Grand Strategy: The Four Pillars of the Future
Conservatives do not offer a credible alternative to this first plank of a progressive agenda. They not only fail to appreciate the vital link between bipartisanship and national security but deliberately seek to undermine political consensus. President George W. Bush sought to exploit, not repair, political divides; his advisers explicitly advocated polarizing policies that catered to the Republican base, not the moderate center. Since Obama entered office, Republicans have consistently sought to obstruct his foreign policies—regardless of the substantive merits. Many Republicans opposed his effective reconfiguration of European missile defense, charged that his successful reset with Russia was a sellout, and criticized his calibrated approach to participating in NATO’s intervention in Libya.
Conservatives also fail to offer a realistic program for economic renewal. They focus only on reductions in government spending and ignore the urgent need for new revenue and public investment. Additionally, their refusal to raise taxes on high earners demonstrates their disregard for economic inequality and its contribution to the fracturing of America’s political center. America’s strength on the world stage depends on a social cohesion borne of shared prosperity. Through shortsighted economic policies, conservatives are making the nation divided at home and weak abroad.
Balancing Means and Ends
A progressive grand strategy must help guide the United States from its current state of overextension toward a new balance between its foreign policy ends and its economic and political means. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the scope of America’s commitment has far outstripped the interests at stake. The Iraq War, as unnecessary as it has been expensive, has drained the nation’s coffers and ground down the U.S. military. In Afghanistan, it makes little sense for the United States to spend more than $100 billion per year in a nation whose annual GDP is roughly $14 billion, or for 100,000 U.S. troops to be in the fight when Al Qaeda’s operational capability in that country has been largely dismantled. An open-ended strategy of counterinsurgency should give way to a much smaller U.S. mission focused on counterterrorism.
At the same time that U.S. commitments have outrun interests, America’s resources for projecting power abroad are also contracting. Funding for the State Department, including for foreign assistance, is on the chopping block. The Pentagon is entering an era of lean times. And the U.S. public—which should not determine foreign policy, but should certainly inform it—is turning inward; a recent Pew survey found that 46 percent of Americans believe the country “should mind its own business” and 76 percent want us to “concentrate more on our own national problems” rather than on challenges far afield, by historical standards very high measures of isolationist sentiment. Taken together, these facts necessitate that the country scale back its international commitments to bring them into line with diminishing means.
In the first instance, strategic retrenchment requires completing the exit from Iraq and ensuring the expeditious drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to minimum levels. It also means limiting the scope of U.S. involvement in other, less-than-vital military missions, as Obama has successfully done in Libya. That operation similarly demonstrated the merits of greater American reliance on allies; France, Britain, and other European members of NATO carried their fair share. Around the globe, Washington should look to partners—EU members, Turkey, the Gulf sheikdoms, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Brazil—to shoulder heavier military burdens and help manage local crises. Greater reliance on regional organizations also holds the promise of a more equitable distribution of responsibility. With American encouragement and assistance, groupings such as the EU, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the African Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can be more effective contributors to security in their own regions.
Progressives must also not shy away from arguing forcefully that U.S. foreign policy has been over-militarized since 9/11. America’s military primacy is a precious national asset, but hard power has its limits. As has been made painfully clear in Iraq and Afghanistan, force can be very effective at punishing adversaries—but it is a blunt instrument when it comes to securing desired political outcomes. Accordingly, the United States needs to put greater emphasis on diplomacy, preventive action, development assistance, and trade when dealing with troubled regions.
The United States of course must guard against doing too little. Especially in the Persian Gulf and East Asia, retrenchment must be accompanied by words and deeds that reassure allies of America’s staying power. Moreover, there is no substitute for the use of force in dealing with imminent threats. Only through relentless military pursuit has the United States succeeded in eliminating numerous leaders of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. In the aftermath of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States needs to refurbish its armed forces and remain ready for the full spectrum of potential missions.
Progressives have the right formula for finding this balance between doing too much and too little. Going back to the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the progressive foreign policy agenda has consistently embraced a liberal internationalism that is equal parts power and partnership. America’s military strength will remain as central to global stability in the years ahead as it has been in the past. However, like the geopolitical and economic successes of the twentieth century, the path to security and prosperity will require leveraging America’s strengths by working with allies and sustaining an institutionalized rules-based order. Progressives should also stand by the broader liberal agenda of promoting democracy, human rights, universal education, and economic openness.
Progressive vigor in restoring equilibrium between America’s goals abroad and its means at home is needed more than ever. The centrist wing of the Republican Party, which since World War II has steadily backed liberal internationalism, is on life support. In the meantime, neoconservatives and Tea Party supporters have increased their influence over Republican positions on foreign affairs. Shorn of their centrist caucus, Republicans are poised to do either far too much or far too little—depending upon which wing of the party holds sway.
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