Obama’s State of the Union Signals Grand Strategy Status Quo

It was clever, though a bit too opportunistic, for the president to begin and end his State of the Union address with references to Iraq, and the sacrifices of the troops. The war has been a disaster for the United States, and for the Iraqi people, of course. But the subject has always been a win-win for him. Whenever he talks about Iraq, it serves as a not-so-subtle reminder about who got us into this mess (i.e. not him).

Others might gripe about the president wrapping himself in the troops, and the flag (or, in the case of this speech, the troops’ flag). But Americans are rightly proud of our military, and there is nothing wrong with invoking the spirit of service and sacrifice that animates the members of our military. (There is something wrong with suggesting that all Americans should act as members of the military do, a point that Ben Friedman makes in a separate post.)

But while some degree of chest-thumping, “America, ooh-rah” is to be expected, this passage sent me over the edge:

America is back.

Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about. …Yes, the world is changing; no, we can’t control every event. But America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs – and as long as I’m President, I intend to keep it that way.

Have we learned nothing in the past decade? Have we learned anything? To say that we are the indispensable nation is to say that nothing in the world happens without the United States’ say so. That is demonstrably false.

Of course, the United States of American is an important nation, the most important, even. Yes, we are an exceptional nation. We boast an immensely powerful military, a still-dynamic economy (in spite of our recent challenges), and a vibrant political culture that hundreds of millions of people around the world would like to emulate. But the world is simply too vast, too complex, and the scale of transactions in the global economy is enormous. It is the height of arrogance and folly for any country to claim indispensability.

The president is hardly alone, however. Many in Washington—including some of his most vociferous critics in the Republican Party— celebrate the continuity in U.S. foreign policy as an affirmation of its wisdom. The president’s invocation of the “indispensable nation” line from the mid-1990s is merely the latest manifestation of a foreign policy consensus that has held for decades.

But the world has changed, and is still changing. Our grand strategy needs to adapt. When we embarked on the unipolar project after the end of the Cold War, the United States accounted for about a third of global economic output, and a third of global military expenditures; today, we account for just under half of global military spending, but our share of the global economy has fallen below 25 percent.

What we need, therefore, is a new strategy that aims to promote our core interests, but that doesn’t expect U.S. troops and taxpayers to also bear the burdens of promoting everyone else’s. After all, the values that are so important to most Americans, and that the president cited in his speech last night, are also cherished by hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people in many countries around the world. It is reasonable to expect them to pay some of the costs required to advance these values, and to sustain a peaceful and prosperous international order. Our current strategy still presumes that it is not.