Australian Financial Review

By Richard N. Haass

The biggest threat to America's security and prosperity comes not from abroad, but from within. The United States has jeopardised its ability to act effectively in the world because of runaway domestic spending, underinvestment in human and physical capital, an avoidable financial crisis, an unnecessarily slow recovery, a war in Iraq that was flawed from the outset and a war in Afghanistan that became flawed as its purpose evolved, recurring fiscal deficits, and deep political divisions.

There is nothing inevitable about American sway over this young century. The ad­vantages the US enjoys are neither permanent nor sufficient to ensure continued primacy.

It helps to think of national security as a two-sided coin. One side is foreign policy — what a country does abroad, be it diplomatic, military, or in some other realm. The other side is domestic — all that a country does to strengthen its economy and society. A country's national security reflects what it is doing in both domains.

But there is a third threat to US national security, one related to but different to both overreach abroad and underperformance at home. Call it "underreach": the risk posed by what appears to be a growing lack of understanding by many Americans of the close relationship between the state of the world and the state of the US. Isolationism is making a comeback.

Like under-performance and overreach, isolationism stems from within the body politic and crosses party lines. And as is the case with political dysfunction, it raises questions in the minds of others about American reliability, something that tends to lead friends to act more independently and foes more assertively.

"Isolationism is deeply troubling"

The emergence of modern isolationism is deeply troubling. The US cannot thrive at home in a world of turmoil — and the world will move in the direction of turmoil without consistent American leadership. This is not hubris but a statement of fact: order cannot be expected to just materialise, and no other country or group of countries has the capacity and commitment to bring it about.

Even if it wanted to, the US could not wall itself off from global threats such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, trade and investment protectionism, pandemic disease, climate change, or a loss of access to financial energy or mineral resources. The US government must be active in addressing these threats.

But the US must also become significantly more discriminating in choosing what it does in the world and how it does it. Hard choices need to be made. It is not simply that it needs to recognise that the limits to its resources require it to be exacting in setting priorities; it must also recognise the limits to its influence.

The US needs to rethink what it seeks to accomplish abroad. Americans must distinguish between the desirable and the vital, as well as between the feasible and the impossible — and they must resist wars of choice where the interests at stake are less than vital and there are alternatives to force. We cannot remake other societies in our image.

Not too late for change

For the past two decades, American foreign policy, consumed with remaking large parts of the greater Middle East, has quite simply overreached.

There is a strong case to be made that US attention and efforts should be better distributed around the world, with greater focus on the increasingly critical Asia-Pacific region and the western hemisphere and somewhat less on the Middle East. There is an even stronger case that US foreign policy should focus not so much on what other countries are within their borders and more on what they do outside their borders.

It is not too late for the US to put its house in order. It is not simply a case of necessity; currently it has an extraordinary opportunity to do so. The world is a relatively forgiving place now and for the foreseeable future. There is no 21st-century equivalent to what Germany was in the first half of the 20th century and the Soviet Union was in the second.

The alleged other great powers — China, the European Union, Japan, and Russia — are not all that great. None has the means to overthrow the existing order and none is committed to doing so. Meanwhile, challenges from Iran, North Korea, and al-Qaeda, while significant, are neither global nor existential. The US is fortunate to have something of a strategic respite.

Either Americans resolve their political dysfunction, rethink their foreign policy and restore the foundations of American power — and, in the process, provide another century of American leadership — or the US will increasingly find itself at the mercy of what happens beyond its borders and beyond its control.

Such an outcome would not be in the interests of either the world or the country.

This article was published in the Australian Financial Review