One of the essential elements of the new consensus in foreign policy is the belief in the primacy of domestic policy. Before America asserts itself abroad, it is universally agreed, we must put our house in order. (“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than thirty cities,” Eisenhower declared in a famous speech in 1953.) Of course history never provides such a “before.” There is no temporary suspension of crises and duties in which we may refresh ourselves. Like individuals, nations exist in many realms simultaneously. Obama is right about “nation-building at home,” but his implication that therefore we are exempt from assisting in the building of nations abroad, that fiscally speaking it is them or us, is momentously wrong. Even in our current woes, societies and movements in trouble look to us. And yet almost every conversation about our diplomacy now turns into a conversation about our economy. This is sophisticated thinking at its most simplistic. The causal relationship between our fiscal condition and our place in the world is not as neat as the economicists say. There are many ways to reduce defense spending, and each of them represents not an incontestable budget number but a contestable strategic vision; and anyway the defense budget is hardly what threatens the government’s solvency. And will the economicists, the actuarial doves, become interventionists if we finally balance the budget? Of course not: they have other grounds-ideological, moral, historical—for their love of the light footprint. (In the matter of Israel, incidentally, the light-footprintists demand a heavy touch—another irony, or a hypocrisy?)
I do not understand all this good conscience about the weakening of America’s influence in the world, since I regard America’s influence as generally a blessing for the world. I am not referring only to the export of our technology and our culture. If the United States does not determine to assist democratic struggles around the world, then those struggles will suffer and even fail.