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Brands's 5th law (part 3 of 3)
Sooner or later, countries get the foreign policies they can afford
A clever quirk in American entitlements accounting gave butter an additional advantage over guns in the legislative contest between the two. For decades the Social Security Administration had sent annual statements of individual account to participants in the system—that is, to nearly every adult American. These statements detailed how much the individual had contributed to the system, and how much the individual could expect to receive after retirement. The statements gave the impression that each contributor possessed the equivalent of a savings account in Washington, and had a corresponding moral claim on the funds in that account.
The impression was no accident; Franklin Roosevelt had designed the system this way, to make it politically appealing. But it was a fiction. In reality, the contributions of participants were mingled with other tax revenues and spent as they came in. But it meant that cuts to Social Security would have to survive the outcry of contributors who insisted that their accounts had been pilfered. The Pentagon issued no such statements of account; cuts to military spending weren’t and wouldn’t be taken anywhere near so personally.
Meanwhile, American dominance was being challenged as never before. The Soviet Union had competed with the United States for allies during the Cold War, but it always suffered from the fact that its economy was puny compared with that of the United States. Dictatorships can carry unsustainable burdens longer than democracies can, but they can’t carry them forever, and by the 1980s the Soviet system was staggering. The collapse came in 1991.
China was a different story. China’s phenomenal growth after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 put its economy on a trajectory to surpass the American economy during the 2010s or early 2020s, depending the measure chosen. The behavior of the Chinese appeared to corroborate the principle that countries get the foreign policies they can afford. As China grew wealthier, its foreign policy became more assertive. Its navy grew, and China laid aggressive claim to the waters of the South China Sea.
China invested strategically in numerous foreign countries, securing raw materials and markets and establishing networks of dependency on China’s goodwill. In some cases the Chinese government made clear that its protégés must choose between the United States and China; increasingly they chose China. Chinese consumers became sufficiently numerous and prosperous that foreign firms were willing to make steep concessions regarding intellectual property and privacy in order to have a crack at the Chinese market.
The European Union challenged the United States from a different direction. Its cumulative GDP approached America’s, even after Brexit, and though it had no single foreign policy, it did have economic policies. Large companies often faced closer scrutiny from European regulators than from American; an EU veto of a proposed merger could scuttle a deal that would have passed muster in the United States. When Washington imposed economic sanctions against regimes it disliked—notably Russia and Iran—it required EU cooperation to make them stick. Washington could no longer dictate to the Europeans as it had in the 1940s; it had to negotiate with them.
So would the American moment pass, as the moments of Rome, Britain and other hegemons had passed? No law of history required it. But historical patterns were suggestive. By 2020 the American economy could no longer sustain the world-dominating policies that came easily in the wake of World War II. The generations of Americans who grew up during the age of American dominance took that dominance for granted, but they were passing from the scene. Younger generations would have other expectations and other priorities.
Would there be a defining moment of declension, a bookend to Pearl Harbor, an American Suez? Perhaps there already had been. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, demonstrated that America’s wealth couldn’t guarantee it the most basic objective of foreign policy: the physical safety of the American homeland. America reacted by embarking on two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, that cost trillions of dollars and did nothing measurable to enhance American security. If anything, the wars eroded the willingness of Americans to continue to support the kinds of policy that produced them.
The refusal of Barack Obama to inject the United States directly into the Syrian civil war suggested that the retrenchment was already occurring. Interventionists complained that Russia was gaining ground in Syria at America’s expense; human-rights advocates declared that America was failing in its duty to protect innocent civilians. Yet Obama, noting the absence of any grassroots demand for involvement in a war most Americans didn’t understand, kept his and America’s distance.
Donald Trump led the United States further toward the rear. With Trump it was often hard to tell what was serious intention and what mere bluster, so frequently did he contradict himself; but his warning to NATO that the United States might not spring to the defense of members who fell short on their contributions to the alliance’s military budget hinted at a return to the days before America’s conversion to collective security. His withdrawal of the United States from a painstakingly negotiated nuclear accord with Iran and several other countries cast doubt on America’s commitment to security agreements generally. His launching of tariff wars against China and even some American allies harked back to the trade wars of America’s isolationist 1930s, as did his coopting of the slogan “America First”—the name and rallying cry of the most important of the interwar isolationist groups in America.
Each of Trump’s initiatives encountered political resistance, mostly from people old enough to remember when the icons he was shattering were untouchable—that is, from people who had developed their expectations of America’s world role during the Cold War. But by 2020 most of those who remembered the Cold War from professional or even personal experience were near retirement or beyond. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 was ancient history to the cohort who would be making American policy in the future. It went almost without saying that this cohort would produce no new Marshall Plan, no new World Bank, no new NATO.
How gracefully Americans would proceed into this new era was the question. Leftover commitments to Taiwan might drag the United States into conflict with China. Russian meddling with Baltic members of NATO could trigger a crisis with the largest successor state to the Soviet Union. The Middle East was always a wild card.
An eleventh-hour efflorescence wasn’t out of the question. China’s economy might hit the skids; the European Union could fall to pieces after Brexit. The reign of the U.S. dollar might continue for simple lack of a credible alternative, just as the Spanish dollar, which became the basis for America’s, outlasted the golden age of the Spanish empire.
But at the best, it seemed, the United States would become the first among equals, rather than a solitary superpower. Sooner or later, America would get the foreign policy it could afford.