This relatively short book is predicated on a consequential idea: The biggest threat to America’s security and prosperity comes not from abroad but from within. The United States has jeopardized its ability to act effectively in the world because of runaway domestic spending, underinvestment in human and physical capital, an avoidable financial crisis, an unnecessarily slow recovery, a war in Iraq that was flawed from the outset and a war in Afghanistan that became flawed as its purpose evolved, recurring fiscal deficits, and deep political divisions. For the United States to continue to act successfully abroad, it must restore the domestic foundations of its power. Foreign policy needs to begin at home, now and for the foreseeable future.
Foreign Policy Begins at Home is a book that I never imagined writing. Sandpaper off the nuances and subtleties, and this is a book that argues for less foreign policy of the sort the United States has been conducting and greater emphasis on domestic investment and policy reform. For someone such as me, a card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment for nearly four decades, this borders on heresy.
What got me to this point? More than anything else it began with the second Iraq war (begun in 2003) and the Afghan troop surge initiated in 2009. I mention both because my differences over the trajectory of American foreign policy are not with a single party. Many participants in the foreign policy debate in both parties appear to have forgotten the injunction of former president and secretary of state John Quincy Adams (that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy”), along with the lessons of Vietnam about the limits of military force and the tendency of local realities to prevail over global abstractions. As was the case with Vietnam, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan (as of 2009) was a war of necessity; more important, neither was a justifiable war of choice. In both cases, the interests at stake were decidedly less than vital. In both cases, alternative policies were available that promised outcomes of comparable benefit to this country at far less cost. And in both cases, history and even a cursory study of the societies in question suggested that ambitious attempts to refashion the workings and political cultures of these countries would founder. What is more, all this was predictable at the time. Now, with the advantage of hindsight, we can see that more than a decade of enormous sacrifice has hurt this country’s reputation for judgment and competence and failed to produce results in any way commensurate with the human, military, and economic costs of the undertakings. Such an imbalance between means and ends makes no strategic sense at the best of times; it is even less defensible now, when the United States faces difficult challenges to its solvency.
This book grows naturally out of two previous books of mine. The Reluctant Sheriff, published in 1997 in the early years of the post-Soviet, post–Cold War era, argued the United States, at a time when it enjoyed extraordinary advantages and possibilities to influence other governments, risked squandering a unique chance to bring about lasting change in the world by aiming too low and trying too little in the way of erecting new international institutions able to contend with emerging global challenges. The second, published in 2005 and called The Opportunity, made the case that the United States was trying to do too much of the wrong thing (most notably, the 2003 Iraq war) and again argued for greater efforts to establish enduring international arrangements that would help tame globalization and curb the all-too-real economic and security threats to American interests and global order.
Where this book differs most from my previous books is in its focus on domestic policy, for remaking ourselves more than the world. There are, of course, external challenges, including but hardly limited to a rising China, a militarized North Korea, an Iran possibly moving to acquire nuclear weapons, an unstable Pakistan, violent terrorists, and a warming planet. These are real and justified concerns that warrant serious responses. But what makes the situation particularly worrisome are a large number of internal developments, including a burgeoning deficit and debt, crumbling infrastructure, second-class schools, an outdated immigration system, and the prospect for a prolonged period of low economic growth. Many of the foundations of this country’s power are eroding; the effect, however, is not limited to a deteriorating transportation system or jobs that go unfilled or overseas owing to a lack of qualified American workers. To the contrary, shortcomings here at home directly threaten America’s ability to project power and exert influence overseas, to compete in the global marketplace, to generate the resources needed to promote the full range of US interests abroad, and to set a compelling example that will influence the thinking and behavior of others. As a result, the ability of the United States to act and lead in the world is diminishing. I would prefer not to test the notion that this country requires a full-fledged crisis, be it in the form of a run on the dollar or some catastrophe brought about by terrorists or nature, to get its government to do what needs doing, in part because if it does, it will be that much more painful and expensive to address the shortcomings of America’s economy, schools, immigration policy, infrastructure, and much more.
I write all this with the expectation I may well be caricatured on two fronts. One possibility is that I will be depicted as a defeatist, just another apostle of American decline. So let me be as clear as I can: I believe the United States enjoys great strengths and great potential. The US economy is the world’s largest and is still growing; the best in American higher education is the best in the world; this society remains remarkably innovative and adaptive; its endowment of fresh water, energy, and arable land is nothing less than bountiful; and the population is relatively “balanced” in that it suffers from neither the bulges in young people nor old people that characterize so many other societies around the world. Recent breakthroughs in domestic oil and gas production thanks to new technologies and techniques are but the latest example of this country’s ability to handle the significant challenges it faces.
But to say the United States is not in decline is something different from suggesting Americans ought to be sanguine with where they are and where they are heading. Given its considerable endowments and advantages, this country is clearly underperforming. Meanwhile, many other countries are performing better than they did in the past, and in some areas are doing better than the United States. The combination of these trends bodes poorly for the ability of the United States to compete economically and to shape international events.
I also anticipate being denounced as an isolationist. Isolationism is the willful turning away from the world even when a rigorous assessment of national interests argues for acting on their behalf. Isolationism makes absolutely no sense in the twenty-first century. Even if it wanted to, the United States could not wall itself off from global threats such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, trade and investment protectionism, pandemic disease, climate change, or a loss of access to financial, energy, or mineral resources. Borders are not the same as barriers. The US government must be active in addressing these threats. There are also opportunities to be had, including the possibility of lifting hundreds of millions and potentially billions of people out of poverty, increasing the quality of life as well as life expectancy, expanding individual freedom, and settling disputes before they lead to armed conflict. Embracing isolationism would accelerate the emergence of a more disorderly and dangerous world, one that would be less safe, less free, and less prosperous. Isolationism would be folly.
At the same time, the United States must become significantly more discriminating in choosing what it does in the world and how it does it. Hard choices need to be made. It is not simply that it needs to recognize that the limits to its resources require it to be exacting in setting priorities; it must also recognize the limits to its influence. The United States needs to rethink what it seeks to accomplish abroad. Americans must distinguish between the desirable and the vital as well as between the feasible and the impossible. For the past two decades, American foreign policy, consumed with remaking large parts of the greater Middle East, has quite simply overreached. There is a strong case to be made that US attention and efforts should be better distributed around the world, with greater focus on the increasingly critical Asia-Pacific region and the Western Hemisphere and somewhat less on the Middle East; there is an even stronger case that US foreign policy should focus not so much on what other countries are within their borders and more on what they do outside their borders. This will be difficult at times, as situations will arise in which standing aside will appear to be immoral or strategically shortsighted or both; that said, the United States needs to balance its desire to do good with its ability to do good—as well as with the need to do many other things on behalf of its citizens at home and its interests abroad. To mount an effective foreign policy the United States must first put its house in order. The most obvious reason is resources. National security does not come cheap. Money—lots of it—is required to field a capable modern military with a broad range of missions, to generate necessary intelligence against a broad range of threats, to protect the homeland against a broad range of contingencies, to carry out diplomacy and dispense assistance to promote a broad range of interests. The United States now spends close to $800 billion a year on these tasks—roughly onefifth of all federal spending and some 5 percent of total GDP. The economy must grow at traditional rates (near or above 3 percent) and domestic spending that does not qualify as investment must be kept in check if this country is not to be forced to choose between national security and all else. Alas, the US economy is now growing at only half this rate, while domestic spending that has nothing to do with investment is rising.
The United States is far more likely to find itself threatened and attacked if it is perceived to be weak and vulnerable. A strong United States will discourage would-be competitors or adversaries from going down the path of confrontation. A strong United States would make others more likely to work with it than against it. And a strong United States would be better able to deal with any foe that miscalculated.
The United States must also put its house in order if it is to avoiding placing itself in a position of high vulnerability to forces or actions beyond its control. Right now the US government requires an inflow of more than $1 billion a day to support a gross federal debt that stands at about $16 trillion and increases by more than $1 trillion a year. We can look to our own history to see what can happen when foreign governments obtain this kind of leverage. In 1956, the US government, furious over Great Britain’s participation in the invasion of Egypt after Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, blocked international loans the British needed to avert a collapse of their currency. The British government of the day was forced to back down. Now imagine what might happen were China to threaten a similar action against the United States amid a crisis over Taiwan or the South China Sea.
Another scenario is simply one in which money markets lose confidence in America’s ability to manage its own finances and start to exact a higher price for their continued willingness to lend money. This would force the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, not for the traditional purpose of cooling inflationary pressures, but rather to attract needed dollars that demand a higher return given concerns over American credit-worthiness. This would spell disaster for an economy barely out of recession. This scenario might have come to pass already had it not been for the Eurozone crisis, which removed a viable alternative to the dollar. But Americans cannot count on Europeans to forever do the wrong thing, or on China’s remaining unwilling to allow its currency to take on an international role.
Then there is the power of example. A successful American economy, one that is generating wealth and jobs and innovation, along with a successful American political system and society, one that is willing and able to take difficult but necessary decisions, presents not just the image but the reality of a country functioning at a high level, one with political freedom, a high and rising standard of living, and social mobility. This is a model other countries will want to emulate. The battle of ideas is far from over; indeed, it has grown more intense with the economic success of China and other authoritarian regimes, with the difficulties experienced by the mature democracies in 2008 and subsequently, and with the dramatic developments that have taken place across the Middle East starting in late 2010. Foreign policy is not just about what diplomats say and soldiers do: It is also about the example a country sets.
It is also true that a more effective foreign policy would redound to the benefit of Americans at home, with more resources to be spent on and in their society, be it by individuals or the federal, state, and local government to enhance the quality of life, standard of living, or security. A more peaceful and organized world would create conditions in which the American economy should thrive. And a thriving economy—one growing at relatively robust levels—will improve the lot of most Americans. This is important, as tolerance for income and wealth inequality tends to be greater if everyone’s situation is improving. Absent such growth, social and economic mobility will atrophy and class frictions will increase, leaving the population focused inward.
It is not too late for the United States to put its house in order. It is not simply a case of necessity; currently it has an extraordinary opportunity to do so. The world is a relatively forgiving place now and for the foreseeable future. There is no twenty-first-century equivalent to what Germany was in the first half of the twentieth century and the Soviet Union was in the second. Of course, there are actual and potential threats to American interests and well-being, but none rises to the existential. China could in theory come to challenge the United States for primacy, but it is far from assured that it will have the means and the appetite to do so. In any event, and as will be discussed, any such challenge is neither inevitable nor imminent. The United States is fortunate to have something of a strategic respite; how long-lasting and extensive it will be will, of course, depend in part on the decisions and actions of others. But even more it will depend on how successful the United States proves to be at repairing the foundations of its power, how disciplined it can be at wielding that power, and how wise it is in providing others an incentive to share in the building and operating of the international order.
This book is divided into three parts. The first focuses on the world, on the principal features of the international system a generation after the end of the Cold War, just over a decade after 9/11, and half a decade after the onset of the American and then global economic crisis. The picture is one of American primacy—first among unequals, if you will—but also one of widely diffused power and technology in a world lacking in mechanisms for dealing with most of the challenges that already exist or soon will; a world in which some regions show far more dynamism than others; an era in which it is often difficult to translate power into influence; and a time in which governments are finding it hard to manage at home and cooperate abroad.
The second part of the book is more prescriptive, focusing on what the United States should and should not do abroad. The theme is one of a more discriminating foreign policy, both in what is sought and what is spent, complemented by a more disciplined domestic policy. The book will argue for the adoption of a new American foreign policy, one defined by a doctrine that would bring to an end an era characterized by large land wars designed to refashion countries in the greater Middle East, and replace it with an approach to the world that would place greater emphasis on the Asia-Pacific and Western Hemisphere, on instruments of statecraft other than the military, and on shaping more how other governments act beyond their borders rather than within.
The book’s third part is also mostly prescriptive, but focuses on how America should tackle its internal challenges. The recommendations address the budget, energy, education, infrastructure, and immigration. The book also suggests economic policies that, if adopted, should stimulate growth, and political reforms that, if introduced, would make it more likely that the country’s leaders would, or at least could, do what needs doing. The stakes are enormous. The world will not sort itself out absent US leadership. This is not a call for unilateralism, which in most instances is not a viable option. Nor is it a reflection of American arrogance. It is simple fact. No other country has the capacity, habits, and willingness to take on this responsibility. Without such a benign force, order never just emerges. No invisible hand is at work to sort out the geopolitical marketplace. The question is whether the visible hand of the United States will be up to the challenge. One sincerely hopes for this to be so, as nothing less than the future of this country and the character of the twenty-first century are in the balance.