Stephen M. Walt

Nation building at home: Why we need roads, bridges, and boring stuff like that

In The Origins of Alliances (1987), I wrote: "…the domestic situation of the United States may be more important than anything else. External events impinge on U.S. power; internal conditions generate it. Losses abroad will add up slowly (if at all) and will be compensated by balancing behavior by allies and by the United States ...

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

In The Origins of Alliances (1987), I wrote:

"…the domestic situation of the United States may be more important than anything else. External events impinge on U.S. power; internal conditions generate it. Losses abroad will add up slowly (if at all) and will be compensated by balancing behavior by allies and by the United States itself. Thus a final prescription is to avoid policies that jeopardize the health of the U.S. economy. It is far more important to maintain a robust and productive economic system than it is to correct some minor weaknesses in defense capability or to control the outcome of some insignificant clash in the developing world." (p. 284)

I wrote those lines before the Cold War ended; they are even more true today. I thought of them as I read Edward Luce’s perceptive discussion of America’s deteriorating infrastructure in yesterday’s Financial Times. Money paragraph:

"…most Americans are unaware of how far behind the rest of the world their country has fallen. According to the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness report, U.S. infrastructure ranks below 20th in most of the nine categories, and below 30 for quality of air transport and electricity supply. The U.S. gave birth to the internet — the kind of decentralized network that the U.S. power grid desperately needs. Yet according to the OECD club of mostly rich nations, average U.S. internet speeds are barely a 10th of those in countries such as South Korea and Germany. In an age where the global IT superhighway is no longer a slogan, this is no joke."

Why aren’t Americans more concerned about their eroding infrastructure? Luce argues we’ve just adapted to delays, discomfort, and inefficiencies, much as the fabled frog supposedly doesn’t recognize it is being boiled to death if the temperature in the pot rises slowly. But I’d argue there are a number of other forces at work.

The first is militarized patriotism: It’s easier to get Americans to cheer when a B-2 or the Blue Angels does a flyover above a football game than it is to get them to take pride in a truly modern flight tracking system that would streamline commercial air travel. Similarly, it is easier to scare taxpayers by inflating foreign threats than it is to get them to put money into roads, bridges and other safety features that would reduce U.S. highway fatalities. We all know that nearly 3000 people died on September 11, 2001, but we never notice the deaths that might have been avoided if we had better hospitals, highways, and a more productive economy that kept fewer people in poverty.

Combine the hyping of foreign dangers with America’s liberal idealism, and you get a country that will pour a trillion or more dollars into Iraq and Afghanistan, send special forces and drones into countries of little or no strategic value, and spend more time worrying about who’s going to run Syria than it does worrying about conditions here at home.

Second, and following from the first, infrastructure improvements don’t enjoy the support of large and well-organized lobbies constantly beating the drum for keeping our infrastructure in good working order. Such groups aren’t non-existent, but their political power pales in comparison with other groups who are constantly thrusting their hands into the public till.

And then there’s the time lag: Building road, bridges, internet capacity, air traffic control, a robust power grid, and protections against climate change/rising sea levels will be expensive and take years to complete. Equally important, the benefits accrue far into the future, long after today’s politicians are gone. It takes foresight and a powerful sense of civic duty to invest in things that will mostly benefit future generations, which is why today’s politicians are more likely to pander to today’s voters and to well-heeled interest groups, instead of helping the country as a whole prepare for the future.

Lastly, as Luce notes, the GOP is no longer interested in federally-funded and managed programs for building national infrastructure, and their long campaign to convince Americans that government is always the problem and never the solution has undermined public support for a major campaign to rebuild the sinews of the U.S. economy. Their skepticism doesn’t apply to military spending, however, even though it is hardly a model of efficiency (see my first point above).

This is not an argument for gutting defense, by the way; but cutting defense is clearly implied. More to the point, it is an argument for not squandering lots of money elsewhere when there are obvious needs here at home. And let’s not forget that building infrastructure is actually something we know how to do, unlike the various costly projects of "nation-building" we’ve taken on elsewhere.

So here’s a basic strategic principle that we’ve largely forgotten over the past seventy years, but which would serve us well today: Let’s first make sure our leaders have done all we can to improve the lives of Americans — you know, the citizens who work and pay taxes to support the government — before they take on various international projects whose primary purpose is to benefit someone else. The United States shouldn’t retreat into isolationism, of course, and it would still do things abroad that contributed directly and significantly to making Americans safer and more prosperous. Such actions would include support for an open world economy, maintaining "command of the commons," and helping maintain balances of power in key regions (but not trying to do it all ourselves).

Most importantly, we would not take on the various philanthropic projects embraced by neoconservative hawks, liberal imperialists, and other apostles of American "greatness" until we had addressed all of the obvious problems we are facing here at home. Let’s first make that "shining city" really gleam, and then worry about which thugs are running Syria, or which politicians are fleecing depositors in Kabul. 

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

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