Originally published in National Interest on 5/31/13.
Richard Haass’s new book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home, should delight realists. His strong case that we should put our own house in order is neither isolationist nor declinist. On the contrary, he persuasively shows that United States continues to be the indispensable nation: as he puts it, if the United States will not provide leadership for the world order, no other nation stands ready to take over. Nor is there a contradiction between focusing on shoring up the nation at home and its international role. To maintain its status in the world, the United States must have a strong economy, polity and society.
Haass is not the first to argue that the time has come to focus on nation building at home, but he goes well beyond such general statements by providing a list of particulars, of that which must be done. The list includes reducing not just the deficit but also the debt. This requires cutting defense costs (which Haass holds has been largely achieved), reductions in domestic spending (which he does not mention but has been largely carried out), cutting entitlements and raising revenues. He favors a ratio of 3:1 for cutting spending and raising taxes.
Next, we need to do better on the energy front and Haass bites the bullet when he comes out in favor of more nuclear energy. He recognizes the importance of improving education, adding that given the long life span and the accelerated change of technologies, Americans cannot be prepared in school or college for the duration; they ought to be given opportunities for return to study and training during their lifetime. He does not call for a sabbatical for all professions, but such a policy would fit into his approach. To pay for shoring up infrastructure, Haas correctly spells out the many merits and positive side effects of raising the tax on gasoline. On immigration, Haas argues that we should pay much more attention to the level and composition of legal immigration, to ensure that it helps the economic rehabilitation of America, rather than be obsessed with border and legalization issues.
His suggestion for accelerating economic growth is rather modest; he holds that we need more free trade agreements and to change the ways corporations are taxed. He avoids taking a position on the Keynesian debate: should government provide stimulus or does adding it harm our recovery?
The part of the book likely to result in more give-and-take than others is Haass’s cautious approach to democracy-building overseas, which is popular both in liberal and neoconservative circles. He correctly points out that it is much easier said than done and urges the United States to commit itself to this course only when the conditions are ripe. He is likely to face even more controversy in raising doubts about the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) with his argument that there cannot be a one-size-fit-all-situations policy, and uses Syria to show the complexities we face.
My main point of difference with Haass is that he supports the pivot from the Near to the Far East, and sees China as a major rising global power. As I see it, the pivot is premature. U.S. foreign policy will next be tested by Iran, in Pakistan (which is accelerating its production of nuclear arms), in post-withdrawal Afghanistan, and by the crest of Arab turmoil. At the same time, China is beset with domestic problems. Most importantly, South Korea, Japan and others in the Far East cannot but watch carefully to see if Washington lives up to its commitments to its allies and friends in the Middle East.
Haass’s writing style is straightforward and uncluttered by jargon. My academic colleagues will not find reference to “hegemonic transition theories” or “postmodernism,” which makes the book much more accessible to a wider readership.
When Haass discussed his book at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, the meeting was moderated by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who asked Haass if the book was going to be his manifesto when he runs for president. Haass responded that he was already the president—of the Council on Foreign Relations. Whether Haass chooses to run for office one day or not, a presidential candidate would do well using his realism as a platform.