I have had little to say about foreign policy so far, and that may seem odd for someone whose work over the years has been almost exclusively about foreign policy and national security-related topics. But the truth is that America’s deepest and most profound problems are now domestic in nature. There are no existential threats to U.S. national security right now, nothing comparable to the dangers posed by mid-century fascism and Soviet Communism. There are of course interests, challenges and dangers aplenty, but they are second-order concerns at the moment.
This pronouncement naturally raises the question of the relationship between the plutocratic dysfunction we are suffering to the one side and U.S. foreign policy and national security interests to the other. This is a big subject—another intellectual zone deserving of an entire book on its own. But here I want only to make three brief comments.
First, American plutocracy has had dramatic effects on global investment, manufacturing and trade patterns, and in that sense it has certainly had an impact on the foreign policy/national security environment. It is hard to characterize its overall global impact except to say that it has been disruptive for better—in the creative destruction sense—and for worse. The mostly made-in-the-USA global capitalism of the past quarter century has at least indirectly helped raise more people out of abject poverty than ever before in human history, but it has also politicized former zones of indifference in ways that are shaking many societies—not least Arab societies—to their foundations, with possible outcomes that are not benign either for the people of those societies or for the United States. By pointing investment, research and development, and manufacturing platforms abroad, plutocracy has harmed the fundaments of the U.S. national security base. Had all or most of that money gone into backing new technologically advanced industries here at home, Americans would be a lot better off for it.
But it does not follow and it is not true that the foreign policy and national security establishments have been turned into mere appendages of the plutocracy. The people who run these shows, even in Republican Administrations, come from other subcultures as a rule. They are overwhelmingly patriotic people for whom the well being of the country and its people come first. Yes, part of what the State Department is supposed to do is promote U.S. business abroad, and some of that in effect helps plutocrats—the PLA 480 food program is a good case in point. But that it only a small part of what the State Department (and even the smaller Commerce Department) actually does. And as I have already said, the accusation that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is essentially mercantilist in nature because of oil is a vast exaggeration. Finally on this point, the military-industrial complex of which President Eisenhower famously spoke does exist, and as a monopsony for the most part it is immune from normal market constraints. Sometimes defense industry does lobby hard and win, as with the new engine for the F-35 that no one needed and that the Defense Department did not want or ask for. But defense contractors do not make anywhere near the profits that corporate and finance giants make in the non-defense sectors these days, and their shareholders have not fared especially well in recent decades in what is a highly regulated endeavor. So, no, in short, the Hobson-Lenin theory of imperialism is still wrong after all these years, at least as regards the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Second, if government works poorly and the political culture as a result falls prey to anti-tax demonologies let loose in the body politic, then eventually it will harm the nation’s capacity to invest wisely in defense. That is the obvious conclusion to which an intellectual exercise in statecraft (which is not a synonym for strategy) points. That is happening now, of course, with looming “sequestration” threatening to cause cuts to defense of very large proportions. Even in the absence of an existential threat, the perception of American strategic decline and growing relative military weakness is a dangerous thing. It is often forgotten, but military power not only can compel and deter, but it can also reassure. Indeed, reassurance is what American military power does most of the time, and there is no other remotely disinterested power waiting in the wings to assume the function, as the United States did from Britain many years ago. It is, as noted above, an international public good we provide as a broadly beneficial but at the same time very much self-serving gesture. All hell could break loose without it.
“All hell” is, by the way, a good description of what happened, at least in the Pacific, the last time we fell off our security policy payments schedule. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes had negotiated a series of stabilizing arrangements after World War I, but thanks to the Depression we did not keep up our end of the balance. We all know the consequences: the Pacific War. At the moment we are witnessing a sharp rise in tension between China and Japan, with both political dispositions turning ominously nationalist. We are allied with Japan and have a large, intricate, mixed and portentous relationship with China. Only a strong America can credibly prevent an outbreak of violence that could chain-gang us into a war we can certainly do without about now. A weak America invites miscalculation and trouble, and in the calculation of weakness perceptions matter enormously. Sequestering huge chunks of the defense and intelligence budgets is therefore a very bad idea. If it happens, Republicans, with their anti-tax mania approach to deficit reduction, will be just as guilty as Democrats who are far more often clueless and glib about national security stakes.
Third, it seems to me that the main role foreign policy has played, at least since 9/11 and the various wars the United States has fought in misguided response, has been one of distraction. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the USSR, Tiananmen, 9/11 and the rest have been very telegenic events. They are distracting, especially if one’s interests and training already incline that way. Plutocratic parasitic tunneling activities, on the other hand, are designed not to call attention to themselves. Had it not been for all the noise and fury from the foreign policy/national security side, more of us, perhaps, would have focused earlier and more effectively on what really ails the nation. It’s taken me awhile, I confess, but focused I now am.