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Thinking Big on Foreign Policy Too

Last week an all-star cast of progressives -- including Paul Krugman, Robert Kuttner, Theda Skocpol, Robert Borosage, and Deepak Bhargava -- gathered at a conference to start "Thinking Big, Thinking Forward."  They plan on "reclaiming the public philosophy of activist government and an increased long-term public investment in areas vital to economic growth and social decency." Who could argue with that? 

And this year's conference was just "the kickoff event in a continuing campaign," its manifesto declared. "Future meetings will address the other core elements of a new economic strategy to create a widely shared and sustainable prosperity in a global economy."

But why wait for the future to start thinking globally?  And why think only about economics?  In 2009, the domestic has to be tied to the foreign, and economics has to be tied to the whole range of foreign policy issues, right now.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933 he had the luxury of "putting of first things first" (as he said in his inaugural address), taking care of "the emergency at home" before turning to the global crisis. Now, though, all these issue are much too intertwined to put one before the other. And that's largely thanks to FDR himself, who insisted on a quantum leap in the globalization of American capitalism and made the U.S. the military guardian of the global system he envisioned.

FDR deserves all the praise he's getting now for making Keynesian pump-priming a standard tool of government, not merely to rescue us in hard times but to guarantee every American a minimally decent standard of living. Though it hasn't always worked out that way in practice, Roosevelt enshrined it as theory, laying a strong foundation for those who are "Thinking Big, Thinking Forward" today.

But FDR also laid the foundation of military Keynesianism. It was military spending that finally got the pumps going fast enough to bring out of the economic doldrums in the early 1940s. By the end of that decade, military Keynesianism had become an unquestioned pillar of the American way of life.

Ever since, our huge military-industrial complex has tied up a vast amount of public money, which could otherwise be used for the immense domestic pump-priming we really need (at least double the current stimulus package, according to the "Thinking Big" people).  Yet there's a catch-22.  Any wholesale dismantling of that huge complex would trigger a financial catastrophe that could make the current  look like a Sunday school picnic.

Thinking really big means developing a step-by-step plan for shifting public funds away from the military, gradually and carefully, over the next two or three decades without dislocations that could wreak havoc on the economy.  Fortunately, there are very smart economists who have been working on those plans for the last two or three decades. They have to be given a place at the "Thinking Big" table.

That's the technical, and easier, part of the problem. The harder part is political: Finding a way to get political leaders who oppose military Keynesianism elected and re-elected. Here we run into another, stranger catch-22. The polls show that most Americans would be happy to see military spending reduced. But any politicians who make that a central part of their platform are committing political suicide.

The problem is that those politicians would have to explain why we really don't need all that military overkill, why we could be perfectly safe with a quarter or even a tenth of the military might we have now. In other words, they would have to link their economic arguments to a new vision of foreign policy.

That new vision would fly directly in the face of what the American public has come to believe is common sense: We must keep up an enormous military shield to defend ourselves against enemies who are busy every day planning to destroy us. That belief is the key to the military Keynesianism that upholds our economy. Why pour all those hundreds of billions into "defense" if there is no one to defend against? 

For seven decades now, the ideology of "national security" has made domestic and foreign policy (in Harry Truman's words) two halves of the same walnut. Foreign policy has become essentially a matter of us, the good guys, brandishing a strong enough fist to keep the bad guys at bay. Anyone who suggests turning the strong fist into an open helping hand will immediately be tarred by political opponents with those most dreaded epithets: "weak" and "soft."

That's a fact anyone who is "Thinking Big" must keep front and center. Despite all the pious praise for bipartisanship, the politics of the stimulus bill made it all too plain that Washington is still the same old arena of partisan battle. If the GOP finds itself losing any of those fights, it will be tempted to haul out its heaviest political artillery: the charge that the president is "weak" and "soft" on foreign enemies.

Throughout the presidential campaign, McCain outpolled Obama in only one area: protecting the nation's security. That's the president's soft political underbelly, as he and his advisors are well aware.  They have to keep it firmly protected at every moment.

So far they've done a good job, surrounding Obama with advisors on foreign and national security affairs who are perceived as sufficiently hawkish to keep America's guard up. This administration may disagree with its predecessor about exactly how to use the fist and how tightly or loosely to clench it. But its fundamental foreign policy framework -- a commitment to winning the "war on terror" -- remains pretty much the same as Bush's. So it's in no position to suggest a massive transfer of public wealth from military to domestic uses, even if it wanted to.

However there is no reason to think that it would want to, regardless of public opinion at home, because there is another crucial intersection of foreign policy with domestic economic policy:  "Rise in Jobless Poses Threat to Stability Worldwide," a New York Times headline warns.   The new director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, made headlines himself when when he told Congress that the biggest security threat facing the United States is no longer terrorism. It's instability caused by the global economic crisis.

"Instability" is the foreign policy establishment's code word for its own most dreaded prospect: crowds in the streets of foreign cities, big enough to bring down governments that are friendly to the United States and the global corporate capitalist system. As the official scribe of that system, Thomas Friedman, once wrote:  "The emerging global order needs an enforcer. That's America's new burden." This burden, too, is a legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration. The Obama administration has given no sign that it would discard or even question that legacy. 

Ultimately, the fear of foreign instability and the fear of domestic weakness are intertwined. Since FDR's day, Americans have been told that any radical change abroad is a threat to our own national security. And any number of domestic agents of change -- the civil rights movement, the peace movement, freethinking students (and non-students), feminists, dark-skinned immigrants, and on and on -- have been cast as a threat to national security. 

So whenever a major political change looms on the horizon -- the magnitude of change that comes from "Thinking Big" -- it's not too hard to rally millions of Americans against it, not because they dispute the intrinsic merits of the change, but because change of any kinds seems so frightening.  That's a fundamental fact of American political life, which can't be changed merely by singing the praises of new economic policies. It requires a massive effort of "Thinking Big, Thinking Forward" toward new foreign and domestic policy as two sides of a single process, for they are indeed two halves of same walnut. 

This way of stating the problem may hold the key to the solution. The "Thinking Big" manifesto has sets forth its new vision in admirably succinct language: 

Sustained and strategic public investment is only part of a new strategy for rebuilding the economy. The financial system must be regulated so that banks return to being the servant, not the master of the real economy. A more balanced trading system will require a 21st century industrial policy -- beginning with new energy ... We must empower workers and hold corporations accountable to insure that the blessings of productivity and profits are widely shared, and the health and safety of workers, consumers and the environment are protected.

Why not make that the starting point for American foreign policy, too? If such a program will make us secure and happy at home, won't we be much more secure and happy when it's happening in every corner of the world?  

"Every" is the key word here. To make such a foreign policy politically viable, we must somehow erase the current axiom of our foreign policy: that America's highest goal is to prevent evildoers from overwhelming and destroying us. We must stop turning foreign policy into a moralistic melodrama and start recognizing that every person everywhere -- even those we disagree with most -- is an integral part of what Dr. King called the single garment of destiny, which wraps all of humanity inescapably into a shared network of mutuality. Only then can we begin to persuade the voters that dramatic change on a global scale, designed for the benefit of all, is something to hope for, not to fear.

FDR did not live long enough to see a world where the finest principles of the New Deal might be extended to everyone. It's not clear that he would ever have wanted that kind of world. But it is clear that anyone who is "Thinking Big, Thinking Forward" must quickly start thinking in those terms.    

Harold Meyerson, summing up the recent conference, found it fitting to recall what Michael Harrington told a similar conference over thirty years ago:  "We have to go as far beyond Roosevelt as Roosevelt went beyond Hoover, or we're going back to Hoover." It might be more fitting to say that we have to go as far beyond Roosevelt as Roosevelt went beyond Hoover, in foreign as well as domestic policy, or we're going back to George W. Bush. 

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