Signs of realism in U.S. grand strategy

The Council on Foreign Relations is not the first place I look for outside-the-box thinking, but can be a useful weather-vane marking shifting attitudes within the establishment. And on that score, two articles in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs merit your attention. The first article, entitled "American Profligacy and American Power," is by former ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

The Council on Foreign Relations is not the first place I look for outside-the-box thinking, but can be a useful weather-vane marking shifting attitudes within the establishment. And on that score, two articles in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs merit your attention.

The first article, entitled "American Profligacy and American Power," is by former Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman and Council President Richard Haass. It is telling indictment of past policy errors that have undermined American power, and it is refreshing that Altman and Haass outline the strategic implications clearly. Some money quotations, with my emphasis added:

One way or the other, by action or reaction, there will be a profound shift in U.S. fiscal policy if the U.S. government continues to overspend. Deficits will be cut sharply through a combination of big spending cuts, tax increases, and, quite possibly, re-imposed budget rules. No category of spending or taxpayers will be spared."

The Council on Foreign Relations is not the first place I look for outside-the-box thinking, but can be a useful weather-vane marking shifting attitudes within the establishment. And on that score, two articles in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs merit your attention.

The first article, entitled "American Profligacy and American Power," is by former Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman and Council President Richard Haass. It is telling indictment of past policy errors that have undermined American power, and it is refreshing that Altman and Haass outline the strategic implications clearly. Some money quotations, with my emphasis added:

One way or the other, by action or reaction, there will be a profound shift in U.S. fiscal policy if the U.S. government continues to overspend. Deficits will be cut sharply through a combination of big spending cuts, tax increases, and, quite possibly, re-imposed budget rules. No category of spending or taxpayers will be spared."

But the impact of the United States’ skyrocketing debt will not be limited to the behavior of markets or central bankers. Federal spending will decrease once the inevitable fiscal adjustment occurs, and defense spending will go down with it. …

The good news is that total defense spending could be reduced by five percent or even ten percent without materially weakening the United States’ security if (and admittedly it is a big if) the cuts are done intelligently…

Military operations need to be subject to cuts, too, if defense spending is to come down significantly without reducing the number of people in uniform. Together, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost more than $150 billion a year. The combat role of U.S. forces in Iraq has ended, and only 50,000 troops remain there. … [T]here is a strategic argument for maintaining some U.S. forces in Iraq beyond December 2011 … Nevertheless, the new fiscal order in Washington could require Iraq to pay for all or at least part of that presence, or go without it.

Shrinking budgets are likely to have an even greater impact on the future of the U.S. role in Afghanistan. . . . [A] U.S. military presence in Afghanistan at or close to 100,000 soldiers will cost around $100 billion a year. The coming fiscal austerity and the need to find cost savings in the defense sphere argue against maintaining that expense. Indeed, economic and strategic arguments both call into question the counterinsurgency approach of fighting the Taliban and the nation-building approach of investing heavily in the development of the Afghan government’s capabilities and institutions. They suggest a more modest counterterrorism approach: going after the terrorists directly with drones, cruise missiles, and Special Forces, much as the United States is doing in Yemen and Somalia."

Wow. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was reading the Afghanistan Study Group report.

Then follow up Altman and Haass with Council President-emeritus Leslie Gelb’s essay "GDP Now Matters More than Force." Although I’m not sure that title is fully justified, it’s hard to argue with the following sentiments:

"Because Beijing has been playing the new economic game at a maestro level — staying out of wars and political confrontations and zeroing in on business — its global influence far exceeds its existing economic strength. China gains extra power from others’ expectations of its future growth. The country has become a global economic giant without becoming a global military power. Nations do not fear China’s military might; they fear its ability to give or withhold trade and investments.

And yet, for all the novel characteristics of the present era, there is one stunning constant: the national security strategy of the United States. Whereas other countries have adjusted to the new economics-based order, Washington has been tardy. … it must adjust its approach to recognize that economics is now at the center of geopolitics. Washington’s failure to do so has already cost it in blood, treasure, and influence. Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, leaders in Washington proclaim their awareness of the new economic order but lack any semblance of a new national security strategy to embrace it."

Can you say "offshore balancing?" I knew you could, and so can I. In fact, a few of us have been pushing variations on this idea for some years now. When experienced insiders like Gelb, Haass, and Altman are moving in that direction, it’s a sign that reality is starting to catch up with the "pay any price and bear any burden" world-view that has distorted U.S. foreign policy for decades. I hope somebody in the new Congress listens, and that Obama and his team of liberal interventionists does too.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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