Thursday, December 5, 2013

A World of Foreign Policy Gambles

It is almost axiomatic that when a political leader faces domestic problems, he or she will turn to foreign relations as a way to divert disgruntled constituents from their daily travails.  Appeals to national pride easily tap into the often reflexive patriotism that many people have.  Folks tend to rally 'round the flag whenever there's a dustup with some bunch of dang foreigners.  Since foreign relations tend to be largely in the domain of Presidents, Prime Ministers and other national executives, legislative interference is less of a problem and credit for success can be hoarded.

With essentially all of the world's major economies unimpressive, sluggish or even tending toward torpid, it's hardly a surprise that some world leaders are indulging in cross-border shenani . . . , well, activities.  China has a slowing economy, with a real estate bubble, a debt bubble, increased competition from lower wage nations around the world, growing unemployment, a lack of high-value innovation, and a demographic demon of too many elderly and way too few young workers that's far, far worse than America's social security issues.  So what does China do?  Make noise about territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea.  America responds by flying B-52s into an area claimed by the Chinese.  The Japanese, with a sludgy economy and a recently elected Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who appears to be of a nationalistic bent, contest the Chinese claims with their military aircraft, sabre-rattling as good as they've been rattled at.  Japan and China are quietly drifting into an arms race, while the U.S. military is expanding its presence in Asia.  And of course, there's North Korea, an economic dead zone, which engages in virtually nonstop sabre-rattling to legitimize its autocracy. 

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, a newly elected Iranian leadership faced with a sanctions-hammered economy that's circling the drain, are suddenly open-minded about a deal to slow down their nuclear program.  An American President, crippled by the virtual non-launch of his showcase domestic health insurance program, decides it's okay to let Iran continue to enrich uranium up to the 5% level, even though this isn't exactly a complete freeze of Iran's nuclear program.  (Even though Iran says it wants to have 5% uranium to develop nuclear power, since when does a country with gobs of petroleum reserves need to develop nuclear power?)  This deal could be seen as an effort by the U.S. to reduce its presence in the Middle East (so it can increase its presence in Asia).  Does that make war in the Middle East less likely?  Or will the increasingly nervous Israelis act on their own, as they have in the past?  And if they do, will America be militarily dragged into the consequences?

Over the past century and a half, foreign policy adventurism has tended to end badly.  Sometimes, very badly, with 20 million dead in World War I and 60 million dead in World War II.  This isn't to suggest that America and other nations should become isolationist.  The world is interconnected and some degree of international engagement is necessary.  But citizens should be skeptical of their leaders, who often have much to gain by stepping up their rhetoric and actions.  The recent popular outcries against American and British military action in Syria over its use of poisonous gas is an example of how the levelheadedness of the citizenry can cool the jets of a handful of very powerful people who may spend too much time talking to each other.  If a nation's leader seems to have a gambling problem in the foreign policy arena, citizens should stage an intervention.

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