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Foreign policy makers need Econ 101

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BOB MOON: President Obama is back home from his second major tour abroad. He huddled with fellow leaders at the G20 gathering in Europe and at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. His performance on international issues — and what some are calling a realignment of our foreign policy — has gotten mixed reviews.

But one thing is clear in this global economy: The foreign policy team in the Obama administration needs to factor economics into nearly every decision. Commentator Dan Drezner says America used to have people who understood that connection, but not anymore.

DANIEL DREZNER: I heard a shocking confession at a recent conference about international relations. A high-profile commentator was asked about the dispute between the United States and European Union over fiscal stimulus. The pundit replied that he did not understand anything going on in the economy. It was not surprising that he failed to grasp the issue. What was shocking was that he said it out loud.

The dirty little secret inside the Beltway is that international economics either scares or bores America’s foreign policy community. Although foreign affairs analysts understand on some level that economics is important, they see it as distinct from geopolitics. As a result, very few of them have the necessary experience or training to talk about international economic matters.

It was not always this way. During the Cold War, some of America’s greatest foreign policy minds — Dean Acheson, Walt Rostow, George Schultz or James Baker — had substantive backgrounds in economics, finance or business. This allowed them to navigate the waters between high politics and high finance with a minimum of fuss.

More specialization has left fewer foreign policy professionals and commentators with the capacity to talk about economics. This knowledge divorce can have bad long-term effects on American diplomacy. During the Asian financial crisis, for example, State Department officials provided minimal input into the conditions attached to IMF rescue packages because few people at Foggy Bottom fully understood the problems. The result was a series of onerous and intrusive bargains that left a residue of resentment across the Pacific Rim.

Foreign policy wonks like to talk about “high politics” and “low politics,” and they usually relegate economic diplomacy into the latter category. In these times, however, economics is foreign policy. The United States is embroiled in a transatlantic dispute over fiscal policy. China and Russia are proposing that the dollar be replaced as the world’s reserve currency. India is upset over U.S. criticisms about offshore outsourcing. These disputes can bleed over into the meat and potatoes of international security.

America needs a continuing education program for its foreign policy community, and the first course they should take is Economics 101.

BOB MOON: Daniel Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University. His most recent book is called “All Politics is Global.”

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