America’s Foreign Policy Retreat: No Will And No Money President Obama does not want engagement. His policy position is supported by the reality of our fiscal crisis

WASHINGTON – Several WSJ editorial writers point out that the loss of American influence in world affairs is a self-inflicted wound, caused entirely by President Obama’s myopic worldview that belittles problems abroad, while arguing that it is high time for “nation-building at home”.

You are on your own

By withdrawing from active engagement, America signals to all –friends and foes alike– that the bad guys now can have a free hand, (Assad in Syria, Putin in Crimea), while the good guys better find new ways to help themselves. Uncle Sam will not be available should a major crisis come along.

Well, the WSJ writers get it half right. Yes, the current passivity that these days characterizes US foreign policy is due to the decidedly unwise decisions made by this President.

America is broke

However, unfortunately there is more.

America is broke. Really broke.

Back in the 1950s, when post-war America decided to resist Soviet expansionism, it had ample means to do so. America came out of WWI as the dominant world economic power. It could finance the reconstruction of Europe via the Marshall Plan, troops in Europe under NATO’s auspices, the Korean War, and a lot more.

Even the long, costly and poorly managed Vietnam war could be easily financed. In those fiscally happier times we could have it all. Yes, as the saying went, we could have both, “guns and butter”.

Structural deficits hurt defense spending

But it is clear that those days are a distant memory. For several decades Washington has been running exceedingly high, structural federal budget deficits. And here I emphasize the word “structural”.

While it is well within our powers to reform entitlement spending –by far the biggest cause of these deficits– until Democrats and Republicans come to a new and constructive political agreement on this critical matter, you can expect defense spending to be a casualty of Washington’s deeper indebtedness.

Indeed, if the choice is between sending out Social Security checks and financing the next aircraft carrier, we know that Social Security recipients will win.

Lack of will, lack of means converge

And here is where Obama’s instincts of retreat from world affairs converge with an objectively horrible fiscal picture. Whatever this President, or any other President for that matter, may want to do in foreign policy, there is no money to keep the defense spending levels that used to be affordable until not too long ago.

And you cannot have a credible, more forceful foreign policy if this is not backed by real military power. If you do not believe me, just look at Europe. Who cares about what a virtually disarmed Europe says about this or that world crisis?

This way the defenders of Obama’s approach can say, with some justification, that we have to adjust our foreign policy ambitions to our fiscal realities. We have to do with less. Which means we do less.

All this is reversible

True enough, arguably both elements of this unhappy convergence –lack of will and lack of means– could be reversed. A different President could choose to engage more, while a new political consensus in Washington could finally address our structural fiscal imbalances.

That said, the second issue –our fiscal problem– is much more complicated, because it would need a brand new political consensus in order to be rectified –something that it is almost unimaginable in the current rancorous political climate in which the very notion of “compromise” is heresy.

Electing a new President in 2016 who may want to go back to a more engaged foreign policy would be welcome, but not enough.

If you have no money, you cannot finance engagement.

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