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Sustainable strategy and domestic dissonance

August 2, 2011

Much virtual ink has already spilled in discussion of Richard Haass’s “Restoration” foreign policy piece. One of the more disturbing trends that it reflects, along with much of the criticism of it, is the conflation of foreign and domestic policy.

It is not that a foreign policy is necessarily externally activist, or that it does not involve any domestic policy components. However, a truly durable foreign policy, or at least one that aspires to the level of grand strategy, cannot be so dependent on domestic policy, nor should grand strategy be advanced as a way to advance domestic policy positions.

It is worth noting again that George F. Kennan was a political outcast with no real domestic constituency, and that containment did not inherently contain any serious domestic agenda. Even in an era of much higher partisan support for a common foreign policy, thanks to the presence of the external Soviet threat among other factors, a grand strategy predicated on the adoption of a specific domestic agenda would not have lasted long.

After all, the United States is a republic. That the parties should come in and out of power, and have relatively divergent views on matters of economics and public policy should be expected. A foreign policy whose selling point is the long-term, bipartisan adoption of a specific domestic agenda in the absence of an overwhelming external threat has some value as a political cudgel, but very little value as a plausible grand strategy.

Certainly, the United States needs to maintain economic strength to maintain a position of international power. Reducing debt will be part of this, and certainly reform of the least sustainable programs will too. Yet durable grand strategies cannot rely on a magical political consensus, particularly in the absence of a serious external threat. It should already be very obvious that economic crisis and government insolvency are as likely to promote partisan gamesmanship as national consensus. Everybody would prefer not to default, but the only agreements to avoid doing so are unloved by any political party. Everybody would like economic growth, but nobody can agree what mechanisms will best achieve it, and on what timeline or sequence they ought be employed. These are not problems that can be “fixed,” but natural features of government in a large, pluralistic, commercial republic.

Indeed, the growing drumbeat for programs of internal renewal, to be led by major, national efforts, recall some of the most spectacularly failed elements of modern foreign policy. When people utter noxious phrases such as “nation building here at home,” they commit a double error. First, they confuse nation building for capacity building. Nation building is not just about investing in education or social spending, but using it to forge a coherent national identity. It is also about the use of violence and force, which is why nation building is so often associated with conflict and post-conflict situations. America did indeed have a period of “nation building here at home.” It generally involved fighting and expropriating territory from Native Americans, a long and devastating civil war, and the process of reconstruction and the integration of racial and ethnic minorities into a united civic sphere. The second, and more practically important error in that phrase, is that nation building attempts so often fail because those prescribing and administering the treatment have insufficient understanding of local politics. We have seen the failure of aspiring nation builders and the associated commentators to grasp the complexities and contradictions of the politics of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and now Libya.

Yet it appears foreign policy elites have at least as dangerous of a blind spot for domestic politics here at home. The simplistic descriptions of the problems of US politics mirror the reductive and unhelpful generalizations that plagued US foreign policy in its “wars of choice.” Just like stopping with the observations that that Iraq has three major ethnic groups, the Arab Shia and Sunnis and the Kurds, or that Afghanistan’s Pashtuns are divided between Durranis and Ghilzais encourage simplistic or downright wrong approaches to foreign politics, American exhortations to overcome partisanship and embrace the unambiguous good of the “national interest” is not very helpful for domestic politics. America does have national interests, but many would be grand strategists seem to presume that America’s interests lie in the means of achieving goals, rather than the ends that are the goals themselves.

A grand strategy does include ways and means, as well as ends, but it should not confuse the three, unless it wants to end up as a completely incoherent mess. Certainly it should be more wary about identifying specific domestic policy approaches as “national interests” since every two years provides an opportunity for a group with a wholly different conception to completely alter them.

Doing so further encourages the erosion of grand strategic thought by allowing policymakers and commentators to dress up their domestic policy preferences as issues of the national interest, and accuse their opponents of harming the country’s security by opposing corporate tax cuts, agriculture subsidies, or more nutritious school lunches. The natural counterpart of restoration doctrines are American exceptionalist ones which demand return to founding principles or certain political economy arrangements as necessary preconditions for America’s greatness and strength. Advocates of restoration may see little in common with their ideological opponents, but both encourage the noxious conflation of sustaining a particular domestic agenda with the country’s foreign policy interests.

This is not to say that there should never be comprehensive national planning or agendas for domestic reform – far from it. However, foreign policy experts should recognize that these are inherently contested and fluctuating in a representative government. Rather than making sustaining an overwhelming consensus on comprehensive national reform at home a foreign policy objective, it might be a better task to outline and identify possible national interests and methods of protecting them, along with the necessary trade-offs. This might seem unduly minimalist for grand strategy, but again, grand strategy does not mean grandeur. Kennan’s vision of containment was rather minimalist both in its identified interests and its means of pursuing them. It endured precisely because it was so flexible, often to the point of vagueness and misinterpretation, and was employed by administrations with their own spins and whose politics did not necessarily suit Kennan’s.

Many of Kennan’s major foreign policy ideas were ignored, his doctrine was used for things he did not support, it was adopted by both parties but not in a uniform way, and neither of those parties ever truly captured the affections of Kennan, who was prone to eccentric, if not downright uncomfortable, political viewpoints. Unfortunately, few foreign policy commentators beyond the academy are as detached as Kennan from domestic politics. That Kennan was a career diplomat before he was a grand strategist, not an elected official or public intellectual, is important, because despite his experience with power and his position to advocate for major national policy, he was obscure and unconcerned with such national ambitions or party fortunes before he crafted his grand strategy. Such is not the case for the myriad would-be grand strategists on either side of the political spectrum.

For what it’s worth, the unlikelihood of finding enduring national public policy consensus, and the absence of a major foreign policy threat, will require foreign policy restraint, but will neither need not provide the basis for a comprehensive national overhaul in line with a specific domestic political agenda. The reduction of US ways, and the constraint of its means, and hopefully, the consequent reevaluation of its ends, may already be underway. On the domestic front, it will come not necessarily an enlightened consensus so much as the unwanted product of mutual political brinksmanship.

On that note, I will offer one specific piece of domestic policy agenda as a likely future component of a solvent US grand strategy – revenue increases. So long as we can assume the government will be spending something on domestic affairs, the US defense budget will need something to finance it, particularly since the military is so often the tool of choice for policymakers. Yet it is highly unlikely that cuts to current or projected spending on other domestic issues will compensate for historically low levels of taxation or government revenue intake. Quite simply, the US paradoxical US ability to declare defense spending and the activities it finances matters of highest federal priority, high enough to militate against serious cuts, but unwillingness to consider that those levels of high importance might justify additional revenues, is an irresponsible approach to policymaking whose end is long overdue. Yes, entitlements are in serious need of reform and they are more expensive than defense, but at least entitlement programs have associated taxes that make some pretense of attempting to raise revenue for their activities, even when they go grossly beyond expected costs. There has not been a comparable acknowledgement that high levels of military spending might require corresponding revenue increases in decades.

Indeed, it might be a somewhat useful rule of thumb for a country entering its own age of austerity that if one cannot even try to make the case, even to one’s own political base, for taxing some sector of them to pay for a war, then one ought reconsider just how high that war and the defense spending associated with it ought rank in our national priorities. If the goal is to support our fighting men and women, we owe them better than sending them into conflicts we do not think are worth raising revenues for. In defense, as in all other things, you get what you pay for. If you are not willing to pay for anything, and are only willing to squabble for a larger slice of the small, and shrinking, pool of potential government revenue, you will end up with a military that is over budget and under prepared. Just as there is no math that can automatically trump strategy, there can be no durable strategy that relies on ignoring the math indefinitely.

Fortunately for the US, our period of grand strategic incoherence and financial-economic incompetence is occurring at a time of relatively low external threat and in a context where many of the geopolitical advantages of the US remain intact. That said, any grand strategy which relies on blatant misunderstandings, wishful thinking, or naked ambitions regarding American domestic politics is unlikely to last very long. The aspiring Kennans of the 21st century ought take note.

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