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A New Definition of National Defense

May 22, 1988|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is publisher of American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly

WASHINGTON — Maybe this Memorial Day, Americans should no longer wear red poppies for the war dead alone--for casualties of Gettysburg, Flan ders, Iwo Jima or the Tet offensive. Maybe it's a good idea to begin wearing red poppies for our new casualties: dead industries, plundered real estate, captured corporations, stolen technologies, surrendered markets, loss of the U.S. global economic hegemony won on earlier 20th-Century battlefields. This is the new challenge of American patriotism, and it's redefining the 1988 foreign-policy debate--and reopening the 1968-1984 verdict on which party keeps America strong. That's no longer so clear, to George Bush's potential November jeopardy.

Let no one doubt that this autumn's election will pivot on different psychologies than the choice of the last four Presidents--three of them Republicans committed to a military and geostrategic definition of U.S. strength and security. The GOP's definition of patriotism and strength--forged in opposition to Vietnam-era defeatism and bolstered by the 1979-80 Iranian hostages embarrassment--is losing relevance. The public is beginning to rethink U.S. vulnerability--and the remedies needed--in economic rather than military terms. Opinion polls paint that shift starkly. Jobs and domestic prosperity, not global geopolitics, should be the first concern of U.S. foreign policy. The perils of foreign drugs, foreign trade and foreign investment have overtaken the threat of foreign tanks and nuclear missiles. By 2-1 and 3-1 majorities, U.S. citizens rate economic power over military power and see economic competitors as a potentially greater threat than military adversaries. A controversial new sampling by the Boston polling firm, Marttila & Kiley, even reports that a majority of voters see Japan as a greater threat than the Soviet Union.

This may constitute the watershed mood change of the late 1980s. The electorate wants U.S. patriotism to climb out of its jungle fatigues and start dealing with the new threats: Colombian drug dealers, illegal immigrant gangsters from Jamaica, East Asian consumer electronics copycats, European corporate raiders and foreign investors gobbling up U.S. factories and real estate with the cheap dollars they've made from financing the U.S. international debt. The issues are falling into place. Stop invading banana republics, voters are saying, and start defending Silicon Valley, the beach at Waikiki and U.S. neighborhoods threatened by drug trafficking. Begin regulating or at least monitoring foreign investment in the United States. Insist that increasingly rich Europe and Japan pay for the same portion of Western defense burdens that they represent of Western commerce and wealth (4-1 majorities agree with that one, too).

If the new shape of U.S. public opinion is startling, the new shape of U.S. politics could follow suit. Since the Republican surge in presidential politics began in 1968, the GOP has been the patriotic party in U.S. politics. Let Democratic Presidents or nominees propose crawling on their knees to Hanoi or fumble ineffectively as Middle East ayatollahs take U.S. embassies hostage. Republicans watched John Wayne movies and enjoyed 2-1 opinion-poll majorities as the party preferred to keep America strong.

This hitherto winning equation is now at risk as the politics of patriotism shifts from largely military and diplomatic yardsticks to economic ones. Bush, the expected GOP nominee, said in a speech about a month ago that foreign policy would be the big issue because the economy is so strong. That could be a double-barrelled misconception. The economy is becoming a foreign-policy issue and vice versa.

By immediate yardsticks the economy is pretty good, at least for many people. But the public has real undercurrents of doubt, particularly about the way Washington's credit-card economics of the last five or six years have shifted more and more control over U.S. prosperity to foreign investors and central banks. They have lent us much of the money to pay for the deficit-financed tax cuts and defense buildup of the 1980s. Now they are calling in their chits.

This controversial new leverage is what's replacing the slowly declining merchandise trade deficit as the 1988 debate fulcrum of economic nationalism. After peaking at $170 billion last year, the U.S. trade deficit should recede to $150 billion this year and $120 billion to $130 billion in 1989. What's taking its place on the political fever chart is the soaring triple burden of paying interest on the borrowed money, seeing huge chunks of U.S. business and real estate snatched up by foreigners and watching the outflow of dollars as profits and rents of property now owned by British, German or Japanese investors fly to faraway lands.

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