The Dangers of a Diminished America
In the 1930s, isolationism and protectionism spurred the rise of fascism.
With the global financial system in serious trouble, is America's geostrategic dominance likely to diminish? If so, what would that mean?
One immediate implication of the crisis that began on Wall Street and spread across the world is that the primary instruments of U.S. foreign policy will be crimped. The next president will face an entirely new and adverse fiscal position. Estimates of this year's federal budget deficit already show that it has jumped $237 billion from last year, to $407 billion. With families and businesses hurting, there will be calls for various and expensive domestic relief programs.
In the face of this onrushing river of red ink, both Barack Obama and John McCain have been reluctant to lay out what portions of their programmatic wish list they might defer or delete. Only Joe Biden has suggested a possible reduction -- foreign aid. This would be one of the few popular cuts, but in budgetary terms it is a mere grain of sand. Still, Sen. Biden's comment hints at where we may be headed: toward a major reduction in America's world role, and perhaps even a new era of financially-induced isolationism.
Pressures to cut defense spending, and to dodge the cost of waging two wars, already intense before this crisis, are likely to mount. Despite the success of the surge, the war in Iraq remains deeply unpopular. Precipitous withdrawal -- attractive to a sizable swath of the electorate before the financial implosion -- might well become even more popular with annual war bills running in the hundreds of billions.
Protectionist sentiments are sure to grow stronger as jobs disappear in the coming slowdown. Even before our current woes, calls to save jobs by restricting imports had begun to gather support among many Democrats and some Republicans. In a prolonged recession, gale-force winds of protectionism will blow.
Then there are the dolorous consequences of a potential collapse of the world's financial architecture. For decades now, Americans have enjoyed the advantages of being at the center of that system. The worldwide use of the dollar, and the stability of our economy, among other things, made it easier for us to run huge budget deficits, as we counted on foreigners to pick up the tab by buying dollar-denominated assets as a safe haven. Will this be possible in the future?
Meanwhile, traditional foreign-policy challenges are multiplying. The threat from al Qaeda and Islamic terrorist affiliates has not been extinguished. Iran and North Korea are continuing on their bellicose paths, while Pakistan and Afghanistan are progressing smartly down the road to chaos. Russia's new militancy and China's seemingly relentless rise also give cause for concern.
If America now tries to pull back from the world stage, it will leave a dangerous power vacuum. The stabilizing effects of our presence in Asia, our continuing commitment to Europe, and our position as defender of last resort for Middle East energy sources and supply lines could all be placed at risk.
In such a scenario there are shades of the 1930s, when global trade and finance ground nearly to a halt, the peaceful democracies failed to cooperate, and aggressive powers led by the remorseless fanatics who rose up on the crest of economic disaster exploited their divisions. Today we run the risk that rogue states may choose to become ever more reckless with their nuclear toys, just at our moment of maximum vulnerability.
The aftershocks of the financial crisis will almost certainly rock our principal strategic competitors even harder than they will rock us. The dramatic free fall of the Russian stock market has demonstrated the fragility of a state whose economic performance hinges on high oil prices, now driven down by the global slowdown. China is perhaps even more fragile, its economic growth depending heavily on foreign investment and access to foreign markets. Both will now be constricted, inflicting economic pain and perhaps even sparking unrest in a country where political legitimacy rests on progress in the long march to prosperity.
None of this is good news if the authoritarian leaders of these countries seek to divert attention from internal travails with external adventures.
As for our democratic friends, the present crisis comes when many European nations are struggling to deal with decades of anemic growth, sclerotic governance and an impending demographic crisis. Despite its past dynamism, Japan faces similar challenges. India is still in the early stages of its emergence as a world economic and geopolitical power.
What does this all mean? There is no substitute for America on the world stage. The choice we have before us is between the potentially disastrous effects of disengagement and the stiff price tag of continued American leadership.
Are we up for the task? The American economy has historically demonstrated remarkable resilience. Our market-oriented ideology, entrepreneurial culture, flexible institutions and favorable demographic profile should serve us well in whatever trials lie ahead.
The American people, too, have shown reserves of resolve when properly led. But experience after the Cold War era -- poorly articulated and executed policies, divisive domestic debates and rising anti-Americanism in at least some parts of the world -- appear to have left these reserves diminished.
A recent survey by the Chicago Council on World Affairs found that 36% of respondents agreed that the U.S. should "stay out of world affairs," the highest number recorded since this question was first asked in 1947. The economic crisis could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
In the past, the American political process has managed to yield up remarkable leaders when they were most needed. As voters go to the polls in the shadow of an impending world crisis, they need to ask themselves which candidate -- based upon intellect, courage, past experience and personal testing -- is most likely to rise to an occasion as grave as the one we now face.