In an era of tightening budgets, can America remain a superpower on the cheap?

By Michael Mandelbaum
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 3:35 PM

What is the right foreign policy for a downsizing superpower?

In the years ahead, the United States will have to take dramatic steps to curb its ever-expanding fiscal deficits. No matter what our politicians promise, this will mean both raising taxes and cutting expenses, including Social Security, Medicare and national defense - the largest items in the federal budget.

In these circumstances, with Americans sending more tax dollars to Washington and getting less in return, they will be less generous in supporting not only defense spending, but also diplomacy, foreign aid and the other tools of U.S. foreign policy. President Obama's budget proposal already begins this process by reducing the Pentagon's spending by $78 billion over the next 10 years, but far deeper cuts are sure to come.

A smaller defense budget and less ambitious international commitments won't necessarily herald the end of America's era as a global superpower. But they do mean that we will have to be much more selective about where and how we deploy our military and diplomatic resources. We will have to distinguish between the military missions, weapons systems and diplomatic initiatives that are vital to the safety and prosperity of the American people and those that are merely desirable - and therefore, in our current fiscal straits, dispensable.

In deciding which foreign-policy priorities to retain and which to discard, the United States should follow a simple, and perhaps counterintuitive, rule: Our older commitments - those carried over from the Cold War - are more important than the new ones we've taken on in the last two decades. Those older commitments include the U.S. security guarantees and military presence in the Middle East, East Asia and Europe; while the newer, expendable commitments involve expensive and protracted nation-building exercises of the kind we've carried out in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and, most burdensome of all, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Continued American influence in the Middle East is crucial, of course, because the region harbors so much of the world's oil. It is also a region where the United States may have to do more, not less, in the years ahead. Egypt, for example, has long been a pillar of American strategy in the Middle East. The uncertainty of the post-Mubarak era means that America's annual $1.6 billion aid package to Egypt should continue and perhaps even increase, because it gives Washington some influence over the institution that will have a major say in the country's future - the Egyptian army.

That said, the most immediate danger to U.S. interests in the region comes not from instability in Egypt but from ambition in Iran. The country's radical regime seeks to dominate the region, which would give it sway over the oil reserves so critical to the world's industrial economies. The other oil-producing countries of the Middle East are not capable of defending themselves against Iran; that task falls to the United States.

The Obama administration has stated its commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Doing so might require a military strike on Iran's program. A war with Iran, like all wars, would be a decidedly perilous undertaking, but this administration, or its successor, may ultimately decide that any alternative policy would be even more perilous.

By contrast, there is no immediate prospect of war in Europe or East Asia. The United States contributes to peace in both by serving as a buffer between and among regional powers that, while not preparing for armed conflict, do not fully trust one another.

In Europe, a U.S. military presence provides reassurance that, should Russia become more aggressive, the United States would be on hand to help deter it, as it did during the Cold War. That same U.S. presence, however, also reassures the Russians that Germany, a 20th century rival, will remain safely anchored in an American-led alliance and will therefore not feel the need, for defensive reasons, to boost its military forces or obtain its own nuclear weapons.

Similarly, in East Asia, U.S. military deployments reassure Japan and other countries that if they have to confront China, the United States will stand with them, while at the same time reassuring the Chinese that Japan - its occupier in the first half of the last century - will not threaten China.

Of course, we cannot be sure what foreign policies China and Russia will adopt. The Chinese insist on the right to govern Taiwan, and they assert sovereign claims to parts of the East and South China Seas that other countries consider illegitimate. But launching military adventures would jeopardize the trade and investment that have fueled the country's economy in recent decades, so Chinese foreign policy will probably remain relatively restrained. Similarly, Russia's leaders have claimed privileges in neighboring countries that were once a part of the Soviet empire. As a declining power, however, Russia probably lacks the capacity to impose its will on its neighbors.

Still, without the American presence, both nations would feel bolder while their neighbors would feel less secure - a recipe for arms races, saber-rattling and, in the very worst cases, war.

Even as we should refocus on Europe, East Asia and the Middle East, we must also recognize that in a cash-strapped era, the kind of operations we've launched since the end of the Cold War are increasingly unaffordable. From Somalia through Haiti and the Balkans and into Iraq and Afghanistan, America's recent military interventions have sprung from a variety of motives but produced a common result: All entangled the United States in the frustrating, protracted and expensive task of nation-building - the effort to establish relatively stable, working and, if possible, democratic institutions in foreign countries.

These exercises have enjoyed limited success at best, largely because the task itself is so arduous. Democratic institutions cannot be established quickly or easily, nor can they be imported ready-made. Elections are relatively simple to stage and make for vivid television - Iraqis holding up their purple-ink-stained fingers became one of the iconic images of the post-Saddam era - but democracy also includes a system of law and the protection of minority rights, which are harder to establish.

Nation-building can also be dangerous and expensive. While the total financial cost of Afghanistan and Iraq will not be known for years, it could reach into the trillions of dollars, and that does not include the immeasurable cost of lives either lost or blighted by serious injury.

The American public has long been skeptical about these costly, lengthy endeavors. The Clinton administration's military interventions never commanded majority support, and though the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq were initially more popular because the public regarded them as wars of self-defense, public support dropped sharply when they turned largely into nation-building projects. As taxes rise and benefits shrink, Americans will simply refuse to support more of them.

Certainly, protecting oppressed people, stopping ethnic conflict and promoting responsible governance are worthy goals. But none is as important for American security and prosperity as keeping the peace in the Middle East, Europe and East Asia.

If the United States can do that on a more limited budget - and with diplomatic skill and a bit of luck that is certainly possible - it will continue to sustain the conditions that have made the 21st century, with all its challenges, an era free of conflict among the major powers and, with the Great Recession receding, one with good prospects for economic growth.

It will continue, that is, to act as global superpower - and the world will be far better off than if Washington surrendered that role.

Forswearing post-Cold-War style interventions may keep U.S. forces out of places, such as Yemen and Somalia, that harbor anti-Western terrorists. In a future of diminishing resources we will still have to fight terrorism, but we will need to rely more on intelligence work and the occasional use of cruise missiles, rather than expensive efforts to transform the political cultures of distant lands.

There are downsides. Such an approach may render terrorism a larger problem than it is now, and the citizens of strife-torn countries could suffer by America's absence.

Both results are regrettable. In the best of all worlds, the United States would continue the policies of both the Cold War and post-Cold-War eras. But, alas, that is not the world America will inhabit during the next decade and beyond, as we struggle to lighten the burden of our national indebtedness.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the author of "The Frugal Superpower: America's Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era."

Read more from Outlook, follow us on Twitter, and friend us on Facebook.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company