The fiscal isolationism of the United States

The US budget crisis hurt its citizens, but will also impact the country’s foreign policy.

ornamental tank at entrance to fort knox
Isolationism in the US is likely to make diplomacy more difficult as countries lose the incentive to listen to ‘advice’ [EPA]

Patience might be a virtue, but not necessarily when it comes to US foreign policy.

Consider “the long war”, a bold concept embraced a few years ago to describe the continuing struggle against terrorism, the grudging progress that could realistically be achieved, and the enormous financial burden that it would impose for years to come. It was also a realpolitik acknowledgement of the setbacks to be expected along the way (the “slog,” as then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it).

Above all, the term was an effort to communicate to Americans, accustomed to waging war with speed and decisiveness (and insistent on it since Vietnam), the long-term sacrifice and commitment needed to win a war of survival. Its proponents also understood that the war would not be limited to weapons, but would need to be a sustained effort, involving, as they put it, the “whole of government”, with civilian agencies marshalled behind military – or paramilitary – objectives.

Daunting as the effort would be, its advocates assumed a sustainable political consensus to support it. After all, the United States had been attacked.

Today, that consensus is unravelling as America’s politicians wrestle with a federal budget that is itself turning into a long war – one with its own casualties. The battle lines in this struggle suggest thaft there is little accord among political elites for any spending, let alone for a long war with far-flung commitments.

As a result, basic assumptions are being questioned at every turn. Indeed, the current budget-war seems to be reopening old divisions about America’s view of itself and the world. The outcome is far from certain, but even isolationism, a perennial US malady, seems to be making a comeback.

Isolationism is a familiar refrain in US foreign policy among those elements of the right that consider the US too good for the world, as well as among those on the left who consider America a destructive global force. But this time, as perhaps never before, a bipartisan isolationist impulse is being driven by the budget.

No more taxes

The US fiscal crisis is profound, and it is not just about numbers. As the emotions in Washington suggest, the aversion to tax increases runs far deeper than concern about their effect on current economic performance and job growth. In part, it represents a fundamental – some would say fundamentalist – view that taxes are to government what a bottle of whisky is to an alcoholic. Government, as Ronald Reagan told us, is the problem, not the solution.

That message is bad news for US diplomacy. The link between politicians’ unwillingness to fund domestic programmes and the imperilled commitment to “the long war” might elude those in US foreign-policy circles, but it is not lost on the rest of the country. Opinion surveys suggest that Americans want to maintain many of the “discretionary” domestic programmes – schools, hospitals, transportation infrastructure, recreational parks, et cetera – that are now on the chopping block in budget negotiations.

In places like rural El Paso County, on the eastern plains of Colorado, far from the federal budget debate’s epicentre, spending cuts are the order of the day. School districts are increasing class sizes as they shed teachers, as well as deferring maintenance projects and curtailing the school-bus service. These cuts are having a very real and immediate impact on El Paso County’s residents. Can they, and others in the US who are losing vital services, really be expected to rise above it all and support funding to build new schools in Afghanistan?

Not only are America’s public schools starting to look second-rate, but so is its infrastructure, which had long been a source of national pride. How many travellers nowadays can fail to note the difference between Asia’s new, efficient airports and the aging, clogged antiques in some major US cities?

The budget war is not producing any consensus on fixing America’s infrastructure, but it is beginning to produce a view that Afghanistan and Pakistan are far from being core US national interests. Why, people ask, are schools and roads in Afghanistan and Iraq more important than those in Colorado or California? At one point in 2008, the US military picked up the cost of transporting a tiger for the Baghdad zoo. When was the last time the US government did that for a US zoo (outside of Washington, of course)?

What will happen?

How this debate sorts itself out will have profound consequences for how America conducts itself in the world. But it might also take a toll on how the world reacts to America’s fastest-growing export: unsolicited advice.

Countries take others’ advice for many reasons. Sometimes they respect the adviser’s wisdom and insights (fairly rare in diplomacy). Or they might fear the consequences of not taking the advice (an offer one cannot refuse, so to speak). Or, as is true of many of America’s diplomatic transactions, accepting advice could open the way to a better relationship and to additional assistance. In short, diplomacy – and US diplomacy, in particular – often involves money.

But what if there is no money to offer? What if Americans, tired of the budget cuts in their neighbourhoods, refuse to support funds even for “the long war”? At that point, senior US officials might well arrive in a country, offer advice, and find that nobody is bothering to listen.

Christopher R. Hill, a former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, US special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. He is now Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

A version of this article first appeared on Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.