I’ve been writing a lot lately about how the mistake America’s bipartisan foreign policy establishment keeps making by relying almost exclusively on traditional foreign policy instruments to safeguard U.S. national security.
Not that military force and diplomacy have lost their effectiveness. Indeed, dealing successfully with the ISIS terrorism threat in the Middle East will be impossible without using the former. But that’s only because for decades presidents have avoided taking the domestic steps – chiefly on the energy and border security fronts – that would have capitalized on America’s considerable ability to marginalize this hopelessly diseased region from its national fortunes, and that have the immense advantage of being much easier to control than events abroad.
Looking for another example of excessive and unaffordably wasteful reliance on standard foreign policy tools and total neglect of more efficient means of achieving stated goals? None stands out like America’s approach to East Asia.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has leaned heavily on large troop deployments in the region and alliances with its major noncommunist countries to keep the ambitions of the Soviet Union and China at bay. Although Moscow has been largely out of the picture since communism fell a quarter century ago, the Chinese threat now appears to be returning – so much so that it’s regularly cited in American defense policy speeches and strategy documents.
I’ve long believed that the United States is so well-armed and so geographically remote from East Asia, and that its economic relations with the fast-growing but highly protectionist region have been such a loser on net, that Washington should withdraw from East Asia militarily. Essential U.S. interests can be much more safely and effectively advanced overwhelmingly by using the decisive bargaining power America enjoys from its status as by far the most important market for export-dependent Asian economies.
But even supporters of the current Asia strategy urgently need to start recognizing that their neglect of less traditional foreign policy approaches is creating needless dangers for the country, not to mention major costs and other economic strains.
In particular, the two leading responses to Beijing’s recent defense buildup and provocations in the East and South China Seas have been a ballyhooed U.S. “pivot” to East Asia aimed at conveying greater American resolve to China, and a broader American military spending rebound that’s being proposed by many lawmakers and pundits to create the deeds needed to more fully math Washington’s words.
But here’s what all factions in the foreign policy establishment keep forgetting – U.S. policies that for decades have boosted China’s economic strength and military wherewithal continue apace. Both President Obama – author of the pivot – and Congress’ Republican leaders have staunchly backed the offshoring-happy U.S. trade policies that have enabled Beijing to earn literally trillions of dollars by racking up massive trade surpluses with America. And they continue to ignore the massive transfers of advanced technology by American corporate giants that have enabled China to build both advanced weaponry and cyber-hacking capabilities.
So thanks to this whopping blind spot, U.S. leaders and much of the chattering class are determined to increase American forces’ exposure to a Chinese military machine that American businesses keep feeding, and to pressure the U.S. economy further by launching a military buildup that can be financed only by raising taxes and therefore threatening the already feeble recovery; by cutting domestic programs that arguably meet important needs at home; or by plunging the country even deeper into debt.
Some would blame this situation on a comeback in the corridors of power by a defense industry that used to be called the “merchants of death.” I’m convinced that the real culprit is a colossal failure of the imagination – which could be much more difficult to overcome.