BONN — It has been said that history is politics looking backward. Thus, when many Americans are thinking about the U.S. role in the world, it has become fashionable to look afresh at the fate of former great powers and the factors that led to their decline.
One of the current focal points is Paul Kennedy's book, "Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." In tracing the decline of Ottoman Turkey, the Hapsburgs, Napoleonic France and the British Empire, Kennedy sees the common process of "imperial overstretch" at work: Foreign commitments and military responsibilities outgrew the economic capacity to sustain them. His final chapter warns that the United States faces a similar mismatch between international commitment and economic power.
Historians will decide whether Kennedy's thesis is good history. The immediate question is whether it constitutes good politics. In a presidential election year, Kennedy's arguments are being exploited and to some extent perverted by a growing number of politicians, policy analysts and special interests on both ends of the political spectrum. Many are spokesmen for a "new populism" in U.S. foreign affairs, advocating approaches that would scrap 40 years of internationalist U.S. security and economic policies in favor of a much more circumscribed, parochial and protectionist role.
"New populism" can be recognized by three distinct strands:
-- Economic nationalism : This school maintains that an open, international trading and financial system works against U.S. interests because many foreign competitors refuse "to play by the rules." Its prescription is to insulate the U.S. economy through protectionist trade legislation like that proposed last year by Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). Many economic nationalists worry, too, about the "selling of America"; they advocate controls on foreign investments.
-- Military neo-isolationism : A hang-over from the post-Vietnam era, this school argues that the United States should reduce its defense budget and lower its military profile around the world. Proponents include many liberals, who want the United States to withdraw militarily from Central America and other Third World trouble spots. In other regions, some neo-isolationists advocate major troop reductions and turning over a larger share of the defense burden to "free-loading" allies.
-- Strategic unilateralism : This school of thought finds adherents on the right. Neo-conservative critics of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, argue not only that the allies are not pulling their weight, but that their squeamishness about military force prevents the United States from pursuing a more hard-nosed foreign policy. They advocate a more assertive, go-it-alone course.
While these three strands obviously differ in important ways, their criticisms of U.S. internationalism tend to reinforce one another. In the process, strange bedfellows are created. For example, Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, on the Democratic left, has borrowed the sharp criticisms of allied defense spending made by Richard N. Perle, former Reagan Administration assistant secretary of defense. There is also a dangerous tendency for new populists to link military burden-sharing with concerns over the trade deficit. Schroeder, for one, has proposed that additional duties be levied on imports from allies who fail to spend the same percentage of gross national product on defense as the United States does.
Of course, the new populists have highlighted some legitimate economic and military problems. But solutions lie neither with military retreat nor economic protectionism. In the area of defense spending and military commitments, it is an illusion to think Europe and Japan will be coaxed into doing more by U.S. threats to do less. More likely than not, U.S. withdrawals would only feed neutralist and pacifist tendencies within these countries. Improved burden-sharing will result only from continued U.S. leadership. This has been most recently underscored in the Persian Gulf: U.S. willingness to take the first step led to the later deployment of British, French, Dutch, Italian and Belgian warships to assist the U.S. Navy in protecting gulf shipping.
In the area of international trade and finance, the United States still forms the linchpin of an increasingly integrated, global economy. Efforts to close the U.S. market to foreign imports and investment would lead to retaliatory actions by major trading partners, resulting in lost jobs, lost revenues--and probably worldwide recession. In the main, solution for the trade deficit is to be found at home, with efforts to strengthen education, investment and innovation.