Last week I attended an in-house foreign policy discussion with New America Foundation Schwartz Senior Fellow Peter Beinart, who provided a tour of 20th century American foreign policy and introduced me to Walter Lippmann’s concept of “solvency.”
The solvency concept – which implies that a country’s foreign policy is “solvent” when its overseas commitments do not exceed its national resources – caught my attention as particularly relevant to the United States’ strategic position today, in which we seem to be overextended, thus contributing to a situation of what Lippmann would have called ‘insolvency.’
I have been investigating this concept to determine whether it can provide insight into the United States’ recent difficulties with its allies and specifically its relationship with Turkey.
In the course of my research, I came across an essay by Samuel Huntington from a 1987 volume of Foreign Affairs called “Coping with the Lippmann Gap.”
Toward the end of the piece, Huntington outlines several steps that the United States must take to preserve its position in the international system.
I was struck by how relevant these prescriptions remain today.
Here is what he said:
First, there is the need, as everyone recognizes, to resolve the fiscal crisis and reduce the federal deficit. This means a firm and possibly lower ceiling on defense spending, cuts in domestic programs and entitlements, and increased revenues, which could come from a variety of possible taxes, some of which might have positive effects on investment and economic growth.
Second, the United States must, as again almost everyone recognizes, do what Britain failed to do: adopt national policies to promote higher-quality education, more rigorous standards, more widely available technical training programs, research and development, and public, corporate and individual investment in promising technologies and industries. In the longer term only programs such as these will result in increased productivity, technological innovation and beneficial economic growth. Creating these requisites of a sound economy is essential both to restore U.S. economic competitiveness vis-à-vis Japan, Europe and the newly industrializing countries and to create the economic and technological base for American military security.
Third, movement toward deficit reduction and economic renewal will in large part depend upon development of a more comprehensive and balanced approach to the problems of national security and economic development than has existed in recent years. In the aftermath of World War II, in which U.S. industrial capacity was decisive, there was widespread awareness of the close interconnection between the economic and military dimensions of national security. Early national security planning documents, such as NSC 68 of 1950, devoted much attention to the economic underpinnings of security. Questions of industrial base, economic mobilization and technological innovation were central to the discussion of security issues. Government agencies concerned with security made significant contributions to industrial development, those of the intelligence agencies to the computer industry being only the most dramatic. Over time, however, as the experience of total war faded into the background and after the emergence of a distinct defense industry or military-industrial complex following the Korean War, the connection between economic policy and national security began to weaken. National security planning documents tended to focus increasingly on purely military strategy.
The National Security Council was created in 1947 to be the forum for integrating the various elements of security policy. Its legislative mandate was and is to advise the president on “the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” Economics became, however, the weak sister and often the absent partner in the national security policymaking process. The result was less attention than should have been given both to the trade-offs between policies to promote economic strength and those designed to promote military security, and to the types of policies that may constructively contribute to both economic and military security. Reestablishing the link between these two should be high on the agenda of the next administration.
Sadly, those words could have been written today. 23 years later the United States remains saddled by an enormous debt burden, ineffective industrial policies, and a disturbing disparity between its overwhelming military power and its underwhelming economic and moral standing.
— Ben Katcher