by Michael Mandelbaum
PublicAffairs, 2010, 224 pp., $23.95
The Lehman Brothers bankruptcy of September 15, 2008 is rapidly becoming the bookend of an abbreviated bad decade for the United States that began on September 11, 2001. If the attacks on New York and Washington punctured our sense of security, then the financial panic perforated our expectations of prosperity. We have had plenty of analyses of 9/11’s impact on U.S. foreign policy. But what about 9/15?
This is the subject of Michael Mandelbaum’s new book. A veteran scholar always worth reading, Mandelbaum is not about to make the mistake of actually indulging in what he does not know, namely, formal economics. Instead, he takes a surprising and clever tack. Political economy, we are taught, is the politics of scarcity. But in Mandelbaum’s view, it was the scarcity of scarcity that brought the United States to its present discomfort. He argues that the very plenitude of resources available to the “sole superpower” after the Cold War’s end influenced American leaders to pursue an arrogant and careless course.
To prove his thesis, Mandelbaum casts bipartisan blame. Bill Clinton the Democrat, unconstrained by scarcity, expanded NATO needlessly and heedlessly, alienating Russia, now a revanchist power as a result. George W. Bush, the Republican, imagined that he had the power to transform Iraq and, with it, the Middle East into sunlit uplands of democracy. Neither would have blundered this way, he argues, had he felt constrained by a lack of resources.
President Obama, in Mandelbaum’s reading, begins a new era that separates him from his predecessors since FDR: the United States as “the frugal superpower.” Evidence is to be found in the very speech, at West Point, wherein the President announced 30,000 more troops and ratified a counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan. According to Mandelbaum, more is actually less. The key Obama phrases reject “goals that are beyond what can be achieved at reasonable cost”, emphasize “the connection between our national security and our economy”, and stress the need to “rebuild our strength here at home.”
Mandelbaum’s central theme? “Because [the United States] will be able to spend less, it will be able to do less. Just what the United States will and will not do will be the most important issue in international relations in the years ahead.” The Frugal Superpower then becomes an exploration of what a less profligate Washington should do.
One need not agree that spending less always means doing less to share Mandelbaum’s view of the Federal budget squeeze. Weighed down by increasing debt service and unaffordable social entitlements, the United States, he concludes, is “well on its way to becoming a giant insurance company albeit one with a sideline in foreign policy.” (For me, this arresting phrase echoes the lament of General Motors executives that their main business had become healthcare and pensions with an automotive sideline.) But are we really headed for a national bankruptcy in effect, if not exactly a literal one, that will require us to shed international obligations (as GM did with its debt) in order to avoid catastrophe?
Mandelbaum says “no.” As he has done in the past, he refuses to join the declinist school that would make of the United States a latter-day British Empire headed for oblivion. He reiterates his view, supported by statistics, that America will remain the world’s largest economy and retain its most powerful military. Even more important, the United States holds the security ring in both Europe and Asia, and most states are therefore not interested in knocking the Americans down or out. The best proof? Despite the predictions of balance-of-power purists that an anti-U.S. coalition would form after the Cold War to “contain” American power, nothing of the sort has developed. Hence, as Mandelbaum sees it, America will still be able to offer its goods for the international commons: security reassurance, containment of nuclear proliferation, and a favorable environment for global economic exchange.
For Mandelbaum, then, the issue is how to manage the coming scarcity without panicking into defeatism, an error that would be the equal opposite of the earlier triumphalism. Here the author morphs into a geopolitician, arguing that three relationships are key to our success: two are with states, Russia and China; and the third is with a region, the Middle East. Upon these depend the future critical foundations of international order, namely, peace, a free market and democracy—“the ideas that conquered the world”, to quote from his 2002 book.
It is not clear, of course, that these ideas have entirely conquered the rulers of China and Russia. Mandelbaum’s discussion of these two powers, however, suggests that China, unlike Russia, has done well enough out of the current system to want to preserve it. The Nixon-era bet that the “opening” to China would result in vast benefits for the peace and stability of Asia (and also end Mao’s totalitarian fantasy) has certainly paid off. But authoritarianism persists and China is less free today than it was earlier in the decade. China’s state “capitalism” and its hyper-efficient export model have certainly benefited the rest of the world, and many hundreds of millions of Chinese have worked their way out of poverty. But its currency policy, its distended trade surplus and increasing difficulties for foreign investors suggest a country playing a zero-sum game. Neither China’s neighbors nor the United States can be happy with its expanding military reach or cyber capability. The occasional burst of hypernationalism against outsiders reminds the rest of the world of grievances just beneath the surface. And the leadership seems unable to make up its collective mind as to whether China is a global power with global responsibility—Robert Zoellick’s “stakeholder”—or a devious developing power primarily interested in a free ride.
Mandelbaum also cannot make up his mind on this dichotomy. Nor should he. Capabilities change and so do ambitions. On balance, he seems to settle on the only sensible policy: a U.S.-run hedge against Chinese temptation—a hedge that, in this more frugal era, will need more help from regional allies.
If China is a modestly revisionist power at the margin, Russia is a very different sort of challenge. While Mandelbaum still faults the United States for expanding NATO in the face of Moscow’s sensitivities, he also senses that Putin’s (and Medvedev’s) “special privileges” regime for the near-abroad is just a lineal descendant of the old Soviet (and Russian) sphere of influence. And he concludes that while the Russians, unlike the Chinese, may really want to upset the current order, especially in Europe, they lack the power to do so. Moscow rules over a weak state with declining demography and an oil-dependent economy. Still, a feckless NATO and America’s new circumstances will complicate dealings with Russia.
Last and not least, Mandelbaum is rather bloody-minded about the Middle East. He derides both Clinton’s effort to tranquilize the region through Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and Bush’s attempt to transform Iraq into a democratic vanguard. On the whole, balance-of-power politics dictate U.S. alliance with the strongest and most reliable of the locals, Israel. The Middle East, however, cannot simply be left safely to its own devices, especially when an Iranian nuclear weapon overshadows its future. So Mandelbaum tries his hand at another transformative strategy—one that might be dubbed “taxing our way to security.” The trick is to wean the United States from Middle East oil by raising the gasoline tax, thereby increasing Federal revenues, making alternative fuels economical and damaging not only Iran but also Saudi Arabia’s malignant influence in Washington. Rarely have I read more enthusiasm for such a “transformative tax”, which, in Mandelbaum’s view, would help nearly everything: It would reduce the strategic value of the Middle East, restore our national virility, and possibly even compare to the containment strategy that eventually brought victory in the Cold War. Indeed, deterrence plus the tax will negate the harm that might flow from an Iranian nuclear capability.
In a tidy summary, Mandelbaum sketches the main elements of a retraction of U.S. power from its resource-flush apogee: no more humanitarian interventions (Clinton) or misadventures in state-building (Bush), and no more America as global consumer of last resort. Still, Washington will have enough power left over to manage Beijing, Moscow and the Middle East. Mandelbaum concludes by cautioning those who cheer American decline: “One thing worse than an America that is too strong, the world will learn, is an America that is too weak.” Frugal, then, but not too frugal.
Mandelbaum manifests considerable courage in tackling the consequences of 9/15, and I endorse his main point: The United States, even under reduced circumstances, has enough wealth and power to secure its own interests. Yet The Frugal Superpower left me with an odd sensation, probably because I disagreed, often, with his analysis of particulars.
Take for starters his thesis that Presidents before Obama, especially Clinton and Bush, were far less concerned about resources, encouraging what he calls the “seatbelt effect”, a phrase borrowed from auto safety studies that show seatbelt wearers may take risks because they think they are safer. The history just doesn’t support his claim. Every Cold War President, indeed every President, has had to consider ways and means. Truman, fearful of a budget catastrophe, reduced U.S. conventional forces to a shadow of their immediate post-World War II selves. Eisenhower saw in the doctrine of massive retaliation a budgetary fix that would avoid large, expensive standing forces. Nixon had to sever the dollar from gold, ending the Bretton Woods system, even as he enunciated the Guam Doctrine calling upon others to share the burden of their defense. Indeed, burden-sharing in NATO remains a perennial problem almost always at the top of the alliance’s “to do” list. Carter vetoed his first defense budget because it spent too much. Reagan borrowed to rearm, and by the end of his presidency two great deficits—budget and trade—would constrain his successor. The first George Bush, he of the fatal “no new taxes” pledge, not only raised taxes but also financed the war for Kuwait largely out of coalition pledges. These were all Presidents acutely aware of economic constraints. So no new age has begun with Obama.
As for the two Presidents Mandelbaum excoriates because of “the huge disparity between the power of the United States and that of all other countries, and the carelessness to which that disparity gave rise”, the record again suggests something else. Bill Clinton, presiding over the sole superpower, focused like a laser on a sickly American economy. He fled Somalia after a small loss, delayed intervention in the Balkans for three years, and, in Kosovo as in Iraq, preferred air power, all the while reducing American military forces by a full third and foregoing a generation of procurement. These were not the deeds of a man unconstrained by scarcity.
As for NATO expansion, Mandelbaum gives too much credence to Putin’s malicious fable whereby a supine Mikhail Gorbachev was tricked out of the empire. It was not the U.S. election of November 1996 that spurred the Atlantic Alliance eastward but rather the Duma election of December 1993 that empowered Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s virulent nationalists, who, along with the Communists, got more than 35 percent of the vote. Clinton, touring Europe not long afterward, allowed himself to be persuaded by the Polish, Czech and Hungarian leaders that the alliance was the last safe haven against a revanchist Russia. Extending NATO to such fractured and vulnerable states as Ukraine and Georgia may indeed be unwise, but to assert that Warsaw, Budapest and Prague should have been left to Moscow’s veto while Russia recuperated would have been the most reckless course of all. And it has yet to be demonstrated how the accession of these states to NATO, aside from wounding Moscow’s imperial pride, has harmed Russia’s security or its economy. Russia’s “alienation” the product of Clinton’s carelessness because the United States had too much power? Hardly.
As for Iraq, one can argue that Bush’s post-Saddam strategy was the product not of an excess of resources but rather the reverse. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld forced the Pentagon to act with fewer troops than the military deemed wise; General Eric Shinseki warned of a 12-division foreign policy with only a ten-division army, and an earnest Paul Wolfowitz explained to Congress how Iraq could pay for its own rehabilitation rather than costing the American taxpayer. The hubris and carelessness here lay not in an excess of power, as Mandelbaum claims, but rather in the folly of trying to exercise it on the cheap.
Last, and not least, Mandelbaum exaggerates the power of taxation to alter America’s strategic stakes in the Middle East. Let us suppose that our oil imports from the Middle East might be miraculously reduced to the level of 1969, when we needed none of it. I doubt we would be more prepared now than we were then to let a single hostile power (or a combination), especially a nuclear-armed Iran, control oil vital to our allies and friends and, indeed, to the open global trading order so beneficial to our interests.
Despite some doubtful narrative, Obama’s faux new age and the carbon-tax fetish, Mandelbaum gets two key strategic points very right. First, 9/15 will compel American foreign policy to sound a new note of frugality. Pretending otherwise will only delay our recovery, and some in Washington already understand this. Indeed, almost on cue for this book, the first trumpet blast has sounded from a most unlikely quarter, the Pentagon, as Secretary of Defense Gates tries to save a defense establishment near drowning from its own excesses.
Second, we do have sufficient resources to cover our vital interests, provided we are wise about it. Less boasting and preaching will certainly improve our diplomacy. More, and more judicious, cultivation of allies will also help. But will scarcity produce the necessary wisdom, or simply different mistakes? On the whole, we’d rather be rich.