The imminent and inevitable downsizing of US foreign policy

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.

2 thoughts on “The imminent and inevitable downsizing of US foreign policy”

  1. I generally dislike the term “democracy exporting” because it muddles what is actually being discussed. I like, if snark is the goal, democracy at gunpoint.

    Because, in many ways the concern over the impact of “nation building” on our country has become tied exclusively to the US adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. I draw attention to this because there are good and worthwhile contributions the US can and should make abroad. Just not necessarily at the tip of the spear.

    In fact, a number of US officials are trying to draw attention to the soft power side of the issue. Secretary Gates is one of the staunchest supporters of bulking up funding to the State Department to provide them the resources they need to take over the civil assistance side of the equation. Or, to the point, get the DOD out of the non-mitary side of nation building.

    What happens when we spend nearly a decade conflating democracy via gunpoint and civil affairs capacity building is that the argument to leave Iraq and Afghanistan is conflated with the argument to stop every sort of nation building activity. And these are two very different arguments.

    I’m not arguing that it would be the end of the world. But, in many cases it is in our interest. And in many cases it’s an activity that we would pay for even if the UN performed it and not us. The point there is to indicate that not all nation building activities live outside the interest of the united states.

    It is obvious the US can no longer afford to sustain nearly 200k soldiers in a combat environment. Which is difficult because I think it’s open to debate what will happen in the Middle east Af/Pak region if we leave. Not picking a side there, other than to say outlook unclear. I’ve never been a fan of countries as dominos, but that isn’t to say there wouldn’t be blowback.

    It is not obvious that providing civil or public sector capacity building is something the US can’t afford to do. And there certainly is a real benefit to these services.

  2. I’m a week late, but I’ll respond anyway since I have strong opinions about this.

    I very much disagree with the notion that US hegemony serves decidedly as a stabilizing force in the world. For instance can we really say that in Iraq and Afghanistan (and by projection the rest of the Middle East) that the US has been a stabilizing force and not a destabilizing force?

    Meanwhile, in Latin America (where most of my knowledge lies), did the absence of the US (which has been distracted in the Middle East) cause the region to spiral into chaos? Quite the contrary, there is now a new budding economic and diplomatic block called the UNASUR ( (and to a lesser degree, ALBA in South America. UNASUR has even successfully intervened in several conflicts between Colombia and Ecuador and Venezuela. The fact that Colombia (a staunch US ally) has such poor relations with its neighbors is proof that the US here is the destabilizing force. Add to that the mess the US made in the Honduran coup and the situation in Mexico and also increasingly Peru which have continued to play the US’s Drug War game.

    My opinion is that all this hand-wringing of the decline of US hegemony comes from the Americans who just might find that they weren’t so necessary as they led themselves, and everyone else, to believe

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