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Belt-Tightening for U.S. Foreign Policy

Interviewee: Michael Mandelbaum, Christian Herter Professor, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University
Interviewer: Roya Wolverson
December 2, 2010

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Partisan squabbling on U.S. spending priorities continued following the release of the White House's deficit-reduction commission report on December 1. Some Democratic lawmakers lamented proposed cuts to entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security and an increase in the retirement age from 67 to 69, while Republican lawmakers objected to suggested tax increases and cuts to military spending. Though the report is unlikely to garner political agreement on needed cuts, says SAIS foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum, it drives home the message that "everybody will have to take a hit." Mandelbaum, author of the book The Frugal Superpower: America's Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era, says an inevitable result of deficit reductions for U.S. foreign policy will be fewer U.S. interventions abroad. Still, he stresses the need for continued military presence in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. U.S. presence in East Asia is especially vital to economic growth, says Mandelbaum, since U.S. naval forces protect international trade routes. He says the greatest threat likely to emerge from a reduced U.S. presence abroad is Iran, which could attempt to "control the supplies of oil on which the global economy depends."

How effective is the deficit commission report in rallying political support for the kind of budgets cuts needed to tackle the U.S. debt problem?

I doubt that this report by itself will create a political consensus in favor of the painful adjustments that will be needed. But it does give the issue of deficit reduction higher visibility and brings us closer to the moment when the country will take serious action.

Do the recommendations prioritize in the right areas?

One can quibble with this or that recommendation, but there are two major points that are supremely important emerging from the report. One is that deficit reduction is an urgent priority for the United States. The other is that deficit reduction will have to be broad-based. Everybody will have to take a hit.

When the draft plan by deficit commission co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles was released, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the proposed cuts were "math, not strategy" (WSJ) and that they threatened national security. How can the United States strike the right balance between preserving national security and breaking from fiscal dependence on countries like China?

The open international economic order is protected by the U.S. military presence around the world, especially the U.S. naval presence which protects the trading routes.

The first step is to understand that the needs of deficit reduction will require that resources for foreign policy and defense will be reduced. When the country gets serious about deficit reduction, taxes will rise and federal programs including Social Security and Medicare will be cut, despite what politicians promised in the last election. In those circumstances, with Americans paying more to their government and getting less from it, there will be enormous and irresistible pressure to reduce the defense budget and other foreign policy spending. That will be a political reality if not an absolute economic necessity. Given those all but certain circumstances, it is the responsibility of the government and the opportunity of the foreign policy community to think through what the United States' foreign policy priorities should be. What is vital for us and what, while maybe perhaps desirable, is dispensable?

Your latest book argues that deficit reduction will limit the scope of U.S. foreign policy. What will those limits look like, and what does that say about how the United States should be prioritizing its foreign policy investments?

As a result of deficit reduction and the political climate that it will create, we will not engage in the future in the kinds of military interventions that the United States has practiced over the last two decades. For the foreseeable future there will be no more Somalias, Haitis, Bosnias, Kosovos, Afghanistans, or Iraqs. In addition, there will be powerful political pressure to reduce defense spending, to reduce the defense budget, at least somewhat. As I argue in the book, the most important foreign policy priorities for the United States are to maintain the U.S. political and military presence in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. And I hope that as the scope of foreign policy is reduced, those commitments will retain support in the United States.

What about the tradeoff between short-term cuts and long-term economic growth? Are we jeopardizing future investments in national security by spending less now to fuel growth?

There's no doubt that the best cure for a deficit is economic growth, and we should not take steps that will artificially choke off economic growth. And we should make investments that will promote economic growth in the future. There is a conflict between what is economically sensible to do in the short term, which may require more deficit spending, and what is economically necessary to do in the long term, which is to reduce our deficits. But where foreign policy is concerned, we have to think about the long term, and that means thinking about setting clear priorities.

My preference would be for more investment in genuine growth-producing programs--especially science, technology, research and development --on which the future of the U.S. economy depends.

There's a lot of belt-tightening going on around the world right now, particularly in Europe. Do you expect U.S. allies around the world to pick up the slack as the United States cuts back?

The United States will continue to be number one, and I do not see any country or group of countries taking the United States' place in providing global public goods that underpin security and prosperity.

That is a very important question, and my answer is a regretful but unambiguous "no." I do not think that our friends and allies will help us pick up the slack. They, too, are economically pressed. That means that the things the United States does in and for the world, if the United States ceases to do them, will not get done. And since most of what the United States does in the world is good for the world, as well as for the United States, a more modest U.S. foreign policy of the kind that is in prospect is not good for the world. But I fear it cannot be avoided.

Are there any foreign policy benefits to a lower-profile United States? Where will the U.S. rank as a global power once we cut back?

The United States will continue to be number one, and I do not see any country or group of countries taking the United States' place in providing global public goods that underpin security and prosperity. The United States functions as the world's de facto government. A weaker United States does not mean that some other power will take the place of the U.S. as the world's government; it means rather the world will get less governance.

China seems to be waiting for U.S. global prominence to decline, but you've said China too, will suffer from a weaker U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region gives China's neighbors confidence that if China should undertake aggressive foreign policy, the United States would be on hand to help deter China. If, for whatever reason, the United States should withdraw completely, those countries would be on their own in confronting China. One possible direction that Japanese and Taiwanese foreign policy, for example, might take would be to acquire nuclear weapons, which is certainly something that China does not favor. At the same time, China depends greatly on an open international economic order with free trade and investment. This has helped fuel China's remarkable economic growth. But the open international economic order is protected by the U.S. military presence around the world, especially the U.S. naval presence which protects the trading routes. Without the global U.S. presence, international economic prospects and the economic prospects for China would become much more uncertain.

What other threats will arise from a reduced U.S. presence abroad?

The greatest threat is a much more aggressive and dangerous Iran, which in the worst case could dominate the Persian Gulf and control the supplies of oil on which the global economy depends. There is no power other than the United States capable of checking Iran, and it is extremely important that whatever the economic and political climate the deficit reduction creates, the United States continue this role. A nuclear-armed Iran would be even more dangerous and difficult to control.

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