Fifty years ago Walter Lippmann introduced the idea of solvency in foreign policy. "Foreign policy," he wrote, "consists in bringing into balance . . . the nation's commitments and the nation's power. "
The alternative is insolvency. "The level may vary at which a solvent balance is struck," wrote Lippmann. But the statesman "must bring his means and ends into balance."Today, insolvency - updated by historian Paul Kennedy as "imperial overstretch" - has become the rallying cry of those who want the United States to cut back radically its role in the world.
The chorus has grown particularly loud since the leak last month of the "Pentagon Paper" advocating, as a long-term strategy, maintaining America's position as the world's only superpower.
Judging by editorial pages, I seem to be the only American outside the Pentagon who thinks this is a good idea and that allowing the United States to subside to the status of middle power (like Germany or Britain or Russia) is not.
For the critics, however, superpowerdom is nothing but an exercise in expensive grandiosity. First, because maintaining superpower status is driving us to insolvency. And second, because there is an alternative to being the world's policeman, namely "collective security."
Take these claims one at a time. First, are we overstretched abroad? We are leaving the Philippines. In three years, we will be halfway out of Europe. We no longer support insurgencies in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua. Military aid to El Salvador is one-tenth of what it was at the height of its civil war.
We are building no new nukes; we are dismantling old ones. The military is no longer sized to fight 21/2 major wars simultaneously; it is being reshaped to fight two regional wars ("half wars" in Pentagonese) instead. In fact, the Pentagon is under political attack for building too few Seawolf subs and demobilizing too many National Guardsmen.
By any postwar historical standard, our foreign commitments are small and diminishing. By Gross Domestic Product measure, we are spending less than half today on defense than we did in our economic heyday of the '50s and '60s.
The critics have things reversed. It is our economy that will be the ruin of our foreign policy, rather than the other way around. And the success or failure of our economy hinges exclusively on domestic policy.
We are either going to reduce our massive public debt and rebuild our infrastructure or we are not. Whether we do so is entirely a matter of domestic politics and American political will. It has nothing to do with whether we leave 80,000, as opposed to 150,000, troops in Europe.
The critics confuse two forms of insolvency. We are not geopolitically insolvent (in Lippmann's sense) but economically insolvent. The problem in the gulf war was not that we lacked the power to achieve our ends but that we had to beg the money to support that power.
And not because the $6 trillion American economy is inherently incapable of devoting 1 percent of GDP to securing the safety of its central source of oil. But because our politicians have so overspent themselves and the public so indulged itself that no one is prepared to speak fiscal truth, let alone advocate the spending cuts and higher taxes needed to restore the U.S. government to solvency.
It is this looming bankruptcy that threatens America's position in the world. Our geopolitical collapse will have nothing to do with the world being too big for us to patrol or our being too weak to do the patrolling. It will have to do exclusively with the loss of political will for raising the money to provide for our domestic needs and to restore our economy to minimal balance.
The other fallacy of the anti-superpower crowd is that there is an alternative to American leadership: "Collective security," the current panacea for all security problems in the post-Cold War world.
Collective security is a mirage. It is every country for itself. That does not mean that there cannot be, as in the gulf, ad hoc coalitions in which particular countries at a particular time happen to perceive a particular threat as large and join together to do something about it. But there is nothing universal, permanent, or even reliable about such coalitions. They come and they go. And when they go, one either relies on one's own strength to meet the threat or one submits.
Moreover, countries differ not just in threat perception but in the power to do something about it. All the collective goodwill in the world is useless without the power to back it up and only America has the power. Without the United States, what would "collective security" have done about Kuwait?
Potential allies do not sign on to a losing proposition. One of the reasons so many countries joined the United States in the gulf is that they had confidence in American power. Coalitions do not grow on trees. They grow on the backs of superpowers.
Collective action is fine. But it cannot succeed, even exist, without a nucleus around which to organize. The critics offer collectivism as a substitute for American power. On the contrary, it is a complement to American power and, in the final analysis, its consequence.