Inward Bound: Foreign Policy in a Time of Austerity

By Hehir, J. Bryan | Commonweal, August 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

Inward Bound: Foreign Policy in a Time of Austerity


Hehir, J. Bryan, Commonweal


Writing about foreign policy in the 2012 election means traveling second class, or even in steerage. To assess the diminution of foreign policy as an issue in U.S. politics, one need merely note that participants in the endless Republican primary debates turned to the topic only when attacking President Barack Obama or seeking relief from "social issues." But the world won't go away, and the United States, for reasons both moral and practical, cannot simply abandon world politics while we debate social issues and try to fix the economy.

To understand the content of any given foreign policy, it is useful to begin with the domestic context in which it is formulated. Here in the United States, that context is shaped by the psychic and political burdens of a decade of war and five years of financial crisis and recession. Those burdens have left large parts of the electorate exhausted and wanting a break from foreign entanglements. As a result, our foreign policy right now is focused on how to close out the Afghan war and direct national resources toward challenges of unemployment, debt, foreclosures, and investment. This focus marks a change in the way domestic priorities and foreign policy are now broadly seen. In the past, expenditures for national security were off limits when spending cuts were required. Now, however, $500 billion is proposed for defense cuts over the next decade, and many believe deeper cuts will be necessary to ease the budget deficit. So the U.S. role abroad will be played with fewer resources and less public support for an expansive foreign policy.

What kind of world will that reduced role be played in? Two major shifts have occurred in the way scholars and diplomats view the international system. For centuries the fundamental diplomatic calculus was made in terms of states, their interests and their powers; individuals had no place in it, and other collective entities a severely limited one. This traditional analysis fails to capture the world of today. Citizens now possess recognized human rights that require respect by states; transnational entities--economic, cultural, professional, and religious--have standing and influence; and international institutions exert their own significant influence. Meanwhile, understanding the relations among states requires a new approach. How will states manage cross-border conflicts in the post-9/11 world? What are the major threats to stability and the possible roads to peace and justice? Such questions are matters of much debate. Let me look at three levels of world politics containing issues of principle, moral as well as political, that will face the United States in the coming months and years.

First are interstate relations, which remain the heart of foreign policy. Of the various foreign vexations currently besetting the United States, Iran is the most time sensitive--and has become a principal way for Republicans to criticize Obama's policy. The principle at stake, nonproliferation, defines rights and obligations in a world of nuclear weapons. It mediates between have and have-not states while seeking absolute denial of such weapons to non-state actors. The attempt to close the ranks of the "haves" to new members has been breached by four states (India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea) in the past two decades, and each potential new breach sends shudders through the system, especially if the new contender has a strongly ideological foreign policy. Hence the alarm raised by Iran, whose foreign policy includes aspirations for a hegemonic role in the Persian Gulf, an adversarial role against U.S. policy in the Middle East, and a declared objective of eliminating Israel as a state.

The policy choices facing the United States are prevention, elimination, or containment of Iran's nuclear capability. Prevention is being pursued by the Obama administration in partnership with the other nuclear states on the UN Security Council.

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