Belmont Club

The New International Order

On May 22nd President Obama’s West Point speech described the new “international order” he was trying to build; one founded on multilateral action in contrast to the unilateralism of the past. He described security in unusually broad terms. No longer did it simply consist of the mere prevention of war. It now included managing nature, feeding the sick and helping the distressed. Obama set forth the goals of “countering violent extremism and insurgency; stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and securing nuclear materials; combating a changing climate and sustaining global growth; helping countries feed themselves and care for their sick; preventing conflict and healing wounds” as the objects of security. To achieve these goals he would use cooperation and diplomacy. The Chicago Sun Times had a full transcript of the speech in which Obama laid out his vision:

The burdens of this century cannot fall on our soldiers alone. It also cannot fall on American shoulders alone. Our adversaries would like to see America sap its strength by overextending our power. And in the past, we’ve always had the foresight to avoid acting alone. We were part of the most powerful wartime coalition in human history through World War II. We stitched together a community of free nations and institutions to endure and ultimately prevail during a Cold War.

Yes, we are clear-eyed about the shortfalls of our international system. But America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation — we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don’t.

So we have to shape an international order that can meet the challenges of our generation. We will be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well, including those who will serve by your side in Afghanistan and around the globe. As influence extends to more countries and capitals, we also have to build new partnerships, and shape stronger international standards and institutions.

This engagement is not an end in itself. The international order we seek is one that can resolve the challenges of our times — countering violent extremism and insurgency; stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and securing nuclear materials; combating a changing climate and sustaining global growth; helping countries feed themselves and care for their sick; preventing conflict and healing wounds. If we are successful in these tasks, that will lessen conflicts around the world. It will be supportive of our efforts by our military to secure our country.

In the days immediately succeeding the West Point speech those soaring principles got a practical workout on the Korean peninsula. Gone was the suggestive movement of naval forces or the deniable tit-for tat response. Instead, responding to the North Korean sinking of a South Korean warship, Clinton sought China’s help in reprimanding North Korea. “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a sharp warning to North Korea upon her arrival in Northeast Asia, saying the Obama administration will work with regional powers to punish Pyongyang for sinking a South Korean warship.”

Here was the New International Order on full display. Instead of acting in the traditional role as South Korea’s patron, the US was asking North Korea’s patron — China — to protect America’s erstwhile client by punishing its own. The obvious danger to this approach was it tended to make China the de facto patron of South Korea. All the US was doing was passing along a message to the real power who would act. But the greater danger was that China might not go along.

China may have other ideas:But the U.S. strategy could face stiff resistance from Beijing, said senior U.S. officials Friday as Mrs. Clinton arrived in the country for talks.

Beijing has so far displayed little interest in reprimanding its longstanding ally in Pyongyang. South Korea on Thursday revealed the results of an international investigation into the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan and formally blamed the North for torpedoing the patrol boat. China has tried to stay neutral so far and said it will conduct its own assessment about the cause of the sinking.

What then? Why of course, nothing then but to retreat to Foggy Bottom and eat crow while working on yet another soaring speech. Beneath the diplomatese, Clinton was acknowledging that not a mouse could stir — or that she could not stir a mouse — without China’s go ahead.  But the President may have no choice but to go cap in hand to China, which according to Wikipedia holds 23.4% of the US Treasury Securities the government sells in order to fund its deficit.  The transaction on the Korean Peninsula was very suggestive and not all the demarches in the world can completely conceal the naked groveling at its center. Obama is not oblivious to the fact that China has him over a barrel, for in his West Point speech the President almost said as much:

Simply put, American innovation must be the foundation of American power — because at no time in human history has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy. … And to do so, we must first recognize that our strength and influence abroad begins with steps we take at home. We must educate our children to compete in an age where knowledge is capital, and the marketplace is global. We must develop clean energy that can power new industry and unbound us from foreign oil and preserve our planet. We have to pursue science and research that unlocks wonders as unforeseen to us today as the microchip and the surface of the moon were a century ago.

Obama understood that power must ultimately be undergirded by economic strength. That is fair enough. But if the steps the federal government have been undertaking at “home,” both in the form of unprecedented deficits and its deference to the Green Lobby and the teachers’ unions, sap the strength of the American economy and saddle it with mega-programs, then Obama’s new “international order” simply becomes a statement of intention to beg abroad after he has blown his wad on the new domestic order. After propping up a number of politically sacrosanct interest groups that are “too big to fail” the Administration may be frankly telling the West Pointers that there will simply be no money left for anything else. In a way the West Point speech can be restated in this way: after we have finished doling out the tax dollar for entitlements, entitlements which we cannot sustain anyway; and after having raised taxes to the level where business growth tapers off to zero, then that’s all she wrote. Therefore we are going to deal with all future international crises — and by that I include global warming and nation building — through multilateralism and diplomacy.’

The risk inherent in this approach is that it will pay in weakness abroad for political pork at home. Can this new multilateral world order work? Probably not without a core of hard power. Because Europe has been underinvesting in security for decades and ploughing their money into welfare states the hard power is not going to come from there. And now, facing huge deficits arising from the gap between their burgeoning entitlements and declining populations, Europe will cut back even more. It is little wonder Hillary is asking China to rein in North Korea. She could hardly ask for help from anyone else. The New York Times describes the problem that now faces Europe.  Not even free-riding on American defense spending could gain it enough room to pay for its entitlements.

Europeans have benefited from low military spending, protected by NATO and the American nuclear umbrella. They have also translated higher taxes into a cradle-to-grave safety net. “The Europe that protects” is a slogan of the European Union.

But all over Europe governments with big budgets, falling tax revenues and aging populations are experiencing rising deficits, with more bad news ahead.

With low growth, low birthrates and longer life expectancies, Europe can no longer afford its comfortable lifestyle, at least not without a period of austerity and significant changes. The countries are trying to reassure investors by cutting salaries, raising legal retirement ages, increasing work hours and reducing health benefits and pensions.

“We’re now in rescue mode,” said Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister. “But we need to transition to the reform mode very soon. The ‘reform deficit’ is the real problem,” he said, pointing to the need for structural change.

The reaction so far to government efforts to cut spending has been pessimism and anger, with an understanding that the current system is unsustainable.

It is precisely this bankrupt system that Obama has set out to emulate with his giant public health care, cap and trade and immigration “reform” programs. Having imitated Europe at home, his new international order appears to emulate it abroad. The ends of his security policy — environmentalism, development and humanitarian assistance — as well as the means — diplomacy and multilateralism — are strikingly European. What the President left out of the speech was a description of how the West, once it has collectively purged itself of hard power,  can wield soft power effectively. It is like one of those scenes in a movie where two men in a shack, watching the bandidos approach with murderous intent, prepare their defense.

“Slim,” said one, “hand me the gun.”

“Curtis, I thought you brought the gun.”

“Now what did you forget a thing like that for?”

If the welfare state was predicated on Other People’s Money (OPM), internationally it depended on Other People’s Security (OPS) for its existence. Now that it has finally run out of OPM it might want to notice that it may also run out of OPS.

Tip Jar or Subscribe for $5