Michael Bloomberg’s One Percent Foreign-Policy Doctrine

There are good reasons America has never had a billionaire in charge of national security.

Michael Bloomberg speaks at Urban Zen in New York on Feb. 10, 2015.
Michael Bloomberg speaks at Urban Zen in New York on Feb. 10, 2015. Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Earlier this week the British betting agency Ladbrokes had the odds of Michael Bloomberg winning the U.S. presidency at 100/1, the same odds it gave for George Clooney becoming the Democratic VP nominee. Bloomberg’s resume suggests he’s not a gambling man — he made his fortune selling a device, the “Bloomberg Terminal,” that promises to make investing and business less of a risk for his clients. But inference suggests Bloomberg might take Ladsbrokes’s odds (which are now at 25/1). He has said he would only run for the presidency if he thought he could win. After expressing strong distaste for the current candidates on offer, his admission this week that he is considering entering the race indicates fresh confidence in his chances.

How the American public will assess a Bloomberg candidacy is another matter. His record during his stint as mayor of New York City — from his $2.4 billion budgetary surplus to his support for charter schools and stop-and-frisk policing to his re-engineering of the city’s laws to run for a third term — offers some indication of his priorities and temperament as a chief executive. But Bloomberg’s worldview as commander in chief is another matter. His public pronouncements on foreign policy and national security have been uniformly vague, his achievements difficult to discern.

It’s not that Bloomberg carries a blank slate on foreign affairs; his basic approach to foreign policy has been consistent for some time. The public, however, will have to squint in order to really see it. That’s in part because Bloomberg exposes a fault line in American foreign-policy thinking that Americans, and their foreign-policy elites, have come to take for granted.

There are three places to look to gain a rudimentary sense of Bloomberg’s foreign policy. The first is his record as mayor of New York City, which, as the international capital of world finance, necessarily maintains a foreign policy in all but name. During Bloomberg’s mayoralty, the brush-ups between Manhattan prosecutors and foreign countries went far beyond the occasional headline-grabbing cases (see: the arrest and professional destruction of France’s preferred Socialist hope for the presidency — Dominique Strauss-Kahn — or India’s protesting of the city’s arrest of its diplomatic envoy, Devyani Khobragade). Much more important is how Manhattan district attorneys and judges routinely find themselves working as brokers to improve the efficiency of international financial markets. One New York federal judge, for instance, has single-handedly prolonged Argentina’s banishment from international markets by insisting that the country pay off private creditors based in the Cayman Islands with funds it had set aside in a New York bank to pay off major foreign-debt payments.

Although Bloomberg did not personally oversee such legal proceedings, nor did he express any objections to them. This tacit approval is of a piece with his constant calls as mayor to improve the efficiency of institutions through transparency, a cherished mantra he applied to the open layout of his mayoral offices, testing results for public schools, as well as the conduct of New York’s financial markets.

The second place to look is Bloomberg’s leadership over his media empire, which encompasses Bloomberg Radio, Bloomberg TV, Bloomberg News, and Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. Much has been made of Bloomberg’s brush-ups with China as a media mogul. In one notable, recent instance, Bloomberg reporters based in China ran aground in their attempts to report on the corruption of that country’s political leaders. Having realized the limits of Chinese tolerance, Bloomberg editors ultimately acquiesced to the Chinese government’s demands for discretion.

It would be tempting to conclude that a President Bloomberg, with the power of the U.S. state at his disposal, would be more aggressive in calling for transparency in China’s markets and its politburo, in the service of increasing American influence over that country. But to suggest a Bloomberg foreign policy would primarily be concerned with maximizing the power of the American state is to miss the point of his earlier dealings with China. Bloomberg didn’t capitulate to the Chinese government because he could not achieve some goal outside the terms of the business relationship; he cut the best available deal to secure for his company the most advantageous economic outcome. Everything about Bloomberg’s experience as a financial and media executive suggests that as president he would be far more concerned with the stewardship of international markets than American power projection.

The same is true of the third source for considering Bloomberg’s foreign policy — his direction over the unsigned editorials written by the editorial board for Bloomberg View, the opinion section of Bloomberg Media. (The company has not been shy about noting that these articles correspond to Bloomberg’s own personal opinions.) These editorials indicate that Trojan-horse technocracy, not brute martial strength, is the ruling Bloomberg ideal. In recent years, Bloomberg View’s editorial board has come out strongly against a massive over-investment in America’s nuclear arsenal and military. “Today,” one editorial runs, “with Russia a much-diminished nuclear threat and China little interested in challenging U.S. nuclear superiority, the need to overwhelm either nation’s air defenses is less of a priority.”

Instead, Bloomberg editorials have repeatedly, and vociferously, advocated for countries around the world to establish central banks free from political control and acquiesce to economic restructurings by the International Monetary Fund. Bloomberg View, for instance, has criticized the U.S. Congress for its failure to “modernize” and “lead” the IMF, which for Bloomberg means granting countries like China more voting power over economic interventions around the world, and minimizing meddling by U.S. Congress into the institution’s activities. One of the few Bloomberg View editorials of substance about Chinese politics advises an easing of relations with Taiwan. Its implication could be read as saying it is not worth crying over America’s “loss” of Taiwan if it is eventually absorbed into a capitalist China; the greater war will, in that case, have already been won.

Bloomberg’s worldview runs counter to the U.S. foreign-policy establishment and its assumption that American power and global capitalism are mutually supporting forces. To suggest there is any friction between them has long been treated as an unutterable heresy: If you run for higher office, you have not been permitted to say that you countenance a world that America does not lead.

To be fair, for the decades after World War II, the tension between American power projection and the securing of global markets was nearly invisible. The makers of U.S. foreign policy were determined to rebuild West Germany and Japan, and believed that in doing so they would not only secure capitalist beachheads in Europe and Asia, but also America’s own strategic position in the Cold War. Having strong economic allies, even if they eventually became competitors with U.S. companies and manufacturers, was central to America’s strategy as a world power. Institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF were broadly thought of as complementary to the U.S. military. Interventions and foreign meddling — Iran, Cuba, Guatemala, Chile — were as much about securing American prestige in its rivalry with the Soviet Union as they were about safeguarding capital. That the military and American business could ever foster widely divergent interests may have been a thought experiment indulged by future-oriented businessmen like Bloomberg, but it was not a running concern of the Cold War U.S. foreign-policy establishment.

But it is one now.

As the world’s newest capitalist aspirants, from China to India, continue to rise, it’s difficult to imagine how they won’t erode American power in the world. The prospect of a future China thoroughly integrated with international markets would almost necessarily spell the end of American leadership of the global order. It takes severe headlong optimism to think that a capitalist, but nondemocratic China with an economy that is consumer-driven would subscribe wholesale to American-written international rules of the global world order, which champions independent judiciaries, currencies pegged to the dollar, and no changes of international borders unless they are approved by the United States. If America is insistent on jealously guarding its right to swagger and thrust influence in the world in Jacksonian fashion, it may increasingly have to compromise on its Hamiltonian dreams of a world made safe for capital.

This is where a Bloomberg bid gets interesting. If a scale were to be made with American world-power projection at one end, and securing global capitalism at the other, Bloomberg would come out very far on the global capitalism side of the measure. It is worth noting that the other New York billionaire in the race, Donald J. Trump, is the candidate perched farthest on the other side of the scale. His repeated promises to “beat” China, to build a wall Mexico will pay for, and to resurrect America’s industrial base —all of these are fodder for nationalist fantasy, but very cold comfort for international capital. Poised between Bloomberg and Trump is Hillary Clinton, with her readier willingness to deploy force in the Middle East, coupled with a willingness to protect the interests of U.S. financial firms now under populist pressure. The closest candidate to Bloomberg might well be Jeb Bush— Bloomberg View has been kind to him — but Bloomberg is not encumbered by the Floridian’s political pedigree and his evident lack of political talent.

“The chief business of the American people is business,” Calvin Coolidge famously said. But remarkably, for a nation of shopkeepers, a businessman of any stature has rarely been at the helm. Truman, Carter, and the younger Bush were all notable failures at making money. George H. W. Bush made a fortune in oil, but he did so always with the long view of becoming a politician. The purest businessman to ever occupy the White House was Warren Harding. Like Bloomberg, he made his money selling news (though Bloomberg makes the lion’s share of his profit from his terminals, not his news empire).

But the 1920s of Harding’s presidency was a vastly different world. In the interwar years, America still thought of itself as exceptional, but exceptional in a different way: It stood proudly aloof from the bloody power politics of Europeans and instead preached the virtues of a world governed by international law. Not, in Harding’s day, the sort of international law overseen by a “World Court” — that smelled too much of rank Wilsonianism. But rather a world run more like the state of Delaware: an international order in which you wanted to be incorporated because your business interests would be treated by special courts of arbitration, not subject to juries — a world where technocratic solutions to power prevailed. That is the world that the fragments of Bloomberg’s foreign policy call for. It is not a world that will likely come into being. But when articulated over the course of a presidential campaign, it could put a new kind of pressure on the stale refrains of America’s foreign-policy establishment.

Ed. note: The article has been updated to clarify Bloomberg View’s editorial direction.

Photo credit: Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Thomas Meaney is a fellow at the Quincy Institute.