Sunday, 8 September 2013

“Foreign Policy Begins At Home” by Richard N. Haass (Basic Books)

Haass-ForeignPolicyBeginsAtHomeThe biggest threat to the United States comes not from abroad but from within.

A rising China, climate change, terrorism, a nuclear Iran, a turbulent Middle East, and a reckless North Korea all present serious challenges. But U.S. national security depends even more on the United States addressing its burgeoning deficit and debt, crumbling infrastructure, second class schools, and outdated immigration system. Foreign Policy Begins at Home describes a twenty-first century in which power is widely diffused. Globalization, revolutionary technologies, and the rise and decline of new and old powers have created a “nonpolar” world of American primacy but not domination. So far, it has been a relatively forgiving world, with no great rival threatening America directly. How long this strategic respite lasts, according to Haass, will depend largely on whether the United States puts its own house in order. Haass argues for a new American foreign policy: Restoration. At home, the new doctrine would have the country concentrate on restoring the economic foundations of American power. Overseas, the U.S. would stop trying to remake the Middle East with military force, instead emphasizing maintaining the balance of power in Asia, promoting economic integration and energy self-sufficiency in North America, and working to promote collective responses to global challenges. Haass rejects both isolationism and the notion of American decline. But he argues the United States is underperforming at home and overreaching abroad. Foreign Policy Begins at Home lays out a compelling vision for restoring America’s power, influence, and ability to lead the world.

Foreign Policy expert Richard Haass’s new book argues for the adoption of a whole new American foreign policy, one that is “defined by a doctrine that would bring to an end an era characterized by large land wars designed to refashion countries in the greater Middle East, and replace it with an approach to the world that would place greater emphasis on the Asia-Pacific and Western Hemisphere, on instruments of statecraft other than the military, and on shaping more how other governments act beyond their borders rather than within.” On the whole, Haass does an excellent job of outlining the current issues with US foreign policy, not to mention the international and domestic issues facing the nation. As with many shorter volumes, however, I question the logic of apportioning the space as he has. The balance between background, context and prescriptions is slightly off. Nevertheless, this is a valuable book, and sure to inspire debate among policy professionals and academics.

“The world will not sort itself out absent US leadership. This is not a call for unilateralism, which in most instances is not a viable option. Nor is it a reflection of American arrogance. It is simple fact. No other country has the capacity, habits, and willingness to take on this responsibility. Without such a benign force, order never just emerges. No invisible hand is at work to sort out the geopolitical marketplace. The question is whether the visible hand of the United States will be up to the challenge.”

Foreign Policy Begins at Home starts (post-introduction) with a pretty extensive treatment of the context for Haass’s eventual thesis. Haass addresses the now somewhat discredited notion that history has ‘ended’ (as proposed by Francis Fukuyama): “History, with some decidedly modern wrinkles, has returned if in fact it ever departed.” With the “constant flux, shifting alignments, numerous power centers, and states coming together and apart”, our world now more resembles the 19th Century, rather than 20th, only “with the overlay of modern technology and globalization”.

The principal focus for the United States, the author argues, should be “on restoring the economic, social, and physical foundations of American power.” He argues that ten years of “adopting and living according to a doctrine of Restoration would help the United States shore up the economic foundations of its traditional strengths for decades to come.” In the book, Haass identifies five core areas that need addressing: “reducing the federal deficit and the ratio of national debt to GDP, putting into place a comprehensive energy strategy, improving the quality of education, upgrading the country’s physical infrastructure, and modernizing an out-of-date immigration policy.” The book is apportioned accordingly.

“Whatever challenges and threats exist (and they surely do exist) tends to be either structural – a lack of machinery and cooperation to meet the problems intrinsic to globalization – or, in one way or another, limited in their impact, including North Korea, Iran, and any number of weak states, such as Pakistan. Nothing rises to the level of existential, although terrorism involving nuclear material and weapons has the potential to come uncomfortably close to that threshold. The odds are good that the challenges (or their consequences) can be managed or contained even if the basic problem cannot be resolved or eliminated. This is not an invitation for the United States to do nothing in or about the world, but it is an opportunity that allows this country to be more selective in what it does (and how it does it) overseas and to focus more attention and resources on what it is doing at home. The objective must be to take advantage of the opportunity – think of it as a strategic respite – to restore the foundations of American power, including the economy, schools, infrastructure, and so on. The goal is to increase the number of Americans who can hold their own in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, shore up the economic and physical resilience of the country, and ensure that sufficient resources are available so that the United States can do what it wants and needs to do both at home and abroad.”

On the Economy, Haass is critical of “America’s lack of fiscal discipline”, which has “contributed far more to its loss of power and influence” than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which only account for 15% of US debt accumulated since 2001, Haass reckons). Both the US economy and political systems have been severely “tarnished” by recent events, policies and missteps, and America’s reputation in the world is something that has to be addressed by the current and future governments.

“The best way to move the budget in the direction of balance,” Haass argues, “is through a mix of spending cuts and higher revenues; in other words, selective tax increases.” The author suggests that a 3:1 ratio in spending cuts to new revenue “holds out the best way of getting from here to there without shutting down investment or hampering growth.” But, this can only work if spending on entitlements and especially healthcare can be brought under control. Examples of what can be done include: a gradual raise of the retirement age, means testing for pensions, selective reductions in fast-growing disability payments, adjusting the formula for inflationary increases, and perhaps raising the cap on payroll deductions. In the area of healthcare, despite paying roughly twice as much of GDP on it, it is no better, and there is too much unnecessary testing, a lack of focus on preventive care, and too much faith in treatments that probably won’t improve patients’ health. Raising the age of Medicare eligibility could help significantly reduce costs, as could increasing co-payments, tort reform, means in testing, and a host of administrative reforms. This is about as detailed as Haass gets, unfortunately. The author also calls for tax reform. So far, so de rigueur.

Haass is generally optimistic about America’s Energy future. Trends appear to be going in the country’s favour, but the main concern is complacency (historically, an all-too-possible reaction). Haass suggests an expansion of domestic production of gas and oil; greater coordination with Western Hemisphere producers and partners (he is pro-Keystone XL pipeline); measured gas regulation; reduction in oil and coal use, and maybe a move towards more natural gas production and usage; greater fuel efficiency (praises the Obama administration’s 2011 agreement with 13 major auto companies to raise fuel economy standards – “it is no exaggeration to point to this measure as one of the major national security achievements of recent years”). He also proposes higher taxes on gasoline and use of natural gas to fuel larger vehicles (perhaps by indexing with inflation), to help pay for infrastructural improvements, maintenance, and so forth. Nuclear energy, too, the author argues, is essential to meet the growing needs of the country, and also to help with energy independence.

On the state of American Education, Haass is positively depressed: “American education at the K-12 level is failing.” This, of course, bodes ill for the future – “... individuals as well as the country are less well off because of the lost productivity resulting from insufficient education.” This is a good chapter, but short and I would have liked more detail (but then, as someone trying to get a full-time job in academia, this is more due to my own selfish interests).

“America’s infrastructure is starved for cash.” Not nearly enough is being done to maintain, let alone modernise what is already in place, Haass complains. In the chapter addressing America’s infrastructure woes, he ties the need for a modern, top-notch infrastructure to economic and security concerns.

“It is rare in the public policy arena that one encounters win-win propositions, but rebuilding this country’s infrastructure has the potential to be one of them.”

Haass’s Immigration chapter is good, but exceptional when discussing non-illegals and foreign worker visas. He praises Canadian, UK and Australian ‘points systems’, calls for more flexibility in hiring overseas workers (especially those with advanced degrees and skills – ahem...). A topic-within-an-issue that goes largely undiscussed and appears (from my own experiences discussing with friends and colleagues) largely misunderstood (if known at all) by American citizens. An excellent section of the book.


The issues are all somewhat interrelated, of course – improvements in one will induce improvements in another (or more). Haass does a good job of illustrating this. In explaining this, he offers some of the rare win-win situations in public policy: if you improve energy efficiency/independence, you improve the economy. If you improve education, you improve the economy and possibly immigration. If you fix immigration reform, you can help improve education ad the economy. Haass offers a popular complaint about America, and the nation’s ability to solve its problems:

“What is worth mentioning about this catalogue of problems (or challenges, if you prefer) is that none is insoluble and none exists because of a lack of resources or talent or ideas. Rather, all are man-made, or, in this case, American made. The good news is that they can be fixed. The not-so-good news is that the same reason they exist will make it harder to fix them: politics.”

The author also recognises that his book presents a big ask for the nation, and that it “may not be realistic to do what is being called for here in these pages and survive, much less thrive, politically.” Haass is reluctant to believe a comprehensive address of the issues facing the United States “may not be possible within either of the two existing parties; it certainly won't be easy, given the twenty-first century's 24/7 Internet and media environment.” 

What should define USFP, going forward? Multilateralism? Often offered, but it “is not an end in itself, so much as a means. It is about execution, no more and no less.” It is also not good to dismiss it, as it has multiple benefits (which should be obvious). Haass is quite critical of the not-too-recent tendency of new administrations to hunt for an eponymous doctrine (the “Bush Doctrine”, the as-yet-undefined “Obama Doctrine”, or “case-by-case-ism” accusations of Bill Clinton’s administration).

“In principle, one could live with having no foreign policy doctrine, either because it is too hard to come up with one that fits the realities of the world or because a doctrine may be viewed as more of a luxury than a necessity. It is also fair to say that no framework can be expected to provide guidance to every foreign policy choice; even containment was unable to do this.”

In some ways, therefore, Haass is endorsing Clinton’s “case-by-case” or “a la carte Foreign Policy” as a good way forward?

“... a foreign policy doctrine serves useful purposes. It can provide overall policy direction and help establish priorities. Doctrine can help shape, size, and steer the allocation of resources. And a doctrine can send useful signals to allies and adversaries, and to the public and Congress. For the pressed policymaker, the intellectual framework provided by a doctrine is far preferable to improvisation.”

On Humanitarianism and Liberal Internationalism – which is topical, given recent discussion, coverage and politicking over President Obama’s and Secretary of State Kerry’s call for intervention in Syria – Haass has the following to say (forgive the long quotation):

“...there is no shortage of situations calling out for such intervention. But therein also lies part of the problem with humanitarianism: its almost unlimited call on American resources at a time when US economic and military resources are strained. Moreover, addressing the root causes of humanitarian crises can require long-term capacity,or nation-building, an even more demanding and expensive proposition. In many instances, vital US interests are nowhere to be found... In the end, it is too narrow and too divorced from strategic interests to serve as a foreign policy doctrine... The United States should be wary of armed humanitarian intervention except in those circumstances where threat is both large and not in doubt, the potential victims have requested help, the opposition (and alternative) to the government is judged to be viable and,committed to objectives deemed acceptable to this country, there is substantial international support and participation in the mission, there is a high likelihood of success at a limited cost, and other,policies are judged to be inadequate. There also needs to be an assessment of competing claims on US resources and the greater context...”

Haass addresses all of the main contemporary issues facing the United States, including China, North Korea, Iran, a general “pivot” to East Asia, and many more. His prescription for paying closer attention to problems at home, before adventuring abroad, is not a call for withdrawal, however:

“Restoration as a US foreign policy doctrine is about restoring the internal sources of American power and restoring balance to what the United States aims to do in the world and how it does it.

“Restoration is not isolationism. As pointed out in the introduction to this book, isolationism is willful turning away from the world even when a rigorous assessment of a country’s national interests (and what could be done to promote them) would argue for acting on their behalf.”

In addition:

“Savings on what is spent on behalf of national security need not and should not be limited to savings derived from winding down two wars... Could more be spent? Of course – but US interests and the threats to them do not warrant spending more. In addition, spending less on defense makes it easier to move the US budget toward balance, something that provides a basis for long-term national security, including more defense spending if need be.”

I want to close this review with my main (and, really, only) issue with the book. Haass doesn’t really start addressing the “at home” component of the title and his argument until page 121 of 164. This is perhaps a little late. What Haass has written leading up to this point is certainly good, well-written and valuable, but given the title and supposed premise of this slim volume, perhaps it should have been expanded? At least 50/50 would have been preferable. Especially when he writes the following:

“Restoration is not just about doing less or acting more discriminately abroad; to the contrary, it is even more about doing the right things at home.”

If this is the case, why only spend a quarter of the book on it? He then states, a page later, that “To speak of the domestic challenge facing the United States is, in reality, to speak of multiple challenges. The list is virtually endless and no doubt highly subjective...” So, again, why only forty pages? As Haass mentions in his Acknowledgements, this is the 13th book he has written: I don’t think anyone reading Foreign Policy Begins At Home will doubt his Foreign Policy and International Relations expertise. This would have suggested that an extensive portion of context (relative to the overall length of the book) was unnecessary. I would certainly have welcomed greater balance.

Nevertheless, this is a very well-written book, and well-reasoned. It is calm, clear and concise, which is a boon in a market that has come to favour ever-longer volumes. Foreign Policy Begins at Home is an excellent starting point for a much larger, essential discussion on the way in which America approaches the world and its myriad issues, its management of domestic issues, and how these two arenas combine to create a larger concern.

Absolutely recommended, along with Haass’s other books.

1 comment:

  1. Dear blogger,

    Since I have read this review. Its so interesting, but I still not understanding about many other points. Could I have full text, please? My email is:

    Best regards,
    Seang Mengsang, Cambodia