Stephen M. Walt

In the war of American decline, should we fight battles at home or abroad?

Remember the "unipolar moment?" You know: that period that began when the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States in an unprecedented position of power. As former President George H.W. Bush put it in 1991, the United States found itself "standing alone at the pinnacle of power, with the rarest opportunity to remake the world." ...

Getty Images
Getty Images

Remember the "unipolar moment?" You know: that period that began when the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving the United States in an unprecedented position of power. As former President George H.W. Bush put it in 1991, the United States found itself "standing alone at the pinnacle of power, with the rarest opportunity to remake the world." And both Democratic and Republican administrations tried to do just that: expanding NATO, supposedly spreading democracy, putting "rogue states" in the cross hairs, and sending the U.S. military into action on virtually every continent.

Of course, in the wake of the financial crisis and the self-inflicted wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, things don’t look quite so rosy today. China’s GDP is likely to overtake America’s in the next decade or so, which will mark the first time in over a century that the United States won’t have the world’s largest economy. China still lags behind the United States on many other indicators of power, so it’s far too soon to talk about a fundamental transfer of power from Washington to Beijing. Nonetheless, its steady rise and obviously growing assertiveness are making plenty of people wonder about how the United States should respond.

So let me simplify this issue for you. Boiled down to its essentials, the biggest question facing U.S. leaders over the next decade or so is whether America’s global position will be enhanced more by successful foreign-policy initiatives, or by successful policy responses here at home. In other words, will America’s long-term security and prosperity be enhanced most by various foreign and defense policy maneuvers, and especially by successful efforts to deal with potentially dangerous situations in various parts of the world? Alternatively, we will be more secure and more prosperous if we do less abroad and use the time and resources to get our house in order here in the United States instead? This is obviously not a simple either/or situation, but the key question is what priority one decides to place on each policy domain.

Those who favor the first position — i.e., who think our security/prosperity depends mostly on the role we play globally — tend to think that the United States faces many threats and that our forward presence in various parts of the world is essential for stability in key regions and indispensable for keeping lots of bad guys at bay. If we aren’t fighting them in Kandahar, flying drones in Pakistan, helping rebel forces in Libya, providing aid and advice in Colombia, so the argument runs, we’ll face rising dangers closer to home. Or sometimes they argue that the United States has a moral responsibility to use its power on behalf of others. This view is most evident among die-hard neoconservatives, but plenty of liberal internationalists still see the United States as the "indispensable nation" that has to shoulder the main burden whenever serious problems arise almost anywhere.

By contrast, people who incline to the second view think that the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has a built-in tendency to overstate threats and a real problem setting clear priorities. They see the United States as remarkably secure and insulated from most problems by two enormous oceans, by a formidable nuclear deterrent, and by strong conventional forces that can tip the balance in key regions like the Persian Gulf. In this view, a lot of what we’ve been doing lately isn’t making Americans richer or more secure, and certainly isn’t worth the cost. They question whether spending $100 billion a year on Afghanistan makes a substantial contribution to American security and believe that sort of money could be better spent on productivity-enhancing projects here at home. When they read that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is about to lay off 4,000-plus teachers in order to close a budget deficit, they see it as one of the many independent policy decisions whose cumulative effect will be to leave America dumber and therefore weaker in the years ahead.

The second group recognizes that America does have a global role to play, but believes that in the end our power and influence depends far more on having a healthy, highly educated, politically loyal, and energetic society here at home than it does on shaping political outcomes in far-flung corners of the world. And the second group tends to think that we’d be a lot more popular in some parts if we weren’t constantly trying to tell others how to live (and blowing things up in order to persuade them).

I’ve been sketching a pretty crude picture, of course, and the proper answer lies somewhere between these two stark alternatives. But as readers of this blog know, in the present era I think it is pretty clear that it is the home front needs the most attention. We do need an active foreign policy, but the emphasis has to be on setting clear priorities, liquidating commitments that are not vital (and may even be counterproductive), and making it clear to others that the United States is not a philanthropic organization with an infinite bank account and endless tolerance for feckless, fickle, or uncooperative allies. (Pakistan heads that list this week, but it is hardly alone). And at the same time, we need to address the eroding infrastructure, failing schools, world-record incarceration rates, elite corruption, and rising economic inequality from which the United States now suffers, all of which pose a far greater long-term threat to our security and prosperity than groups like the Taliban or al Qaeda do.

But here’s the problem. Presidents and their advisors have lots of latitude in foreign policy, and we still have a big defense establishment that gives them lots of options for meddling. Heck, the president can decide it’s a good idea to overthrow the government of Libya and get busy doing it, without asking anyone’s permission or facing significant political opposition. But given the decentralized nature of the U.S. government, the pervasive influence of special interest lobbies, and the present state of political polarization, trying to implement major domestic reforms is like trying to drag a shipping container through quicksand with a bicycle. So it’s no wonder that this administration (like its predecessors) finds it tempting to focus on foreign policy. It ain’t easy, but it’s a lot more fun than trying to fix what’s broken back home.

Closing teaser: Some folks in the DoD seem to have reached similar conclusions to the ones I’ve expressed here, and a paper by two military officers (writing collectively as "Mr. Y") has been receiving some fawning attention in the press lately. Although I’m sympathetic to some of their ideas, the paper itself is a disappointment. I’ll lay out my reasons in a subsequent post.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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