Thursday, April 24, 2014
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The Fiscal Cliff and US Foreign Policy

PRINCETON – The world should be worried. The possibility that US President Barack Obama and the Republicans in Congress will fail to reach a compromise before mandatory deep spending cuts and tax increases take effect on January 1 is very real. Global markets are well aware of the danger of the United States falling over the “fiscal cliff,” and are watching nervously. They know that this outcome could well throw the US – and the world – back into recession.

Foreign ministries around the world should be equally nervous. Unless the US can get its fiscal house in order, it will be forced to abdicate leadership on a wide range of critical global issues.

In the short term, Syria and its neighbors are already paying the price of America’s inability to focus on anything other than domestic politics since Obama’s re-election. In my view, the Syrian crisis is at a tipping point: while it is now apparent that the opposition will eventually win and President Bashar al-Assad will fall, the endgame’s duration will be a key element determining who actually comes into power and on what terms.

Syria’s implosion, and the chaos and extremism that are likely to breed there, will threaten the entire Middle East: the stability of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia hangs in the balance. But we do not even know who will succeed Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State when Obama’s second term formally begins in January, or who will be on the White House security team.

In the medium term, the world abounds with tensions and potential crises that US leadership is likely to be indispensable to resolving. As events over the past two weeks in Egypt have demonstrated all too vividly, the Arab awakening is still only in its first act in many countries.

Indeed, democracy is fragile, at best, across North Africa; and, in the Middle East, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia have only begun to feel the ripples of the tidal wave sweeping the region. Bahrain remains a flashpoint; Iraq is deeply unstable; and the simmering conflict between Iran and Israel could flare up at any time. Even when the US is not on the front lines, it has played a vital role in behind-the-scenes diplomacy, nudging wary rivals closer to one another to create a united opposition, and working with regional leaders like Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia to broker deals.

In Asia, the US has been playing a similar role in pushing for multilateral resolution of dangerous bilateral disputes between China and its many neighbors over territories in the East and South China Seas, while at the same time restraining US allies who might otherwise provoke crises. And, on big global issues like climate change, organized crime, trade, and prevention of atrocities, the absence of the US as a policy catalyst and active negotiator will be quickly and keenly felt.

Avoiding this fate requires the US to “rebuild itself at home,” as the Obama administration’s 2010 National Security Strategy promises. But, if US politicians spend the next two years the way they have spent the last two – patching together temporary policy fixes while avoiding the hard issues that voters and markets expect them to face – America’s voice will grow fainter, and weaker, in international institutions and affairs.

Equally worrisome is the prospect of deep, across-the-board cuts in the US defense budget at a time when many rising powers are increasing their defense spending. As much as many countries may dislike the US military, the availability and extraordinary capabilities of America’s soldiers, ships, aircraft, and intelligence assets often function as a global insurance policy.

In the long term, the challenge is more vague, but deeper. The longer the US obsesses over its own political dysfunction and attendant economic stagnation, the less likely it is to bear the mantle of global responsibility and leadership.

Openly isolationist political forces, such as the Tea Party and libertarians like Ron Paul, will grow stronger. A retreating US will, in turn, guarantee the emergence of what foreign-policy analyst Ian Bremmer describes as a “G-Zero world,” in which no country will take the lead and marshal the necessary economic and political coalitions to solve collective problems.

Individual presidents and secretaries of state will certainly try. But, without Congressional support, they will bring fewer and fewer resources to the table and will suffer from an increasing credibility gap when they seek to negotiate with other countries.

Global leaders can do more than stand by and watch. Why not remind US politicians of their global responsibilities? The G-7 or G-8 leaders could issue a statement, for instance, urging the US to get its fiscal house in order. NATO allies could make a similar statement. Indeed, other regional organizations, such as the African Union or the Arab League, could weigh in. Even G-20 members, were they so moved, could make a statement.

Of course, when we think about the G-20, we immediately wonder who, other than the US, could organize the issuance of such a statement. That is precisely the problem, and it could get much worse.

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  1. CommentedJonathan Lam

    Gamesmith94134: The Fiscal cliff and US foreign Policy
    Fiscal cliff may throw US and the global finance into recession, and Ms. Slaughter may see the middle East is uncertainty on how our foreign Policy can be in the future; so, it Foreign Policy could use a little insurance like rebuilding our military strength.
    First, Fiscal Cliff did not throw us into recession, because stimulation made the cost of living is too high even for Americans, recession is a natural course in the process in rejuvenating the economy that the micro-economic can return to the affordability and sustainability that cuts the deficits and eliminate debts.
    Secondly, the present crisis in foreign policy is not hindered in strength by our ability of the military; but our principle in democracy did us in since we opened the world with its structural developments that sovereignty make it voice from the financial strength of its people. Puppeteer governments often reverse themselves and they are often hostile to US because we sold them monopoly or our favoritism instead.
    I do not think our political parties are focused on what is really needed for the future, or they cannot compromise on the principles that can rejuvenate our economy and society with a proper care, like gun control or Health plan, even though we are warned with the collapsing Social Security and the Medical Care. Was it really who are really benefitting from their proposals? Or, how is our government applying a resolution to owners in processing the gun, and determine on the firepower that the second amendment allows? Did I hear anyone say of the drug they purchased from Canada is cheaper than you buy them in US? Of course, some of them are fraud, but is it all of the truth, or it is just propaganda that pharmaceutical ensuring what they can charge to government. We may never know the truth but cost reduction to deficits and affordability for its citizen would mean much that who deserves more or less in the partisanship programs.
    I think Americans are tired of gift wrapping is a significant process of our politics. We do demand a better fiscal and foreign policy that can make us through, not to justify with alarming crisis or disasters; not even on who is in charging of birth or gun controls. So, blame it on the law or who won.
    May the Buddha bless you?

  2. CommentedJ St. Clair

    no..it won't throw the us and the world back into rececssion....we the people suggest you give up on spending/printing money for "soldiers, ships, aircraft, & intelligence "assets"....its time to shift money from these to more important areas of life...

  3. CommentedLeo Arouet

    Me gustó mucho este artículo. Es evidente el giro que debe tomar Estados Unidos en política exterior. El primer paso será tomar un rumbo más asiático y fortalecer los vínculos con sus aliados del Pacífico, luego preocuparse más por el camino que está tomando Medio Oriente en el caso de la democracia.

  4. CommentedNathan Coppedge

    One equation is the frankness-mental-illness equation, which is often dealt with on a personal level. It is important to avoid fomenting the belief that these personal factors, however ineffable and obscure, are not the global or fiscal reality for policy makers.

    Simultaneously, there is seriousness following from the obvious debt problem. What is measured today in individual sacrifice or its absence, may be measured later in much larger sums of debt or profit extended over very large populations. Ultimately, in my view, corporations and billionaires serve to benefit from the resolution of the debt crisis. For one thing, debt is hindering new concepts of economic development.

  5. CommentedPaulo Sérgio

    The problem is one of leadership. There is a vacuum of it in Washington.

    I like to think that nobody cares that the US saves the world, of course this is important, but we're all very interested in seeing that the US can maintain leadership in basics like macro-economics, research and development - innovation, and human development scores -- you know, things the rest of the world is trying to emulate.

    The number one winner or looser of the US sorting out or prolonging its domestic issues is itself.

  6. CommentedDaniel Tanner

    "Of course, when we think about the G-20, we immediately wonder who, other than the US, could organize the issuance of such a statement. That is precisely the problem, and it could get much worse."

    certainly, the fact it is !
    most of them around the world are getting a free ride on first runner's tail, just like the writer famous name "Anne-Marie Slaughter", many speculating-minded guys will use 'Ann' or "Slaught" etc as their benefit using, especially in business or politics field, and when you want to use it self one day, guess what ? there is nothing there !
    That is a typical 'style' of almost them.

  7. CommentedCharles Lynch

    Is it U.S. leadership that the author is calling for...or the commitment of large amounts of U.S. money to solve the rest of the world's problems? How many people do we need to put on food stamps to authorize the expansive use of our military? A healthy dose of isolationism and a focus on our numerous internal issues may just be what's needed in order to continue to be a world power.

  8. CommentedChuck Pedro

    This article was written strictly through the lens that considers the US to be the world's savior and policeman, the kind leader that will generously lead countries to resolve conflict and make the world a safer and better place.

    That's laughable. The US causes more instability than stability. The Middle East is a perfect example.

    "In Asia, the US has been playing a similar role in pushing for multilateral resolution of dangerous bilateral disputes between China and its many neighbors..." Ms. Slaughter fails to mention the huge US military buildup to contain China. That's hardly "multilateral resolution".

    "And, on big global issues like climate change...the absence of the US as a policy catalyst and active negotiator will be quickly and keenly felt." The US is one of the biggest obstacles to real climate change policy!

    What the author extols as US "leadership" is more like unilateral belligerence. I look forward to a world where the US is dethroned and true multilateral decision making can occur.

  9. CommentedAndré Rebentisch

    I can't see why a potential leadership transition in Syria is business of the United States. Equally I can't see why self-imposed procedural fiscal negotiations would become a concern to third nations. Of course they may discredit the governance of the United States but there appear to be far worse regimes in the world around.

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