Tuesday, 2 November 2010

“The Frugal Superpower”, by Michael Mandelbaum (PublicAffairs)

Mandelbaum-FrugalSuperpowerAmerica’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era

The era marked by an expansive American foreign policy is coming to an end. During the seven decades from the U.S. entry into World War II in 1941 to the present, economic constraints rarely limited what the United States did in the world. Now that will change. The country’s soaring deficits, fuelled by the huge costs of the financial crash and of its entitlement programs – Social Security and Medicare – will compel a more modest American international presence.

In assessing the consequences of this new, less expensive foreign policy, Mandelbaum, one of America’s leading foreign policy experts, describes the policies the United States will have to discontinue, assesses the potential threats from China, Russia, and Iran, and recommends a new policy, centred on a reduction in the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, which can do for America and the world in the twenty-first century what the containment of the Soviet Union did in the twentieth.

In The Frugal Superpower, Mandelbaum offers his predictions and suggestions for the future of American foreign policy in the coming Age of Austerity. He looks at a considerable range of issues – from oil, interventions, economics, China, and Russia – to ascertain how the world’s last remaining superpower might approach the world in the years to come.

Some of the problems facing America can be fixed at home, of course. Unfortunately, however, the politics involved in these issues is so entrenched that it will be very difficult to make any significant changes in the near future. This is certainly true for defence spending (see later), and also the American dependence on foreign oil:

“No single measure... would do as much to secure American interests worldwide in the face of new economic limits on American foreign policy than a large reduction in American oil consumption.”

In order to achieve this, Mandelbaum recommends a “major increase” in gasoline taxes in the United States (a position shared by Thomas Friedman), perhaps the one guaranteed policy initiative to make even the most nationally beloved politician unemployed. I don’t think Mandelbaum’s wrong to suggest this, but there is another solution to reducing America’s oil consumption, one that should appeal to business-conservatives and environmental-liberals alike: the struggling American auto companies need to produce cars with better mileage – it would help revive their sales figures, save their customers money, and not require hiking up taxes. Who can reasonably argue with these three possibly developments?

Mandelbaum paints a bleak picture of the future of American politics (though not one without hope for redemption), and adds some interesting appraisals of the state of American (foreign) policy and how its spending priorities have effected its development:

“By the first decade of the twenty-first century the federal government of the United States, judging by the pattern of its spending, was well on its way to becoming a giant domestic insurance company, albeit one with a sideline in foreign policy.”

Mandelbaum argues that scarcity may have some considerable benefits for American foreign policy. For one thing, it might make the United States “less prone to serious errors”:

“the enormous post-Cold War American margin of superiority in usable power over all other countries bred a certain carelessness that led to two major errors: the ill-advised eastward expansion of [NATO], and the disastrously incompetent occupation of Iraq.”

Even if the United States was to abandon its (mis)adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would still retain a number of crucial overseas responsibilities, commitments and interests, including ensuring East European security, restricting the spread of nuclear weapons and maintaining free and easy access to global markets.

With the exception of the United States, China’s and Russia’s foreign policies “will do more to shape international relations in the second decade of the twenty-first century and beyond than any other country.” While both countries have considerable interests in the existing international system, they are equally unhappy about the distribution of power and wealth in the current system. Given their capabilities (economic and military), there is always the potential for either China or Russia to upset the stability or relative peace of this existent system.

With regards to China, Mandelbaum offers some parallels with the rise of Germany in the 1930s (which I find needlessly inflammatory, not to mention unlikely). The author offers a rather cautious, not entirely hopeful portrayal of China’s wants and policies in the world today (even blaming China’s currency manipulation as a significant causal factor in the 2008 economic crisis) – there’s nothing wrong with this per se, as it is true that people have a tendency to hold either overly positive or overly negative opinions about China. What we need is a moderate realisation that China is very different to the US, and unlikely to change any time soon – certainly not as a result of American policies or meddling. The future relationship between the US and China is not certain, but if the US reverts to traditional policies, we will likely see a greater focus on mutual economic benefit, and only rhetorical focus on human rights and democracy promotion. Mandelbaum rightly points out, too, that many fears about an expansionist or belligerent China are for the moment unfounded – Beijing has far more important domestic issues to deal with before it can properly entertain any lingering imperial ambitions. Ultimately, the author writes (despite the rather gloomy introduction to his China section),

“China could create economic, political, and even military havoc in East Asia but has powerful reasons not to do so.”

This is not the case for Iran, Mandelbaum continues, which is “determined to dominate the Persian Gulf region and the Greater Middle East,” but thankfully lacks the means to do so. Russia falls somewhere between Iran and China in terms of capabilities and intentions to change or work within the existing system. The author recommends diplomacy to improve relations with Russia, in part to repair the damage caused by the 1990s expansion of NATO.

Considering the ongoing currency diplomacy between the US and China, it’s worth mentioning what the author has to say about the possibility of the dollar being usurped by the yuan as the global currency:

“China currency may one day rival the dollar, but that day will not come until China’s capital markets are large enough, its property rights secure enough, and its interest rates free enough of government manipulation to make citizens of other countries comfortable in holding the currency in large amounts.”

The Middle East unfortunately remains of vital importance to the United States and the rest of the world, and future engagement is almost a given – as it is the primary location of global oil supplies, as well as politically unstable. Scarcity will likely prevent further American adventurism in the region, and should certainly put paid to any urges for more nation-building exercises in the Middle East, but continued engagement will not be a choice future presidents will be able to reject.

“For almost seven decades following the outbreak of World War II, in deciding what policies to pursue beyond their own borders, Americans almost never asked themselves the first question that every other country had to address: how much will this cost?”

Going forward, this will have to change. In the coming Age of Austerity (to use the media-coined term of preference), the United States going to have to experience a significant tightening of the purse strings.

“For America’s roles beyond its borders, the money – the serious money – is to be found in the defence budget, and it is therefore from defence spending, in addition to other categories of expenditure, that the... reductions will come.”

Mandelbaum provides a general overview of the current attempts to remake defence spending priorities, pursued most ably by Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, but on this issue we see, for the second time, the major limitation of The Frugal Superpower. That is its relative lack of depth. The author could have taken the opportunity to delve a little deeper into the topic, maybe providing what would amount to an update of the arguments put forward by Robert Scheer in his excellent book, The Pornography of Power. Instead, Mandelbaum seems to have sought – and found – comfort in generalisation.

In addition to tighter budgets, the guidelines dictating the use of American power will also change. Interventions of the type embarked upon by the Clinton Administration are likely a thing of the past. “Americans, like other people, are disposed to risk the lives of their countrymen only for the sake of vital interests: that is, to prevent harm to themselves.” Interventions to protect others, while “admirable in principle”, are unlikely to be accepted as worth the cost in American blood and increasingly scarce treasure. Therefore, Mandelbaum writes, the US will have to turn more towards international cooperation to get things done. The author follows this with a quick overview of international cooperation since World War II, which is interesting and well-presented (I also thought his use of the North Korea issue as an exemplar of the difficulties facing cooperation very reasoned and an excellent choice).

Mandelbaum is not convinced the US political system will be able to evolve to meet the challenges it will face in the new international environment.

“all the talk of reforming the agencies of the federal government – the State and Defence departments in particular – to equip them to create working institutions in poor, war-ravaged countries will remain just that: talk.”

Ultimately, this is a very well-written, quick overview of the implications of what a cash-strapped America will likely face in the coming years or decades of austerity. Mandelbaum has a great grasp of the issues – as one can expect from someone who has had a long and respected career in writing and commenting on American foreign policy. But, for reasons unknown to this reviewer, Mandelbaum has chosen not to delve deeply (or, at the very least, a little deeper) into the issues he presents to his readers. Whether this was a result of his wish to get the book out in a timely manner, or another reason, is unclear. But, because of the short length, the book has a more limited value than other publications Mandelbaum has produced. Effectively, this reads like an over-long essay from an issue of the Foreign Affairs journal – no bad thing in terms of style, of course. I think this book could have been more, and Mandelbaum has missed out on the opportunity to write a more valuable book (with more detail, evidence and data to support and expand his arguments). True, brevity is a rare thing in foreign policy publications, and Mandelbaum should be applauded for not droning on for hundreds of pages. But, it wouldn’t have taken much more evidence to turn this book from ‘good’ to ‘essential reading’, or at the very least ‘highly recommended’.

Well worth reading, The Frugal Superpower will serve as a good introduction; but, because there’s not much in the way of revelatory content in here and also the constrained length, it might well leave readers wanting more.

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