I’m picking on New York Times uber-pundit Thomas Friedman again today – not because of any personal animus, but because, as noted yesterday, he’s such an effective, influential creator of and propagandist for the conventional wisdom on so many public policy fronts. And just to underscore that it’s nothing personal, I’ll also put in my cross-hairs another, though lower profile, thought leader: Harvard political scientist Joseph S. Nye, Jr. The reason? Both recently have provided us with quintessential illustrations of how lazy – and indeed juvenile – the justifications for American international activism served up by the bipartisan foreign policy establishment have grown.
The analyses I’m talking about aren’t quite as childishly simplistic as the establishment theme I wrote about last month – the assumption that American involvement in alliances and international organizations and regimes is automatically good, and that withdrawal or avoidance is automatically bad. But because it’s a little more sophisticated, it can be even more harmful. It’s the insistence that whenever the United States faces a problem with an international dimension, the remedy is some form of international engagement.
A recent Friedman column revealed one big weakness with this assumption: It often logically leads to the conclusion that a problem is utterly hopeless, at least for the foreseeable future. Just think about the only sensible implications of this October 31 article, which insists that the apparently metastasizing threat of Islamic terrorism in Africa can’t be adequately dealt with through the military tools on which the Trump administration is relying.
Why not? “Because what is destabilizing all of these countries in the Sahel region of Africa and spawning terrorist groups is a cocktail of climate change, desertification — as the Sahara steadily creeps south — population explosions and misgovernance.
“Desertification is the trigger, and climate change and population explosions are the amplifiers. The result is a widening collapse of small-scale farming, the foundation of societies all over Africa.”
I have no doubt that Friedman is right here. And as a result, he has a point to slam the Trump administration “for sending soldiers to fight a problem that is clearly being exacerbated by climate and population trends….” (That’s of course a prime form of American international activism.)
But he veers wildly off course in suggesting that other forms of such activism – “global contraception programs,” “U.S. government climate research” and the like are going to do much good, especially in the foreseeable future. Unless he supposes that, even if American policies turned on a dime five or even ten years ago, Africa would be much less of a mess? The only adult conclusion possible is that nothing any government can do is going to turn the continent into something other than a major spawning ground for extremism and refugees.
And this conclusion looks especially convincing considering the African problem to which Friedman – and so many other supporters of such approaches – gives short shrift: dreadfully corrupt governments. For this is a problem that has afflicted Africa since the countries south of the Sahara began gaining their independence from European colonialists in the late-1950s. (And the colonialists themselves weren’t paragons of good government, either.)
So I’m happy to agree that we shouldn’t pretend that sending American special forces running around Africa helping local dictators will actually keep the terrorists under control (although as I’ve argued in the case of the Middle East, such deployments could helpfully keep them off balance). But let’s not pretend that anything Friedman supports will help, either – at least in the lifetime of anyone reading this.
Nye has held senior government foreign policy posts in Democratic administrations and, in the interests of full disclosure, we have crossed swords in print – mainly about the proper definition of internationalism and about a review of an anthology he edited that he didn’t like (which doesn’t seem to be on-line). But I hope you agree that there’s still a big problem with his November 1 essay for Project-Syndicate.org about the implications of America’s domestic energy production revolution for the nation’s approach to the Middle East.
In Nye’s words: “Skeptics have argued that lower dependence on energy imports will cause the US to disengage from the Middle East. But this misreads the economics of energy. A major disruption such as a war or terrorist attack that stopped the flow of oil and gas through the Strait of Hormuz would drive prices to very high levels in America and among our allies in Europe and Japan. Besides, the US has many interests other than oil in the region, including nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, protection of Israel, human rights, and counterterrorism.”
Two related aspects of this list of reasons for continued American engagement in the region stand out. First, it’s completely indiscriminate. And second, for this reason, it completely overlooks how some of these unmistakably crucial U.S. interests can be much more effectively promoted or defended not through yet more American intervention in this increasingly dysfunctional region, but through changes in American domestic policies.
For instance, we’re (rightly) worried about nuclear proliferation, especially in Iran? How can today’s engagement policy help? Even if the the current Iran nuclear deal works exactly as intended, what happens when it runs out? Should we simply assume that Tehran will be happy to keep its nuclear genie in a bottle for another fifteen years? Will Iran be persuaded to give up the nuclear option permanently if Washington cultivates even closer ties with its age-old Sunni Muslim enemies, like Saudi Arabia?
Although I’m a missile defense skeptic – especially when it comes to the near-term threat from North Korea – isn’t figuring out a more effective way to repel an Iranian strike more likely to protect the American homeland? It’s certainly a response over which the United States will have much more control – and indeed, any control. In addition, if the United States withdraws militarily from the Persian Gulf region, Iran’s reason for launching such an attack in the first place fades away and, as I’ve argued in the case of North Korea, America’s own vastly superior nuclear forces become a supremely credible deterrent for any other contingencies.
Of course the United States faces a big Middle East-related terrorism problem. But as I’ve argued previously, the keys to America’s defense are serious border security measures. They, too, pass the “control test” with flying colors, and consequently seem much more promising than the status quo approach of trying to shape the region’s future in more constructive ways. But as I’ve also written, it would also make sense to keep in the Middle East small-scale American forces whose mission is continually harassing ISIS and Al Qaeda and whatever other groups of vicious nutballs are certain to appear going forward.
Nye’s point about the integration of global energy markets is a valid one. But in the same article, he acknowledges how the U.S. domestic energy revolution’s “combination of entrepreneurship, property rights, and capital markets” has changed the game for America. Why does he suppose that its effects won’t spread significantly beyond our borders?
As for Nye’s other two reasons for continued U.S. Middle East engagement, the notion that Washington can do anything meaningful to promote the cause of human rights simply isn’t serious, and Israel has amply demonstrated that, with enough American military aid, it can take care of itself.
Moreover, as you may recognize, the arguments for mainly focusing on border security to handle the Middle East terrorist threat applies to the African menace that’s preoccupying Friedman.
The main takeaway here isn’t that U.S. international engagement will never be needed to protect national security, safeguard the nation’s independence, or enhance its prosperity. It’s that Made in America approaches will turn out to be vastly superior in many cases – and certainly in many more cases than the bipartisan globalist foreign policy establishment recognizes. How long will it take for President Trump to get fully on board?
By the way, I first began exploring the idea of Made in America solutions to foreign policy problems and international threats when I read this article by current Atlantic Monthly Editor Jeffrey Goldberg. He argued in 1999 that the nation was making a big mistake ignoring Africa in its diplomacy because the continent was likely to become a source of deadly diseases sure to cross oceans and eventually afflict Americans and others; that “H.I.V., of course, is a particularly vicious warning shot”; and that it was high time for Washington to deal with “poverty, poor sanitation and political instability” as well as put “a global system of public health and disease surveillance in place.”
Not that Goldberg presented a stark either-or choice, but my reaction was “If we do need to figure out whether to place more AIDS-fighting emphasis on promoting African economic development, or on finding a cure through medical research, isn’t the latter much likelier to deliver major results much sooner?”
As is clear from the Friedman article, Africa’s array of problems continues unabated. And according to no less than the (devoutly globalist) Obama administration, as of last year, the United States was “on the right track to reach most of its “National HIV/AIDS Strategy” goals for 2020 – which seek an America that’s “a place where new HIV infections are rare” and where “high quality, life-extending care” is available.