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Economic woes limit U.S. foreign policy

Marketplace Staff Jan 21, 2009

Economic woes limit U.S. foreign policy

Marketplace Staff Jan 21, 2009


KAI RYSSDAL: The situation in the Middle East is just one of the many issues the new president will face while he’s in office. Foreign policy shared the stage with the economy in the inaugural address yesterday. But the economic situation here might well decide determine what Barack Obama can do overseas.

Gideon Rose is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. Good to speak with you.

GIDEON ROSE: Good to be here.

RYSSDAL: Seeing as how foreign policy is a pretty big area, let’s start with big picture first. How might the president be limited in his external dealings by the economic crisis?

ROSE: Well, the new administration basically has very little in the bank account and a lot of debts that it’s racking up. And so it’s not going to be looking for any major new financial spending or commitments on foreign policy or national security issues. And it’s going to try to wind down the conflicts it inherited while avoiding any new ones.

RYSSDAL: Let’s talk about some of those things that it did inherit, though. Obviously, Iraq’s not going away anytime soon. I was reading just the other day that the top NATO commander in Afghanistan is worried about the impact the financial crisis is going to have on allies and their ability to keep contributing. So, there is an immediate impact, isn’t there?

ROSE: Well, there is an immediate impact, but it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out with events. If the new administration could manage to wind down the American commitment in Iraq, while still leaving something stable behind, everybody would be happy. The real question will come if the withdrawal from Iraq seems like it’s producing chaos on the ground there. And then the administration will be forced to decide whether keeping its commitment to withdraw is worth having problems on the ground in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, the problem is somewhat different. The Obama people talked a big game about Afghanistan before they took office. But I think it’s a little bit unclear just how much of a ramped-up commitment to Afghanistan they’re actually going to make. Not just because of financial commitments, but also because it’s not as if simply doing a surge for Afghanistan would make the problems there go away.

RYSSDAL: Should he be worrying at all about whether or not other countries can continue to offer whatever military support they can, given their economic situations?

ROSE: Anybody looking for countries to spend a great deal on foreign policy issues not directly related to their immediate, vital, national security interests in coming years is going to be disappointed.

RYSSDAL: You know, diplomacy and foreign affairs is obviously about more than just active engagement with military forces. There are strategic relationships you have to manage. And the two that come to my mind are China and Russia, both of whom are military powers but also huge economic forces.

ROSE: Absolutely. And I think here is where the economic pressures the new administration will be facing will actually play into the general diplomatic tack that it is likely to want to adopt for other reasons as well. I think you’re going to see a cooling down, rather than a heating up, of U.S. relations with other great powers. Even though there are things that both Russia and China have done and will continue to do that are not things that the administration approves of, or will approve of. The fact is, it’s going to be relatively quiet. The administration wants room to concentrate on its domestic problems and wants to not pick any new fights.

RYSSDAL: Do you perceive, or do you think other countries perceive the United States to be weakened in the diplomatic arena because of its economic problems?

ROSE: You know, that’s a very interesting question. The United States is hurting. But the fact is that other countries are hurting even more. And in the long run, I think that democracies and free-market systems — even modified free-market systems, as the United States will be in the era that we’re entering — will come out of this better off than regimes that are more sclerotic and top down and authoritarian, which will find it harder to make the kinds of adjustments and thrive in a new world going forward. So, I think that the supposed long-term impact on American decline is overstated. That said, in the short term Washington is going to be basically hurt and distracted by this, and if it does try to throw its weight around, others might not listen in the short term.

RYSSDAL: Gideon Rose is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. Mr. Rose, thanks a lot for your time.

ROSE: Thank you.

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