As Iraq blows up (again) and tensions rise in the Ukraine and in the South China Sea, the United States’debate is focused on military intervention. Neoconservatives, having learned nothing from the debacle they caused in Iraq, indict the president for not intervening in Syria and for leaving Iraq. Liberal interventionists, having learned nothing from the calamities now visited on Libya, call for modulated bombing in both. The beleaguered administration sends planes to the Baltic states and Poland, ships to Asia, token troops to Baghdad, sustains hundreds of bases around the globe and is accused of withdrawing from the world. Commentators fret over whether the war-weariness of the American people will keep the “indispensable nation” from doing what must be done.
When you have a hammer, as the adage goes, everything looks like a nail. The United States’ hammer is the most sophisticated military in the world — and nails appear in infinite variety across the globe.
Virtually absent from the debate is any awareness of how much the United States’ commitment to police the world detracts from dealing with the real security needs of its people and the globe. Last week, Richard Trumka, president of the AFLCIO, delivered a short address that reminded us of what is being lost in the muscle flexing.
As Trumka noted, the world is still struggling to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The European Central Bank just moved to negative interest rates in a panic about deflation — falling prices from failed demand — spreading across the continent. European austerity is condemning a generation to unemployment and desperation.
In the United States, it has taken six years to recover the jobs lost in the recession. Nearly 20 million people still can’t find full-time work. Household incomes are stagnating or declining for the typical family. Wages aren’t keeping up with the costs of necessities. The global economy works only for the few who enjoy wealth beyond imagination but not for the many. The rules, as Elizabeth Warren argues, are rigged. Trade and tax policy, monetary policy, fiscal austerity and labor and employment laws have been rigged to keep wages down.
The result, Trumka argues, is an unstable and broken world economy in which deflation or worse is always a threat and growth is seen only in financial bubbles. Elites are prospering and assume they can carry on as before. Companies stash profits abroad while pushing for a tax holiday. Meanwhile, catastrophic climate change, already acknowledged even by the Pentagon as clear and growing danger, goes virtually unaddressed as the world’s attention is focused not on the broken economy but only on the spread of violence and authoritarianism that is, in large part, caused by the economic troubles.
President Obama is pilloried for sensibly trying to bring two wars to an end and for being reluctant to enter new ones. But his real failure has been an inability or unwillingness to lead a global New Deal, creating new rules for the global economy, rules that would build shared prosperity and community rather than Gilded Age inequality and plutocracy.
That would require global trade policies that protect workers’ rights and the environment and not just investors’ rights. It would require ending severe trade imbalances, in particular curbing the mercantilist practices of Germany and China. It would require a commitment to full employment here, propelled by vital public investments in areas vital to a decent society — from sewers and bridges to schools and sustainable energy. It would require fueling the green industrial revolution so that growth and jobs are sustainable.
In the Clinton years, then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright is reported to have challenged Colin Powell in a debate over whether to bomb Syria: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Armed with our hammer, able to hunt terrorists with drones, track forces with satellites, tap phones across the world, how can we avoid hitting all the nails we discover?
What we really need is to ignore the armchair warriors and the military lobbies. Focus attention on a global economy that is fundamentally broken, on rules that are badly rigged. We need to be focused on building an economy of sustainable and shared growth — not on policing a globe that will grow ever more unstable and violent under current conditions.
Great nations don’t decline because they forget what made them great. They die because they continue to do what they did, ignoring the fact that the world has changed. The “indispensable nation” crowd has it wrong. A powerful military works best if it doesn’t have to be used, allowing our leaders to focus on the real threats to our security. And the military, for all its power, cannot address the growing dangers posed by the broken global economy and catastrophic climate change.
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