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?

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

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

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
, 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

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
in those terms.

Harold Meyerson, summing
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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