Can We Afford to Matter? Can the World Afford Us Not To?

Michael Mandelbaum is a professor at Johns Hopkins, and the author of a new book, The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era. An excerpt from the book can be found at Guernica magazine’s web page.

His premise is simple and obvious to anyone who has been paying attention for the last few decades: We can’t afford current levels of both guns and butter indefinitely, or even much longer. The problem becomes apparent when we look at two statistics: Defense accounts for 23 percent of federal spending. Federal spending on health care and retirement alone is estimated to absorb 100 percent of federal revenues within a few decades. The combination is what we in the word business might dub “unsustainable.”

A consequence of this, Mandelbaum says, is that America will find itself increasingly constrained in the realm of foreign policy:

First, the limits of the possible for foreign policy will be narrower than they have been for many decades. The government will still have an allowance to spend on foreign affairs, but because competing costs will rise it will be smaller than in the past. […] Second, the limits that constrain the government in its external initiatives will be drawn less on the basis of what the world requires and more by considering what the United States can—and cannot—afford.

This, for me, is where things get interesting, and by “interesting,” I mean “kind of creepy.” “What the world requires” is sometimes rough business, and much of the West has paid for its butter because the US was supplying the guns. What happens when that’s not an option, and when other countries have to become responsible for their own safety? And what happens when the nations that have essentially had free (or seriously discounted) rides on defense have to make the same guns or butter choice? The other potential great powers (China and Russia, for example) have even uglier demographic prospects than we do, but vacuums require filling.

As George Walden notes at The Guardian:

America has for years been acting as the world’s de facto government, [Mandelbaum] writes, and the first duty of governments is to keep order. As it conducts itself more like an ordinary country, “the world will now get less governance”. He must have been tempted to add: “Let’s see how the world likes it.”


About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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