The acrimonious negotiation that produced legislation to raise the American debt ceiling while cutting the federal budget deficit, which President Barack Obama signed on August 2, was an early skirmish in the battle to bring deficits under control. That battle is bound to be protracted, difficult, and contentious, and one of its casualties will be spending on foreign and security policy, which will decline in the years ahead. That will impose new limits on the projection of American power around the world.

What a difference a year makes. Only last year, in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, I published a review (“Overpowered?”) of three books whose common theme was that the United States was doing far too much beyond its borders. For its own sake and the sake of other countries, the three authors recommended, the country should pursue a more modest foreign policy. Now, as I forecast at the end of that essay, the fiscal condition of the United States will compel the fulfillment of that recommendation -- for better (the general sentiment of the books’ authors) or for worse (my own view).

The August 2 legislation calls for $1 trillion in spending cuts over a ten-year period, about $350 billion of which is likely to come from the defense budget. The legislation also mandates a further $1.5 trillion reduction in expenditures in the next decade. If a special Congressional panel cannot agree on the targets of those reductions, an automatic trigger will impose across-the-board budget savings that will lower the Defense Department’s budget by an estimated $600 billion. 

Even if the triggering mechanism is avoided, spending on defense and on other aspects of U.S. foreign policy will decline over the next decade. The scale of deficit reduction required to put the country on solid fiscal footing is so large that it must involve both limits on Social Security and Medicare, despite the Democrats’ determination to preserve these programs intact, and increases in taxes in some form, despite the Republicans’ determination to prevent this. When Americans are paying more to their government and getting less from it, they will not be as generous in supporting the United States’ global role as they have been in recent decades.

Defense budgets will contract for two other reasons. First, the sense of external threat that the country felt throughout the Cold War and after 9/11 has ebbed. Americans’ support for defense spending depends on how threatened they feel. For the moment, at least, the world does not seem particularly threatening. Second, the politics of the federal budget do not favor the Department of Defense, which cannot count on either political party to protect its share of federal spending. No major part of the Democratic coalition makes foreign and security policy a high priority. The Republican coalition does include national security hawks, who are committed to a large military and a robust foreign policy. But there are two other parts of the Republican coalition. Social conservatives are indifferent in these matters, and proponents of small government and low taxes -- now the most influential members of the coalition because they express the views of the Tea Party movement -- are willing to sacrifice defense spending for the sake of their principal goals.

So the United States will be able to afford to do less in the world in the future than it has in the past. Which parts of U.S. foreign policy will be -- and which should be -- discontinued? As I argue in my 2010 book, The Frugal Superpower, the feature of twenty-first-century foreign policy likeliest to be eliminated, and the one with which the country can most easily do without, is the type of military intervention that the United States has conducted in the first two post–Cold War decades in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Different as these operations have been, they have all saddled the United States with the unwanted, protracted, expensive, and frustrating task of nation-building -- that is, restoring the institutions of government where they had collapsed or building them where they never existed. The policy of nation-building has three drawbacks. 

First, it is not popular with the American people, who are willing to pay to defend themselves but not to govern others, or to help others govern themselves. Second, it has enjoyed modest success at best because neither the United States nor any other country knows how to create working, competent, democratic institutions quickly and cheaply. Third, however successful post–Cold War American nation-building has been, it has not contributed much to the well-being or security of the United States. Should Afghanistan be appreciably more peaceful and prosperous when American troops leave than it was when they arrived, it will certainly be of great benefit to the people of that country but it will do little for the people of the country from which the troops came. Together, these drawbacks make nation-building the leading candidate to disappear from the repertoire of U.S. foreign policy, which would make carrying out that foreign policy less expensive.

The Obama administration inherited ongoing interventions and nation-building exercises in Afghanistan and Iraq and has begun to wind them down. Although it launched a similar intervention in Libya in March 2011, the way it has conducted that operation -- promising not to insert U.S. ground troops and emphasizing NATO’s role -- shows that it is determined to minimize its costs.

Eliminating interventions for nation-building would still leave the United States with a major global role -- and an important one. Indeed, today the United States provides to other countries some, although by no means all, of the services that governments furnish to the societies that they govern. The United States functions, that is, as the world’s de facto government.

It supplies the world’s leading currency, the dollar. It has the world’s richest and most open market. Its navy safeguards the world’s two most important trade routes, the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. U.S. military power helps assure the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, which is vital for the global economy. The U.S. military presence in East Asia and Europe reassures the countries of those regions, which are not formal adversaries but in many cases do not fully trust one another, that the United States will be on hand to deal with any serious threat to peace.

Most of the U.S. defense budget goes to support these beneficial missions. As the country comes to spend less on defense, some of them will be in jeopardy. Just how endangered the American role as the world’s government will be in the coming era of economic constraint will depend on how deeply the relevant spending is reduced. That, in turn, will depend on how much deficit reduction the U.S. political system is able to deliver from other sources, above all by reining in the cost of entitlements and raising taxes. What is certain is that, because U.S. foreign policy is so important for the whole world, the consequences of the inevitable budget-cutting in Washington will reverberate far beyond the United States.


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