Commentary

Book Review: The Frugal Superpower

The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era
by Michael Mandelbaum
PublicAffairs, $23.95, 224 pages

Never has one country enjoyed complete global domination as has America. For about five decades, the United States has been the strongest military, economic and cultural power on earth. For the past two decades, the international order has been America and the others (barely).

However, the fun times are coming to an end. After the financial crash of 2008 and concomitant recession, Uncle Sam was revealed to be essentially broke. With a $1.3 trillion deficit this year alone, Washington effectively will have to borrow every dollar to pay for its outsized foreign policy.

Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, begins The Frugal Superpower with a reference to President Obama’s speech at West Point last December. In it, the president announced his intention to escalate the war. However, much of his talk was about limits.

Mr. Mandelbaum explains:

“For even as he ordered the troops to Afghanistan Obama sought to place limits on the duration of their stay and the mission they would be carrying out, and he made it clear that the reason for these limits was that America could not afford to do more. The most important theme of his remarks was the acknowledgment of economic constraints on American foreign policy, a theme very seldom heard from an American president since Roosevelt took the United States into World War II.”

In short, Washington’s time as the sole superpower able to impose its will on everyone everywhere is drawing to a close. This position might seem to be a natural aspect of the international environment, but it is, in fact, a recent artifact of history that was never going to last. Mr. Mandelbaum’s book addresses the question, now what?

The consequences for America and other nations will be profound. However, Mr. Mandelbaum, who advocates an expansive U.S. foreign policy, may underestimate the potential for satisfactory new arrangements. Other nations could and likely would do far more to preserve today’s relatively benign peaceful order.

Mr. Mandelbaum confronts “the tyranny of numbers.” Washington no longer enjoys the sense of endless resources, available for anything thought necessary or desirable.

He writes of the impact on policy: “The economic crisis of 2008 and especially the gargantuan economic obligations that will confront the country in its wake will redraw those boundaries in two closely related ways. First, the limits of the possible for foreign policy will be narrower than they have been for many decades.” Washington simply won’t be able to spend what it wants on international initiatives.

That’s not all. “Second, the limits that constrain the government in its external initiatives will be drawn less on the basis of what the world requires and more by considering what the United States can — and cannot — afford.” Americans who never have been much enamored of attempting to run the world will be particularly unhappy at doing so when their taxes are being raised and their benefits are being cut.

The result will be what Mr. Mandelbaum calls the “novelty of scarcity.” Instead of being able to act as a global philanthropist and nanny, Uncle Sam is going to have to do less.

One of Mr. Mandelbaum’s most provocative arguments is that while lots of people around the world campaign busily against American power, they — other than a pitiful band of thugs and misfits, such as Kim Jong-il, the Burmese junta, the Ahmadinejad government and the like — will suffer the most from the diminution of U.S. power.

He argues: “American power confers benefits on most inhabitants of the planet, even on many who dislike it and some who actively oppose it, because the United States plays a major, constructive, and historically unprecedented role in the world.”

There is much truth in this observation. But against those benefits must be ranged important costs, especially today, when the United States acts with inadequate restraint. When Lord Acton warned, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he did not exempt well-meaning American policymakers.

Examples are not hard to find. There are people who benefited from the war in Iraq, of course — many of them are in power in Tehran. In contrast, in addition to the costs to Americans, at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died. Hundreds of thousands have been maimed or injured. Roughly 4 million have been forced from their homes, half of them exiled from their country. Iran has gained influence.

Indeed, Mr. Mandelbaum admits that the Iraq war was a “debacle.” He hopes that “the discipline that scarcity will impose can actually improve the conduct of American foreign policy by precluding the kind of errors that carelessness, itself the product of an abundance of power, produced in the first two post-Cold War decades.”

However, Mr. Mandelbaum worries that U.S. retrenchment will lead to the return of “great power politics.” Yet Washington’s current promiscuous tendency to intervene ensures that almost any conflict involving other nations will end up involving the United States. Deterrence often fails. Other nations understandably prefer to rely on Washington for their defense. The latter is not in America’s interest — which, after all, is what U.S. foreign policy should be about.

Mr. Mandlebaum says, “The national insistence on keeping gasoline cheap in the United States is the single greatest failure of twenty-first-century American foreign policy.” He wants to raise the gas tax, a persistent liberal panacea.

However, the real policy failure is intervening promiscuously to protect Middle Eastern oil producers even though the energy market is global. Since the end of the Cold War, and even before, Washington’s interventions and threatened interventions actually have destabilized the region.

Mr. Mandelbaum sees great international change coming. In his view, “One thing worse than an America that is too strong, the world will learn, is an America that is too weak.” But Americans currently forced to foot the bill so Washington policymakers can sacrifice American soldiers like gambit pawns in a global chess game might beg to differ. A more humble foreign policy, as George W. Bush once promised, would be a far better deal for the vast majority of U.S. citizens, who suffer through whatever Washington elites decide.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon Press).