Haass: U.S. Should Fix Its Own House Before Cleaning Up World’s Messes

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In his international affairs career, Richard Haass has worked as both a nuts-and-bolts practitioner and a big-picture analyst who has offered sweeping assessments about how the United States should conduct its foreign policy. In his new book, "Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order," Haass draws largely from his perspective as a panoramic thinker but also offers a number of specific policy recommendations.

Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that U.S. foreign policy has become overextended in the last two decades and its political system has failed to address critical domestic challenges related to the budget, economy, education, energy, immigration and infrastructure. He argues that the United States should be more restrained about what it tries to do abroad and more disciplined about what it does at home.

"The message of this book is that the United States, while in a unique position to do some valuable things in the world, cannot do everything," he writes. "It certainly cannot continue doing the same things in the same way either at home or abroad. What is needed is nothing less than a new approach to both domestic and foreign policy; changing just one would be desirable but insufficient. The stakes could hardly be greater: the nature of the twenty-first century and the prosperity and security of the United States."

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Photo: Basic Publicity

The book does not embrace international isolationism, however, but rather warns that if the United States cannot fix its problems at home, it cannot begin to address the myriad problems around the world, where America remains an indispensable power.

"Either the United States will put its house in order and refocus what it does abroad, or it will increasingly find itself at the mercy of what happens beyond its borders and beyond its control," he writes. "Such an outcome would not be in the interests of either the world or the country. The good news is that such a future can be headed off if the United States does what most Americans already know needs doing."

The author or editor of 12 books on U.S. foreign policy, Haass is a prominent analyst and prolific writer about international affairs. During his career, he's moved in and out of government service and the think tank world. He was senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council during the George H.W. Bush administration and then headed up foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution during the Clinton presidency. He served as policy planning director at the State Department during George W. Bush's first term, working for Secretary of State Colin Powell, before accepting the presidency of the Council on Foreign Relations in 2003. The council is a widely respected, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank and publisher.

Haass organizes "Foreign Policy Begins at Home" into three sections. The first considers the international landscape, the second discusses what the United States should and should not do abroad, and the final section examines America's domestic challenges.

The United States, he argues, is still the leading power in the world, but it operates in a global landscape that has become increasingly complex. It no longer dominates the world as it did immediately after the end of the Cold War. In Haass's view, the early 21st century resembles in some ways the 19th century, with shifting political alignments, multiple power centers, and nations coming together and then moving apart. This complexity is compounded by remarkable advances in technology and rapid globalization.

Haass believes that non-polarity will dominate the early 21st century and international affairs will be shaped by dozens of nations and nongovernmental actors jostling for influence. The United States, China, Japan, Russia and India will lead the pack, but other nations will also assert themselves, such as Chile, Germany, France, Venezuela, Mexico, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Australia, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey.

Additionally, large organizations such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, European Union, Organization of American States, Arab League and NATO will play important roles, as will the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Joining this matrix are powerful corporations such as JPMorgan Chase and Caterpillar, global media conglomerates such as CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera, and NGOs such as the Gates Foundation, Doctors Without Borders and Greenpeace.

"China's rise is one of the defining features of this era. China has come a remarkably long way in a short time," he writes, noting that in recent decades, China's population has grown 40 percent from 900 million to 1.3 billion while its economic output has increased 35 times from $200 billion to $7 trillion. Likewise, China's per-capita gross domestic product has skyrocketed from under $200 to more than $5,000.

In contrast, Haass argues that Europe's decline is striking and will continue. "Europe's position as a major power in the 21st century world looks to be all but over," he writes, citing its anti-military culture and inability to resolve tensions between nationalism and European integration.

Importantly, despite China's rapid ascension, he believes that great power conflict is unlikely in the foreseeable future, giving the world a period of relative peace.

This complicated but less threatening world allows the United States to be more discriminating about how it operates internationally. From the American perspective, the international system is providing a strategic respite in which the United States has the time and space to reassess its foreign and domestic policies and forge a new path as a global leader.

Haass argues the United States should embrace a new foreign policy doctrine that he calls Restoration. This calls for a more restrained, selective approach to global affairs, with less emphasis on military responses to problems and more aggressive use of diplomacy.

"Restoration as a U.S. 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," he writes.

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Richard Haass

In Haass's view, the United States should have a foreign policy that is active, but also prudent. He even offers a bumper sticker for it that's very reminiscent of President Obama's re-election campaign mantra: "Less nation building abroad, more at home."

While vague on exactly how America's international posture should change, Haass says the nation should protect its vital interests and invest fewer resources in peripheral engagements. Notably, it should avoid Middle East entanglements, including Syria, and focus on the Asian-Pacific region — echoing the administration's highly touted Asian pivot. This more limited role will allow the nation to reduce national security spending without putting itself in danger, he says, noting that core U.S. defense spending is currently about $500 billion a year — more than China, Japan, the European Union, India and Russia spend in total. Haass says the United States can cut its defense budget, which has roughly doubled since 9/11, between 5 percent and 10 percent without causing harm.

In the final section of the book, Haass calls for new domestic policies and a more confidence-inspiring political system. "Restoration is not just about doing less or acting more discriminating abroad; to the contrary, it is even more about doing the right things at home," he writes.

Effective domestic policies would boost growth and give other nations the example of a flourishing American economy and a disciplined political system. This would be beneficial in its own right and serve as a major foreign policy asset.

"The biggest threat to America's security and prosperity comes not from abroad but from within. The United States has jeopardized its ability to act effectively in the world because of runaway domestic spending, underinvestment in human and physical capital, an avoidable financial crisis, an unnecessarily slow recovery, a war in Iraq that was flawed from the outset and a war in Afghanistan that became flawed as its purpose evolved, recurring fiscal deficits, and deep political divisions. For the United States to continue to act successfully abroad, it must restore the domestic foundations of its power. Foreign policy needs to begin at home, now and for the foreseeable future," he declares.

Haass says this domestic renewal should concentrate on reducing budget deficits, developing a comprehensive energy policy, improving secondary education, upgrading infrastructure, and modernizing immigration policy.

Haass's overall argument is credible and compelling. His central message of recalibrating U.S. foreign policy so that its goals and its resources are in better alignment is wise and has been advanced by other leading thinkers for many years. But it is very hard to do. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all campaigned on pledges to find this balance, but each became diverted by various foreign policy challenges once in office.

Many of the specific prescriptions Haass proposes are sound and persuasive, although some have been circulating in the think tank realm for years. It's not exactly a revelation that our transportation system needs major upgrades or that unrestrained entitlement spending threatens the health of the economy.

I was disappointed that Haass did not clearly explain how these disparate policies connect to each other or how to persuade the American public to support them. He reiterates what many consider to be conventional wisdom but fails to directly address a critical question: Why has it been so hard to get balanced and sensible policies put in place?

Most of his recommendations on budget policy ring true, though at times his agenda isn't completely coherent. His sense of urgency about the need to fix American fiscal policy is warranted. "The United States is fast approaching one of those truly historic turning points," he warns. "Either it will act to get its fiscal house in order, thereby restoring the prerequisites of this country's primacy, or it will fail to and, as a result, suffer both the domestic and international consequences. The world is looking for a signal that the United States has the political will and ability to make hard choices."

Haass favors a 3-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes and argues that it's critical to reform large entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But he also urges policymakers to cut annual budget deficits by about $250 billion a year over the next four to five years. Most budget experts agree that entitlement reforms are key to the nation's future fiscal health, but they often caution that these reforms will generate only modest budget savings in the short term but will yield much larger savings in the future. Haass's fiscal agenda does not clearly acknowledge the important distinctions between these short-, medium- and long-term challenges.

My main concern with the book is that Haass does not satisfactorily grapple with the central problem that is crippling America domestically and internationally: the nation's polarized and dysfunctional political system. To be fair, Haass does cite many factors that have hampered the effectiveness of the nation's political system: highly partisan redistricting of state legislatures and Congress; campaign finance rules that force lawmakers to depend less on their political parties and more on their own prowess in fundraising; the fracturing of the media into smaller and more partisan segments; the power of special interests to prevail over the larger public good in key policy debates; and Senate rules that make delay and obstruction by a determined minority easy to accomplish.

However, Haass does not suggest a package of reforms that is commensurate with the current level of political dysfunction. I wish he had devoted more time to this corrosive problem and offered more compelling answers on how to fix the system. Unless political reforms are accomplished, any common-sense reform agenda is likely to languish or get watered down.

So while Haass makes a forceful case that foreign policy must begin at home, it's undermined by sensible but sweeping declarations that don't delve into the nitty-gritty on why Americans haven't been able to put their house in order.


About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 30, 2013

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