Decade in Review: American Foreign Policy after Iraq and Afghanistan

By Michelle Railey

March 1, 2012

The following are my notes from the 2012 Israel Lecture in U.S. Public Policy given by Lee Hamilton at the Lilly Performance Hall, University of Indianapolis, March 1, 2012. I tweeted afterwards that Mr. Hamilton was brilliant and surprisingly, wonderfully funny. The humor won’t come through here, but hopefully the gist of his speech will. Happy Reading.

American Foreign Policy after Iraq and Afghanistan, The Honorable Lee H. Hamilton

There are four central realities facing the U.S. as era of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end.

(1.) Preeminence of American Power: The U.S. is still the central player on the global stage; it is the only one with a global reach, but it is hobbled by obstacles and it is not an unchallenged power. (2.) Shifting Alignment/Alliances of Great Powers and the Rise of New Powers: New nature of international relationships is defined by fluidity, both in identity of greater/lesser powers and the dynamics between them. Russia, China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia are waxing while the old European power is facing political, financial, and social decline. Europe and the West are weakening; Asia rising. The balance is now multi-polar but eastward looking. President Obama recently said “Can’t put U.S. back to work unless Asia is successful.” (Note that among multi-polar world, the balance could really rest with a bipolar world: U.S. and China.) The U.S. for now is still the preeminent power, but the lead is shrinking. (3.) Globalization: The megatrend is globalization, our “hyperconnectedness” is the single most important reality; refers to economics/trade/currency and information. Interdependence. Powerful tool for prosperity but not always good for progressive goals and is often met with resistance in U.S.(outsourcing and employment rates; low growth). Too often, globalization not global: there are winners and losers. Raises living standards but unevenly and causes disruptions and downturns. Double-edged sword: both good and bad; opportunities and crises alike. (4.) Turmoil and Insecurity: Economic, political, environmental, and health. Example of ca. 10 million deaths in Africa over past couple years due to these forces. (Why wasn’t it on the front page of the paper, the evening news?) Enormous ramifications for all of us, whether or not we are paying attention. Recent Pentagon briefing included key phrase “in a period of persistent conflict.” Chaos and conflict are and will be constant realities.

The seven key challenges to the U.S. in this era are:

(1.) Nuclear Proliferation: Nuclear attack not the most likely risk to us, but the most consequential and very unpredictable (N. Korea, Iran, and ???) We have sanctions and certain safeguards but risk is still there; must curb growth of arms and armsholders. (2.) Managing Global Economy: Characterized by low/declining growth and imbalances generated by trade deficits and poverty. Fragility is the challenge. Somehow we must support responsible globalization: one which includes and manages growth while protecting the weak and preventing inflation. Which model will the world use to achieve growth. The U.S. is confident in market capitalism but the world is not convinced (e.g. China’s growth has been 9-10% annually for past decade while ours has been struggling to find 1-2%). China’s growth will slow, but still, many in the world will not take our word for it that our way/the free market is most efficacious. The preferred model is not obvious and this debate will be a bigger one in world affairs than the U.S. realizes. (As a sidenote, the U.S. cannot be a world leader, preeminent if it fails to get its economy in order. The U.S. must solve its shortage of demand/lack of growth and its debt. Problem is: solving one is bad for the other.) (3.) Energy: How do we power the future? This is the great failure of U.S. policy in the past 3-4 decades, our failure to reduce our need for foreign oil. While it’s improving, it’s still too far from being resolved. “We’re very slow learners.” Favors an all of the above approach, expanding supply, efficiency, and alternative sources. Can’t continue to be slow on this. (4.) China: Most important bilateral relationship in the world, between China and U.S; China is our only peer/competitor. Could become formidable problem or rival. The U.S. cannot solve any of the major problems without Chinese cooperation. Dismisses view that China is belligerent towards us but acknowledges their wariness and self-protectiveness. Must keep dialogues and diplomacy with China open and be persistent with communication. Many of the big foreign policy questions in years ahead involve China. (5.) Cybersecurity: Key challenge because critical infrastructure (financial, electrical, water) is online and much of it is privatized. Companies do not have capacity to fend off a cyberattack. Federal government might, but companies rightfully have concerns about government involvement in their businesses. Need better communication between public/private. The risk is great (potential damage + speed of attack + anonymity of and difficulty tracing/apprehending attackers. Attackers can be a teen with a laptop or a government. Damage would be difficult to manage either way.) (6.) Terrorism: This is not an existential threat, but it does still exist. (7.) Turmoil: Toughest question facing us on this front is asking when we intervene (e.g. Syria). “You’ve got to be careful when you start supplying arms to people.” E.g. Afghanistan, only to have our gifted weapons turned against us by those we had previously armed. Unintended consequences of intervention can be devastating and long-lived. How do we/the President decide when to intervene and in which way?

Conclusion: With these realities and challenges in mind, should U.S. be optimistic or pessimistic about foreign relations in the future? “What difference does it make?” More important than what we think about the future is what we do. Best thing citizens can do is to make our own spots better and stronger. The U.S. is always striving. Good outcomes are possible but not inevitable. Could be prosperity or it could be chaos; but either way, American leadership will be needed.

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