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Solutions For An Insolvent World

Three current articles sum up for me the global, and not merely national,  mess in which we find ourselves--and also offer a way out. My colleague Peter Beinart has an excellent column in which he recommends that the United States adopt Walter Lippmann's approach to foreign policy, which Lippmann dubbed the theory of solvency--that a country should match its commitments to its resources and capabilities. (It comes from a wonderful little book, US Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic that Lippmann wrote in the summer of 1943.)

I think this is the right approach on three grounds: First, financially and militarily and politically, we don't have the resources to pursue multiple wars when our immediate survival is not at stake; secondly, with a depression looming, we lack the sheer ability to focus on multiple geopolitical as well as economic threats--during the recession of 1981-2, Ronald Reagan fired Secretary of State Alexander Haig for trying to drag the U.S. into war in Central America; third, we've overreached in our objectives in the Middle East. As a matter of fact, we can't remake a nation like Afghanistan according to our own image no matter how many resources we pour into it.

So retrenchment of sorts is necessary--and that requires compromise and choosing our enemies carefully. Beinart argues that we need Iran to maintain the peace in Iraq and to help achieve some semblance of order in Lebanon and Israel/Palestine and that we should make concessions to obtain its help.  He also argues for an opening to parts of the Taliban and perhaps, a willingness to talk with Hamas and Hizbullah--at the least, to distinguish between them and al Qaeda. Beinart dwells mainly on the Middle East, but I think he could have added China and Russia to the countries toward which we must adopt a careful diplomacy that eschews unnecessary provocations. That doesn't mean in these cases that the U.S. should close down the Pentagon. As Beinart points out, soft power is not a panacea; it works best when backed up by the threat of military force. Our problem at the present is that we are limited in our exercise of hard and soft power.

My one reservation about Beinart's analysis is that he give sufficient emphasis to the global economic threat. He thinks that as the global recession abates, and as we balance better our objectives and resources, we will be able to adopt a strategy of collective security, which might begin with a common approach to global warming. I think there is a term missing in this equation. To stem this global recession, we are going to need something like a new international monetary agreement. Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini point to the threat of global recession; Martin Wolf argues that something like a Bretton Woods II will be necessary to stem it.

Let me say two things about this point: First, I think that as long as a global downturn continues, it will be very difficult to get nations to agree to the kind of economic sacrifices that a significant, and not merely a symbolic, global warming treaty will entail; secondly, if this recession does devolve into a global depression, as Bremmer and Roubini suggest it might, then it could reshuffle the geopolitical deck and turn rivalry into conflict, as the depression of the 1930s did. Yes, the imperfection of Versailles played a role in sparking World War II, but so did the great depression. That makes a solution to the international economic imbalances all the more urgent.

--John B. Judis