingrained in policymakers by the 1945-91 Cold War; that there is a Manichean struggle out there against an enemy of equal power to our own which must be confronted all the time, throughout the world, whether by direct military action or by co-opting international institutions. Romney even verbalized this in his VMI speech, when he said of the current Middle East situation "It would be familiar to George Marshall."

In reality, the world of 1945-91 is as dead as the Dark Ages, in spite of Vladimir Putin's valiant attempts to revive it. There is no Manichean opponent armed with an arsenal of nuclear missiles comparable to our own - Russia is a pipsqueak, both demographically and economically.

If Islam were united in militant opposition to the Christian world there would still not be such an opponent because all the resources of technology, industrial capacity and weaponry would be on our side - it would be a conflict similar to the US Civil War, bloody and prolonged but never really in doubt because the South's industrial capacity was limited to the Tredegar Iron Works.

In reality, much of the Islamic world co-exists with the US reasonably contentedly; its militant element is very limited in number, strength and geographical reach. Activist Middle East policy or open demonstrations of US foolishness and weakness both strengthen that militant element but nowhere near sufficiently to make it a Manichean threat.

The United States today is in the situation, not of the US in 1965, but of Britain in 1895, subject to erosion of its power through peaceful industrial competition and to possible replacement as the world's leading industrial colossus but militarily faced only with tribesmen and colonial rebellions. As Britain discovered in the Boer War, an activist foreign and military policy stirs up opposition and damages its position and safety far beyond any benefit it might bring.

1895 was not without its terrorists, especially in disturbed areas such as the Balkans; Austria-Hungary, lost its Empress Elizabeth to an Italian anarchist in 1898 and its heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand to a Serbian terrorist in 1914. Yet Austria-Hungary survived in 1898, when it reacted with restraint and then plunged the world into darkness in 1914, when it over-reacted.

The outline of a successful foreign and defense policy, by analogy to the disturbed but stable world before 1914, is thus apparent. The United States should maintain its defense forces as strong as economically possible, to deter somewhat hostile but militarily cautious powers like Russia and China from trying anything.

It should maintain an active espionage (including electronic espionage) and commando presence in the areas where its terrorist enemies congregate, while at the same time keeping as low a profile as possible in those areas and interfering as little as possible with the lives of their ordinary inhabitants.

In particular, it should be extremely sparing with "drone" attacks, which are ethically highly questionable, risking as they do the lives of local innocents.

The strong defense force and the espionage efforts will cost a lot of money, no question about it. However, to pay for them, and to reduce the impact of US activities on those of different cultures who may be alienated by such activities, there are a number of economies that can be made:
  • The United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund serve little useful purpose, and in the latter cases provide bad advice and market-distorting finance. US support for them should be wound down.
  • Foreign aid is generally a transfer from the relatively poor citizens of rich countries to the wealthy corrupt elites of poor countries. Since most of it does little good to the impoverished majority in recipient countries, it buys little goodwill, except among the bribed. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) is right; it should be eliminated as far as possible.
  • In the age of modern communications, most diplomatic and consular services are superfluous, and as the Benghazi tragedy has shown, they provide an opportunity for anti-American activity and require very expensive security measures. They should be wound down unless they are needed as a base for espionage or commando activities.
  • The US military presence overseas should be cut back to a minimum of strategically vital places, with naval support where appropriate. Medium-sized military presences in, for example, Germany are very expensive and encourage the Europeans not to take responsibility for their own defense.

    The Cold War is over, America's own resources are limited and, contrary to Romney's fatuous claim, there is no "longing" for American leadership in the Middle East - very much the opposite. As Washington said, US relations with foreign countries should be limited to trade. Both US security and the US budget will benefit by such a limitation.

    Martin Hutchinson is the author of Great Conservatives (Academica Press, 2005) - details can be found on the website www.greatconservatives.com - and co-author with Professor Kevin Dowd of Alchemists of Loss (Wiley, 2010). Both are now available on Amazon.com, Great Conservatives only in a Kindle edition, Alchemists of Loss in both Kindle and print editions.
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