A year or so after the ‘liberation’ of Iraq, an unnamed senior Bush administration official (later revealed to be Karl Rove) boasted: ‘We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’ Yet a decade later, America’s power and influence has diminished considerably and the American people are suffering from foreign policy fatigue.
The greenback is weak, the debt mountain is of Himalayan proportions, the credit rating is downgraded and economic growth is exceptionally sluggish for a nation that is four years out of a recession. The Chinese own more and more of the US debt and they show no inclination to heed Washington’s demands to revalue the yuan or end their cyber-espionage or prevent North Korea from using nuclear weapons. And whereas two decades ago US military power was universally considered awesome, today the world is much more aware of its costs and limitations, and it is decidedly less impressed.
The ‘reality’ is that the age of US unipolarity, which began with the collapse of Soviet communism, is being increasingly replaced by a world populated by new assertive players, such as China, India, -Brazil, Turkey and, if its intervention in Syria is any guide, even Russia. Meanwhile, Americans are tired of the world. In last year’s presidential candidate, foreign policy was the dog that did not bark.
If I were asked to nominate a book on America’s role in the post-Iraq-war era, Richard N. Haass’s Foreign Policy Begins at Home would join a very short list (along with Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World and Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power.) A high-ranking strategist in the administrations of both George Bush Sr and Jr and the long-serving president of the Council of Foreign Relations, Haass is a self-described ‘card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment’. What distinguishes him from most Washington international relations wonks is that he has no truck with indiscriminate global interventionism (‘global leadership’, in common, high-toned, jingoistic parlance). ‘To mount an effective foreign policy,’ he insists, ‘the United States must first put its house in order.’
The biggest threat to America’s security and prosperity comes not just from abroad but from within. The US has jeopardised its ability to act effectively in the world because of runaway domestic spending, under-investment 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 US to continue to act successfully abroad, it must restore the domestic foundations of its power.
Until recently, such views were confined to the likes of the late George McGovern on the left, or Ron Paul on the right. But American public opinion on foreign policy has shifted so dramatically — away from the hubris and sweeping proclamations of the Bush years to the more cautious mindset of the Obama era — that even a veteran Republican foreign-policy insider is prepared to dabble with heresy and question the merits of a Pax Americana.
To be sure, Haass is no declinist. He rightly maintains that the US is still the pre-eminent economic and military global power with demography and resources on its side. It also has great powers for self-correction. But he does concede that America is ‘underperforming’ and that Washington urgently needs to place more emphasis on putting its house in order. That means rebuilding infrastructure, reforming an outdated immigration system and cutting US welfare-entitlement spending, which most economists recognise is on an unsustainable trajectory. Whether a dysfunctional and polarised political system that is beholden to special interests can respond adequately to such challenges remains to be seen.
Haass is adamant that, far from amounting to a new isolationism, his approach stresses a more discriminating foreign policy, pursued with a prudent calculation of resources and commitments, while reordering priorities in favour of tackling internal challenges. President Obama agrees when he declares that ‘nation-building begins at home’, but he has so far failed to set out a more scrupulous definition of which wars are and are not wars of necessity. He should read this book.