The imminent and inevitable downsizing of US foreign policy

Paul Raven @ 12-08-2010

Via Richard Gowan of the Global Dashboard gang, here’s one Michael Mandelbaum extolling the theme of his new book, Frugal Superpower. In a nutshell: The US can’t afford to sustain its “democracy-exporting” model of foreign policy unless it wants affairs at home to go from bad to worse. And that’s bad news, even for those of us who aren’t particularly keen on that foreign policy model… because, like it or not, US foreign policy contributes to global stability.

It has to operate within limits that arise from a consensus in the wider public about what is desirable and what is feasible. During the Cold War, for example, America maintained a large and costly military presence in Europe because this was widely agreed to be necessary to protect American interests by deterring a Soviet attack. The limits that govern foreign policy are not formally encoded in a foreign policy charter and are seldom even set out explicitly. They are more like customs in small-scale societies or good manners in larger ones: they are tacitly, but broadly, understood.

Because of the country’s financial constraints, those limits will be narrower than they have been for many decades. The government will still have an allowance to spend on foreign affairs, but because competing costs will rise so sharply that allowance will be smaller than in the past. Moreover, the limits to foreign policy will be drawn less on the basis of what the world needs and more by considering what the United States can–and cannot–afford.

I’m not so sure about Mandelbaum’s grim assertions that the dogs of discord will be unleashed as a result of budgetary belt-tightening; the dogs of discord are already gleefully chewing through the leash, despite the immense (and sometimes predominantly unaccounted for) recent expenditure on US interventionism overseas. And this is exactly the sort of thing the United Nations was put together to deal with, after all… maybe we could go back to, y’know, letting it do its job? I’m guessing those notorious council veto options may hamper that particular idea for a while, but still…

Tough disruptive times are on the cards for the whole planet, this much is certain; whether they’d be any less tough with the US still throwing its weight around is, in my humble opinion, still open to debate.