THE PLANK JANUARY 23, 2009
Three current articles sum up for me the global, and not
merely national, mess in which we find
ourselves--and also offer a way out. My colleague Peter Beinart has an
excellent column in which he
recommends that the United States adopt Walter Lippmann's approach to foreign
policy, which Lippmann dubbed the theory of solvency--that a country should
match its commitments to its resources and capabilities. (It comes from a wonderful little book, US
Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic that Lippmann wrote in the summer of
I think this is the right approach on three grounds: First,
financially and militarily and politically, we don't have the resources to
pursue multiple wars when our immediate survival is not at stake; secondly, with
a depression looming, we lack the sheer ability to focus on multiple geopolitical
as well as economic threats--during the recession of 1981-2, Ronald Reagan
fired Secretary of State Alexander Haig for trying to drag the U.S. into war in
Central America; third, we've overreached in our objectives in the Middle East.
As a matter of fact, we can't remake a nation like Afghanistan according to our own
image no matter how many resources we pour into it.
So retrenchment of sorts is necessary--and that requires
compromise and choosing our enemies carefully.
Beinart argues that we need Iran
to maintain the peace in Iraq
and to help achieve some semblance of order in Lebanon and Israel/Palestine and
that we should make concessions to obtain its help. He also argues for an opening to parts of the
Taliban and perhaps, a willingness to talk with Hamas and Hizbullah--at the least, to distinguish between them and al Qaeda. Beinart dwells mainly on the Middle East, but
I think he could have added China
to the countries toward which we must adopt a careful diplomacy that eschews
unnecessary provocations. That doesn't
mean in these cases that the U.S.
should close down the Pentagon. As Beinart points out, soft power is not a panacea;
it works best when backed up by the threat of military force. Our problem at the present is that we are
limited in our exercise of hard and soft power.
My one reservation about Beinart's analysis is that he give
sufficient emphasis to the global economic threat. He thinks that as the global recession
abates, and as we balance better our objectives and resources, we will be able
to adopt a strategy of collective security, which might begin with a common
approach to global warming. I think
there is a term missing in this equation.
To stem this global recession, we are going to need something like a new
international monetary agreement. Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini point to the threat of
global recession; Martin Wolf argues
that something like a Bretton Woods II will be necessary to stem it.
Let me say two things about this point: First, I think that
as long as a global downturn continues, it will be very difficult to get
nations to agree to the kind of economic sacrifices that a significant, and not
merely a symbolic, global warming treaty will entail; secondly, if this recession
does devolve into a global depression, as Bremmer and Roubini suggest it might,
then it could reshuffle the geopolitical deck and turn rivalry into conflict,
as the depression of the 1930s did. Yes,
the imperfection of Versailles
played a role in sparking World War II, but so did the great depression. That makes a solution to the international
economic imbalances all the more urgent.
--John B. Judis