The foreign policy debate we should be having

As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney prepare for Monday night’s debate on foreign policy, they could do some useful last-minute cribbing by reading an article titled “The Risks of Ignoring Strategic Insolvency.” It’s one of the best summaries I’ve seen of an urgent problem they should discuss honestly.

The article poses the basic question of whether American power needs to be “resized” to fit a changing world. If the United States fails to trim its ambitions, and tries to stretch its resources ever further to cover all its traditional commitments, the article contends, it is doomed to failure — with the inevitable consequence that the fabric of American power will rip.

The author of this provocative argument is Michael J. Mazarr, a professor of strategy at the National War College. It appears in the current issue of the Washington Quarterly, published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It was recommended to me by a Pentagon official, and as I read it, I thought: This is what the candidates should be thinking about, rather than the next harvest of gaffes.

Mazarr doesn’t see the decline of American power, per se, but its overextension. He likens the current U.S. position to that of Great Britain in the 1890s — a powerful country that kept making commitments overseas, to the point that, as Princeton professor Aaron Friedberg said in a 1988 study, “there seemed no way of avoiding eventual insolvency.” Britain simply couldn’t afford all the promises it had made.

Here’s Mazarr’s basic point: “The very definition of grand strategy is holding ends and means in balance to promote the security and interests of the state. Yet, the postwar U.S. approach to strategy is rapidly becoming insolvent and unsustainable.” He sees several factors creating this imbalance: U.S. budget problems (obviously); the rise of new global players that resist American direction (China, Iran, Egypt, take your pick); the United States’ increasing difficulty in imposing military solutions (as in Iraq and Afghanistan), and the growing war-weariness of the American people.

These are strategic facts of life. But every time a new crisis comes along, the “correct” political response is: America should fix it. There’s no benefit in our system for saying: Hey, wait a minute. Or for deciding (as Ronald Reagan did coldbloodedly with Lebanon in 1984) that spending U.S. taxpayer money to save a small, strategically unimportant country doesn’t make sense.

When you watch the debate Monday night, ask yourself whether the candidates are thinking strategically. Are they repeating rhetorical tropes about the United States as the “indispensable power” that can resolve any crisis? Or are they weighing commitments carefully to make sure that they can deliver what they promise?

What bothers me about this campaign is that both candidates prefer the safe shibboleths of American power to a serious discussion. Romney espouses the traditional, 21-gun-salute version, with its vision of a “shining city on a hill” and a unique calling to global leadership. And he talks about increasing the military budget as if that’s axiomatically a good thing. But he doesn’t explain how we’ll pay for this five-course meal of power, or how the country will digest it.

My guess is that Obama, deep down, favors a more restrained version of American power, but he rarely says so in public. To speak openly about reduced global ambitions might sound un-American. So he, too, gets sucked into the strategic vision of an unbounded nation that will, in John F. Kennedy’s immortal but outdated words, “pay any price, bear any burden.”

When countries don’t prioritize, they begin to lose credibility. And as the credibility of American power declines, so does its diplomatic leverage. To maintain the image of power, the United States continues heavy defense spending. But as Mazarr notes, rather than spending more dollars on crucial new systems (he cites cyber, unmanned vehicles, stealth and long-range precision strikes) the United States continues to procure politically popular “legacy” weapons, such as aircraft carriers and fighter jets.

What lessons do the candidates learn from the troubled campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Americans fought so bravely and spent so much — and achieved so little? What weapons systems do they think we could use less of? How will they tailor new commitments (Syria? Iran?) so they don’t make the insolvency problem worse? I’d love a foreign policy debate where the candidates, rather than scoring points, made sense.