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Why American Foreign Policy still matters

Written By: - Date published: 8:30 am, June 14th, 2016 - 17 comments
Categories: afghanistan, capitalism, Globalisation, International, iraq, Syria, us politics, war - Tags: , ,

Third world america

With the Presidential elections now in full and definitive swing, and a US naval ship likely to visit, we need also to get our own answer for a big question: in this century, what is America’s role in the world?

The United States is still the single most influential actor on the world stage. It’s got 5% of humanity but about 20% of gross world product, and is the only country with global military capabilities. It’s command of the current digital economic transformation is almost total.

Some say that’s pretty much all good. As Samuel P. Huntingdon put it more than 20 years ago, U.S. primacy is “central to the future of freedom, democracies, open economies, and international order in the world.” Others including previous Foreign Secretaries Madeline Albright and Hilary Clinton are at least as bullish.

The impulse of utopian idealism for the United States can also be found on the left. Michael Moore’s film Where To Invade Next gives a good tweak to the United States’ propensity for launching unsuccessful invasions for natural resources. He points out that the United States would be able to live up to its utopian stated ideals if it learned lessons from European countries. With good lessons learned, implies Moore, America will once again fulfil its global promise.

Centrist supporters of this utopian view of the United States often cite the United States-led defeat of global fascism in the 1940s, post-war expansion of democracies, formation of the United Nations, expansion of global human rights, the formation of major economic institutions (the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, etc) producing six decades of steady economic growth, and defeating almost all communist governments including the Soviet bloc.

There’s some truth in there, and quite a bit of hyperbole. You can do your own ledger of peace after Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, middle and South America, etc etc.

After all, U.S. aid to the muhajadeen may have helped bring down the Soviet Union, but it also helped wreck Afghanistan and give birth to the Taliban and al Qaeda. More recently, U.S. “leadership” has produced failed states in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. It’s efforts at over-reach are often tragic, including its rhetoric-only support for the Arab Spring. As agents for peace, the United States has a decidedly mixed record.

But blaming all the world’s ills on the United States is not merely factually wrong; it lets the real perpetrators off the hook. The United States did not launch the uprisings against Muammar al-Qaddafi or Bashar al-Assad, did not start the civil war in Yemen, and cannot be blamed for the Sunni-Shiite divide now plaguing the Middle East. The Turkish, Polish, and Hungarian governments aren’t drifting towards authoritarianism today because Washington encouraged them. The U.S. is not encouraging Britain to exit the European Union and break the Euro, and Israel and Saudi Arabia will just continue to do what they want no matter what diplomatic or military signals the US sends them.

Instead of seeing the United States as all-powerful and either completely good or evil, it makes more sense to see it pretty much like most great powers in history. It has done some good things, mostly out of self-interest, but occasionally for the benefit of others as well.

I’m not confident that either the hard left or the United States military establishment is willing to take such a balanced view. But its next elected government must.

If, as Hilary Clinton states often enough, she wants to build on the achievements of President Obama, she should alter the focus of its government’s foreign policy towards one that addresses the anxiety about global prosperity, rather than an over-emphasis on military solutions upon the next unruly dictator. That is what the United States has done well for the world since World War Two.

The historical moment that the next President of the United States will step into is not primarily military, but economic. Many commenters on this site have noted the economic stasis and decline befalling the developed world. Since 2008 the global growth rates have been so poor, its recovery so globally uneven, that it has produced a sustained crisis in the virtues of democratically representative government itself. There’s an anxiety that the engine of prosperity in most developed nations has ground to a halt. And if that’s true, it’s harder to trust our elected leaders that they will follow the social, political and economic bargains that we’ve come to rely upon.

That developed-world quagmire makes people reach for extremes to see if there are solutions to get their countries out of moribund stasis. They reach for extremes called Trump, or Le Pen, or Sanders, or withdraw like Britain seems ready to do from the international community altogether. Australasia seems to be one of the final beacons of secular democratic equanimity. What role does an institutionalist centrist foreign policy hawk have in the world?

To repeat a Clintonian line back at her, “It’s the economy, stupid”. The next presidential leader of the United States should continue Obama’s work of growth and wealth socialization at the expense of military expansion. But with its economic power growing, its centralization of global wealth increasing, it should do it for the world.

HRC will be keenly aware that there is little enthusiasm in the U.S. for more interventionism. But the role an institutionalist centrist foreign policy hawk should have in the world is one that seeks to strengthen global civil institutions so that they can replace military intervention into the last choice, not the first. Put more effort into reforming the U.N., the I.M.F., the W.T.O, and of course global agreements such as Paris 21. And build fresh instutitions. Put more effort in to the dividends of peace.

A President HRC should not resile from defeating terrorism including by military means – and nor will it ever – but it should bend the unending security state to the effort of global economic stability, not military stability. That would be a legacy and role for the U.S. as useful for the world as Obama’s has been in domestic policy.

17 comments on “Why American Foreign Policy still matters”

  1. Colonial Viper 1

    and cannot be blamed for the Sunni-Shiite divide now plaguing the Middle East.

    The US has consistently helped destroy secular non-islamic states and secular non-islamic leaders in the Middle East (Iran – Mossadegh, Iraq – Hussein, Libya – Gaddafi. Syria- Assad) leading to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorist training camps in each of those nations.

    And in Iraq at least, the US fuelled sectarian divisions by using it as a short term tactic to take pressure off its own occupation force (if the Iraqis were killing each other they weren’t killing US troops) and then by supporting a highly sectarian Shia government (Maliki).

    Further, the USA has funded and militarily/politically protected the head chopping woman stoning global source of Wahhabbi extremism: Saudi Arabia.

  2. Colonial Viper 2

    I will also note that there is no Pentagon money for US corporations in strengthening international institutions, using diplomacy to calm down tensions with China and Russia, and avoiding military campaigns.

    • Ad 2.1

      That’s why I deliberately phrased that last paragraph as ‘security state’ rather than ‘Pentagon’ or US military’. Helpfully, HRC knows well the difference.

  3. Greg 3

    The U.S. is a reactionary world policy driver, its blindly following its Ally and biggest weapons buyer in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia. The Hillary Clinton foundation has gotten massive kick backs for weapons contracts.
    Its military personal are largely untouchable for civil crimes where it has military bases,
    Okinawa military personal rape cases are all but ignored by the local police.
    The media has missed reporting on the fact that America has walked away from the WTO, thats a dosey, reported in the Third World Economics: Trends and Newsletter a few issues ago.
    America poverty is at its highest levels since WW2.

    Meanwhile the National government is paying a game of tootsie with the Chinese government, and potential party donors on President Xi most wanted fugitives list.
    Wait for the extradition treaty to be signed.
    Has the Hong Kong police been told that a recent convicted fraudster Yang Wang, had invested heavily in the National Party and donated thousands of dollars they might yet recover?

  4. McFlock 4

    The thought occurred to me that the US military emphasis over the last twenty years has been on targeting leadership as necessarily leading to victory: Aidid, Hussein, various AQ and Taliban leaders, Gaddafi, etc. This is almost the antithesis of their body-count philosophy in Vietnam, and equally destabilising (if not more so).

    I wonder if their next evolution/revolution in military objectives will be any more successful?

    • Ad 4.1

      Your is an argument essentially about Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

      I have uncertain feelings about drone attacks: getting rid of terrorists as efficiently and quickly as possible before they do spectacular harm is a good, but doing that with drone strikes corrodes holding the executive to account when it seeks to take a life, within another country. We are lucky that New Zealand will never have to make those kind of morally hard decisions.

      Obama has certainly stabilized the foreign terrorist threat to the U.S., and has done the very hard thing by winding the U.S. middle east intervention to the least level possible in nearly century. My problem is that in foreign policy, too often he simply failed to follow through, on either promises or threats.

      When Obama finally steps down, we’ll be able to run the ruler over him properly.

      • McFlock 4.1.1

        Well, not just Obama, although he’s got the tools to take it to the extreme.

        But also just the Bush idea that taking Baghdad would be it, or capturing Hussein, or whatever.

        Whereas in Vietnam (Phoenix Program being the exception) it was pure attrition that was seen as the key to resolution in the war.

        Neither is the answer in of themselves, it seems.

  5. mike 5

    Very thoughtful and welcome post.

    Calling the US all the ugly names under the sun, and heaving blame for ‘everything’ their way is not helpful and not entirely true.
    I often think, with many of the talk-back type comments on The Standard, thank god you’re not running the show mate.
    Unthinking, dangerous, emotional, knee jerk, trumpish stuff.

    In relation to;
    “But the role an institutionalist centrist foreign policy hawk should have in the world is one that seeks to strengthen global civil institutions”.

    You mean like the New Deal did?

    Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt led a fantastic transformation of political action, reflected in our own Savage/Fraser welfare state in New Zealand, and in scores of countries around the world.
    Lifting ordinary people through better housing, free education, improved access to healthcare, and a hundred other benefits. None more powerful than the feeling strugglers gained of being taken seriously.

    Of course opposition from entrenched privilege was fierce everywhere, but the New Deal became a reality that was exported world-wide, and to the great advantage of those lucky enough to receive the new freedoms it brought.

    It’s taken Thatcher/Reaganism/Rogernomics thirty years to dismantle it.

    All the nay-sayers will sneer at the idea, but, who knows, Hillary Clinton (hopefully with Elizabeth Warren) may begin to claw back some of our losses.

    • Draco T Bastard 5.1

      Of course opposition from entrenched privilege was fierce everywhere, but the New Deal became a reality that was exported world-wide, and to the great advantage of those lucky enough to receive the new freedoms it brought.

      SUMMARY – History of the Welfare State in NZ

      From the 1900s to the 1940s, New Zealand endured the same cataclysms as the rest of the developed world – World War 1, the Spanish flu (a
      major public health disaster), and the Great Depression of the 1930s. The
      central Government’s roles in Health and Education grew in scope, from merely Public Health to all Health, and from central support to the provision of schooling.

      The New Deal was good and there’s probably no doubt that the then Labour government took note of it but we started our welfare state long before the US did.

      • mike 5.1.1

        New Deal began with FDR’s election in 1933 and it’s main parts were enacted by 1938.
        As you know, Labour was elected in 1935 and continued the social welfare programme begun then, after the 1938 election.

        If you mean that ideas like the New Deal or women’s suffrage, circulate simultaneously within far flung but similar societies, I couldn’t agree more.

    • Ad 5.2

      Not really like the New Deal, no.
      The New Deal was a U.S. domestic programme.
      This post is about U.S. foreign policy.

      When I get a moment I’ll have a proper look at our Green Party’s version of the New Deal, and have a run-down of what might survive.

  6. Draco T Bastard 6

    The U.S. is not encouraging Britain to exit the European Union and break the Euro, and Israel and Saudi Arabia will just continue to do what they want no matter what diplomatic or military signals the US sends them.

    I’m pretty sure that you’ll find that Israel would be heavily curtailed in their continued invasion of Palestine and oppression of Palestinians without US military aid:

    The largest amount of American aid in grants and loans in a single year came to $15.7 billion in 1979, when Israel signed the peace treaty with Egypt. Cumulatively, American aid to Israel between 1950 and 2013 amounted to about 3% of Israel’s GDP during that period.

    For about the past 20 years, under the American-Israeli agreement, the grants from the United States are used for the purpose of purchasing arms and other security equipment (for example fuels) that Israel needs for propelling its war machine. One of the most expensive arms deals in the history of Israel’s defense forces – the purchase of 20 F-35 fighter planes for $2.7 billion – will be financed entirely by aid money. The deal was signed towards the end of 2010 and the first planes are slated to be delivered to Israel next year.

    • Ad 6.1

      No doubt, somewhat, but their military manufactures substitutes for most things it needs.

      Israel is working hard against stated US policy of a two state solution. Particularly with settlement expansion.

  7. Liberal Realist 7

    They reach for extremes called Trump, or Le Pen, or Sanders, or withdraw like Britain seems ready to do from the international community altogether.

    How can you call or consider Sanders an ‘extreme’?

    Sure many have reached out to him (or more he has reached out to them) but to consider Sanders extreme (to the American public) is a stretch. Perhaps a good portion of Republican voters, but hey don’t we (the nz left) consider conservative republicans ‘extreme’? I do.

    IMO Sanders is viewed by most (in the west) as a social democrat. Apply his policies and ideas to New Zealand and he’d be considered centre to centre-right… Would that make Key a socialist if his policies and ideas (I know he doesn’t have any but for the sake of comparison) were applied to the US?

    To address the post, I agree with your sentiment however I personally don’t hold much stock in HRC, should she become POTUS, from diverting the interventionalist course. However, I hope she does and I’m dead wrong.

  8. Stuart Munro 8

    “and Israel and Saudi Arabia will just continue to do what they want no matter what diplomatic or military signals the US sends them.”

    My understanding is that Israel is the recipient of a great deal of US aid and military aid. If that cashflow and materiale and cooperation ceased they might be obliged to live on better terms with their neighbours.

    It’s unrealistic to expect it apparently, but the US certainly does have the power to substantially dilute Israeli exceptionalism.

    Saudi is complicated, being a diverse collection of communities – but the monarchy prefers good relations with America, and can be quite active when they consider a problem merits their attention. If Obama had implacably opposed the bombing of Yemen for example, Saudi might well have obliged him.

    • Ad 8.1

      They are certainly both the recipients of huge arms sales.
      But they both turn around and deliberately rebuke U.S. foreign policy objectives.

      In an HRC U.S. Presidency, her ability to form a completely new relationship with Saudi Arabia will be the key to Middle East peace. Of the last few presidents, she has the best chance at this given the depth of her personal relationship with them.

      There’s a Gordian knot between the House of Saud and the House of Clinton that I don’t understand, comprising campaign funding, weapons sales, oil, gender advances, democratic advances, anti-corruption advances, terrorist funding, extremist Islamic schools, Saud post-Aramco investment funds into such things as Uber and California real estate, and of course the long-term US-Saudi Arabia relationship itself. Maybe that’s one reason HRC should get the job: few other individuals in the world get close to holding all that in a singularity. I will wait for better minds than mine to unpack that, should she attain the Presidency.

      • Stuart Munro 8.1.1

        Saudi is much more politically progressive than might be assumed, but there is no intention of antagonising the religious conservatives. Sometimes this non-interference is used to obscure other convenient inaction. The decision by the late king to provide free university education for women, and to build and expand universities substantially is, I believe, a significant progressive step. But it will take a generation or more for its effects to permeate Saudi society.

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