How to help the world without sending in the army
Is it time to rethink U.S. international policy?
If all your tools come out of the Department of Defense budget then all your solutions look like SEAL raids and drone strikes. The nation’s new National Security Strategy was released in December, and it looks little changed from previous statements. That’s a relief to many who feared President Trump’s often wayward rhetoric on geopolitics would mean a substantial turnabout on U.S. geopolitical commitments. Though the document dutifully notes attention to what are known as soft power initiatives, a familiar litany of international threats are identified and a continuing reliance on hard power—military strength—to achieve strategic and political goals remains clear.
The proposed strategy is an official indifference verging on hostility to soft power, an extension of U.S. strategic interests not based on military intimidation and covert action but proactive diplomatic and foreign aid measures and multilateral participating. The president has proposed deep cuts to the State Department and foreign aid programs; his rhetoric and policy shifts have undermined State Department officers and members of the nation’s diplomatic corps.
There are a number of reasons the nation’s reliance on hard power is problematic, not the least of which is its jaw-dropping cost. Ignoring its fiscal burdens in debt-servicing, pensions and health care for veterans, other security and black budget spending and miscellaneous costs, the Pentagon’s proposed 2018 official budget seeks a staggering $705 billion commitment of national resources. That’s more than 40 percent of the total global spending on defense, more than three times the estimated outlay from China, and exceeds Russia’s spending 16 to 1.
While it is true that Chinese military spending has increased substantially in recent years (Russia’s has stagnated), the rising Asian superpower has retained an interest in power projections of another sort. China has stepped up its participation at international forums, remained in the Paris accords—not coincidentally emerging as one of the leading investors and innovators of alternative energy technology—and intends to extend its One Belt and One Road infrastructural development program beyond Asia and into Africa and Latin America.
China has been challenged by environmentalists and generated fears of diminished sovereignty among some politicians, but it has succeeded in enhancing the country’s reputation and improved its capacity to influence affairs far beyond Beijing. The enhanced prestige of China comes at the same time Trump’s America First posture has antagonized even long-term allies, much less improved our capacity to influence events.
Perhaps the U.S. president should seek out wisdom from a different geopolitical advisor.
In an address to ambassadors to the Holy See in January, Pope Francis did not mention Donald Trump by name, but he urged global politicians to “abandon the familiar rhetoric” of fear mongering and hostility to people fleeing poverty and conflict. He described an individual’s ability to leave their country and then to return to it a “fundamental human right.”
“In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the history of salvation is essentially a history of migration,” he said, urging a reassessment of both rhetoric and policy on migration.
Instead of sinking billions into a wall, perhaps a $25 billion investment in a revised Good Neighbor policy is better worth considering. Instead of demanding respect through military might, the United States could earn it with generous, and let’s face it, self-serving, investments in Mexico, Central America, and other states in our shared Americas. Coupled with immigration reform that formalizes temporary labor flows throughout the region, the United States could emerge in a more stable, economically vibrant geopolitical position, earning the esteem and friendship of its neighbor states without firing a shot.
This article also appears in the April 2018 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 83, No. 4, page 42).