Mac Deford: “A World in Disarray” — And That Was Before Donald Trump Became President
Thursday, April 06, 2017 11:03 AM
Richard Haass, the well-regarded head of the Council on Foreign Relations, has written a new book, “A World in Disarray,” which as his subtitle explains is about “American foreign policy and the crisis of the old order.”
Today’s world may or may not be quite as grim as the book’s title suggests. But it’s certainly a challenging place, even if you are the world’s only super-power. And ‘’challenging’’ may be too tame a word for what the future holds.
So.…send in Jared Kushner.
Whatever one thinks about Donald Trump’s presidential accomplishments, it’s clear he’s got a philosophy about good government: if you can succeed in Manhattan real estate, you can take on the world.
Send Kushner out to Iraq for a few days at the beginning of the week, and, by week’s end, he’ll be ready to give major input to father-in-law Donald at his meeting with China’s Xi Jinping.
I hope Kushner read Haass’s book on the plane to Baghdad — and then briefed Mar-a-Lago’s chief honcho on it when he returned. It’s a solid piece of work. His solutions for the global problems he details are rational though hardly revolutionary. The real problem is that they are, at least with today’s American leadership, unachievable.
Europe, he points out, is no longer a stable, predictable region; its economies are stagnant and its politics increasingly nationalistic. Reviewing past US errors, Haass zeroes in on President Clinton’s decision to expand NATO to Russia’s borders and argues — something many of us have long thought — that it was one of the major mistakes of post-Cold War American policy. Haass had a very different approach: as head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in 2001, he wrote a paper arguing that Russia should be invited to join NATO. An intriguing suggestion — indeed, one of the great “what-ifs?” of recent history — especially as it coincided with the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s rise to power.
The Middle East he sees — no news here — as a disaster. Haass’s realistic recommendation for US policy is a middle-of-the-road one: while the area is too important to ignore, it’s “a region to be thought of less in terms of what might be accomplished than what might be avoided.” That old physician’s motto: above all, do no harm — with a twist — especially not to yourself.
His primary focus, because of its increasing importance in the years ahead, is the Far East. He applauds Obama’s “pivot’’ to Asia, obviously devoting much of his discussion of the region to China’s emergence as a world power. Complementing his past NATO proposal vis-a-vis Russia, he suggests that China should be invited to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership — an innovative suggestion, especially considering that the TPP was in some aspects designed to offset Chinese influence.
North Korea is a key focus of his Asian discussion; naturally, he sees China as the key to deflecting North Korea’s Kim Jung-Un from developing intercontinental missiles that could deliver nuclear bombs to the US mainland.
Haass’s concluding chapter is a look at what the US needs to do to maintain its pre-eminent role going ahead. He’s well aware that today’s “US has few unilateral options,’’ though he stresses that the counterpart to this “is that the world cannot come up with the elements of a working order absent the United States.” But if the US is to play, successfully, the role that no other country can, it must, Haass says, put its own house in order.
While his recommendations are hardly original, that doesn’t mean they are easy: the key one is to jack up our economic growth rate, back to the 3%-plus level it had for the three decades after World War II. This would involve, he points out, improved public education, a robust infrastructure program, immigration reform to attract those with the most useful skills, tax reform, and a solution to our debt problem.
This latter is the most difficult: our public debt — currently around $14 trillion, or some 75% of the GDP — will, if it continues at its current rate, exceed our GDP by the end of the next decade. And of course, as the debt rises, the cost of servicing it rises — both because of its greater size as well as its impact on interest rates — eating into our ability to fund the kind of projects that can raise our growth rate: a vicious circle.
Another key economic problem he cites — ironically, it’s perhaps the very reason Trump was elected president — is growing economic inequality. Haass outlines ways to ameliorate it but they are far from easy politically. An important economic dividend, he suggests, would come from raising the age at which Social Security kicks in, an oft-proposed, sensible approach that has long been a political non-starter.
He also sees the need for the US to increase military spending, not because of Trump’s “America first” approach, but because of our unique role in maintaining order in “an increasingly dangerous and precarious world. There is no other country willing and able to make a sizable contribution to world order, and the world cannot order itself. Only the United States can play this role.”
In his introduction, Haass notes that the book was completed before the November presidential elections; and one gets the clear impression that his recommendations were made with Hillary Clinton in mind. The necessary steps for serious overall reform “would require a sustained demonstration of leadership, beginning with the president.”
It “would require both an inside game, in which the president would work closely with politicians from both parties in both the Senate and the House, and an outside game, in which the president would meet with representatives of various constituencies and interest groups. Also required would be for the president to speak frequently and honestly to the American people.”
Haass writes with a fine historic perspective and presents constructive, coherent ideas. But one can’t help concluding that the reforms he proposes, difficult under the best of circumstances, would require a different president — a president with an approval rating substantially above Trump’s well-deserved 35%.